Successful Grantmaking: T-Shaped People, Consilience & Design Thinking

By Sean Stannard-Stockton | Link to Grant Makers Network Newsletter
May 21, 2009

How can grantmakers be successful in the 21st century?  They need to embrace design thinking and become T-Shaped People.

Philanthropy is a most cross-disciplinary practice.  While program officers must have technical domain expertise in their core area of focus, to be truly successful they must also be able to relate their unique knowledge base to the broader, interrelated context within which society operates.  The name for people who are able to pull this off?  T-Shaped People.

The phrase is becoming closely associated with the pioneering design firm IDEO and its Chief Executive Officer Tim Brown.  That a design firm has lessons to teach philanthropy should not be surprising, once you understand IDEO’s business as “problem solving.”  In a recent Fast Company article, Brown wrote:

“We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they’re willing to try to do what you do. We call them ‘T-shaped people.’”   They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T — they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers.  But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well.  They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need.   That’s what you’re after at this point — patterns that yield ideas.”

This belief that the individuals who achieve the most impact blend their core knowledge into a broader understanding of the world resonates with another concept that I think is relevant to philanthropy: consilience.  Consilience means “unity of knowledge” (or more literally the “jumping together” of knowledge).  The phrase was popularized by famed biologist Edward O. Wilson in his aptly named bookConsilience:  The Unity of Knowledge.  I believe the key to unlocking the potential of philanthropy is to break out of our silos and embrace consilience.

Consilience recognizes that every field of study captures only a snapshot of reality.  For example, while economists might believe that economics is the study of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, the fact is economic theory does not accurately describe reality until you begin to take into account the biological, psychological, and sociological behaviors of humans.  Even then, a broader systems approach is needed to understand how the market affects the environment and human culture, as well as the moral implications of market outcomes.

For philanthropy to realize the potential being presented in the 21st century, the trick will be not just to bring economists, sociologists, technologists, biologists, etc. to the table, but to truly forge a consilience of knowledge across all domains.  The whole will be more than the sum of its parts.

IDEO, it turns out, has more to offer philanthropy.  IDEO Founder David Kelley was profiled recently in another Fast Company article, where he explained the concept of “design thinking,” which he teaches at the Stanford Institute of Design (the “”). From the article:

The way Kelley sees it, [the United States’] polyglot populace gives us an extraordinary advantage in generating truly creative ideas.  That idea was one of the animating forces behind the — a place that would help analytical Stanford types become creative thinkers.  The school would welcome students from business, law, education, medicine, engineering — the more diverse, the better.

“When David was making the case for the at Stanford,” says [David’s brother], “he went to [University President John] Hennessy and said, ‘Look, we’re good at “deep.”  We have Nobel Laureates drilling down into esoteric topics.  But what if there are problems that aren’t solved by deep, but broad?  We should have a side bet in broad.’”

This concept is the activating principal behind T-Shaped people.  In the article, Kelley explains to a group of students that IDEO and the are focused on “design thinking,” not “design.”

“You’re sitting here today because we moved from thinking of ourselves as designers to thinking of ourselves as design thinkers,” he continues.  “What we, as design thinkers have, is this creative confidence that, when given a difficult problem, we have a methodology that enables us to come up with a solution that nobody has before.”

“They went meta on the notion of design,” says Roger Martin, Dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, referring to the shift from object design to focusing on organizational processes.  “They concluded the same principles can be applied to the design of say, emergency-room procedures as a shopping cart.”

And this is where we make the connection to philanthropy.  If philanthropy is going to fund new, innovative ideas, we must engage in design thinking.  If our field is going to advance despite the absence of market forces requiring funders to make smart grants, we need design thinking.  If the social benefit sector as a whole is going to produce high-impact, systemic change, we need design thinking.

The article continues:

Design thinking represents a serious challenge to the status quo at more traditional companies, especially those where engineering or marketing may hold sway.  Patrick Whitney, Dean of the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), who sends many of his graduates off to IDEO, says he sees this resistance all the time.  “A lot of my students have MBAs and engineering degrees.  They’re taught to identify the opportunity set, deal with whatever numbers you can find to give you certainty, then optimize.”

But some problems need to be restated before a big, new idea can be hatched.  It often helps to take the problem and break it apart, before putting it back together in a whole new way — the synthesis or abstraction step.  That’s where the creative leap often occurs and what IDEO’s process is designed to unearth.

I cannot think of an approach more finely tuned for philanthropy.  So many problems that philanthropy seeks to fix are products of unsatisfactory, but stable equilibriums.  Producing impact in many cases is not just about “optimizing” the current situation; it is about taking the problem, breaking it apart, and then putting it back together in a completely new way.

What does it all mean?  It means none of us has all the answers.  None of us knows what is right for philanthropy.  It means that for philanthropy to truly reach its potential, we need to “jump together” all of our varied wisdom in a way that recognizes our contribution is no more or less important than that of people with domain expertise different from our own.

What does it take to pull this off?  Empathy.

Tim Brown specifically states that T-Shaped people must be empathetic to pull it all together.  If there is one skill that everyone in philanthropy has, it is empathy.  Without empathy, philanthropy simply is not an interesting subject.  If there is one field that can pull off the difficult trick of creating consilience, it is ours.

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