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Being a T-shaped person in an I-shaped system

T-shape image.jpgAt last Friday's research forum, Dan Forbes of the Carlson School, walked us through the findings from his collaborative research on entrepreneurial team formation. There is a gap in the literature around this start-up stage due to the challenge of isolating innovations between when opportunity recognition and team functioning. Using the academic innovation reporting process, Forbes and his fellow researchers were able to isolate 9 inventions that were planning to be moved to market by University researchers. In these 9 cases, the entrepreneurial opportunity had been recognized, but a team had not been formed yet.

This paper has clear links to integrative leadership. Entrepreneurship often requires individuals to work together across boundaries of function, discipline and sector. Furthermore, university-based start-ups of the nature explored in this paper are a key organizational vehicle through which people can address important societal problems.

The discussion among the interdisciplinary group of students, faculty, and local entrepreneurs in the room turned to why academic scientists may not always reach out to private sector as they form an entrepreneurial team. It seemed to many in the room that an entrepreneur's level of familiarity with not just the knowledge and skills of other sectors, but also the more intangible value of a different approach determined whether or not an entrepreneur is integrative in their team formation.

Familiarizing oneself with these things is not easy, particularly in an academic setting where high levels of specialization is necessary for research and rewarded through tenure. One faculty member in the room remarked on how hard it is to retain an interdisciplinary perspective and relationships, unless you come into the faculty or research position very intentional to be cross-functional. It takes a solid commitment to being what is referred to in management writing as a "t-shaped person" - someone who has a depth of experience and knowledge in an area, but also has the relationships and awareness to work across many disciplines and sectors.

Is this different from the incentive-system in other sectors? I sense not. However, emerging research on leadership is finding that an integrative approach - as much as it requires swimming against the current - improves the eventual outcome by increasing what is considered in crafting a solution.

Overall, while those in the room acknowledged that the extent to which an integrative team may benefit an entrepreneurial venture varies across its stages, Forbes's research certainly stirred up interesting discussion on the challenges and blind spots entrepreneurs face in integrative team formation.

Please plan on joining us on March 23rd for the next forum in this series. Ann Hill Duin of the College of Liberal Arts will join us to discuss "Collective Action Toward Common Concerns: The UMN Information Technology Story." Please RSVP here.

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