T-Shaped People
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Overview

The days of siloed experts are gone. Today, more than ever, our complex world requires increased collaboration in cross-disciplinary teams to understand, navigate and innovate through rapid change.

Enter T-shaped People, a mental model describing people who combine deep disciplinary expertise (the vertical) with broad cross-disciplinary capabilities and soft skills (the horizontal).

MIXING SPECIALISATION AND GENERALISATION.

An ‘I Shaped Person', who just has the vertical element, is considered to be a deep specialist or expert. By contrast, someone who only has the horizontal bar would be considered to be a generalist without any deep expertise.

T-shaped People combine both, with soft skills to collaborate effectively as well as a general understanding of broad domains to help innovate and know how to add value across the organisation.

APPLICATIONS.

The model is commonly used in recruitment, has become popular in Agile development teams, and as a framework for professional development programs and initiatives. In terms of development, a strong companion model that supports embedding complex skills is Deliberate Practice. 

VARIATIONS. 

It's worth noting that every few months someone argues for an alternative letter or shape to 'T', to better capture the skills requirements of the future (see limitations below) — however, the 'T-shape' persists as an intuitive way to explain the powerful combination of broad and deep expertise. 

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Actionable takeaways
  • Go deep with your expertise in chosen areas. 

Go deep and develop expertise in your chosen field, consciously developing specialist knowledge, skills and experiences.

  • Go broad with your capability development.

Importantly, don’t just be a specialist. Scaffold that expertise with a broad understanding of other disciplines. In many ways, that’s what ModelThinkers has been designed to help do. You can also be more curious when working with specialists in other fields.

  • Go broad with integrated soft skills.

Consciously develop your ability to communicate, collaborate, problem solve and think creatively in the context of your broad generalist capabilities and your deep expertise. 

  • Hire and recruit for T-shaped people

Prioritise T-Shaped People rather than hiring capable experts who will not be able to function well in an agile environment or team. 

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In Practice

McKinsey recruitment. 

McKinsey coined this term as the ‘T-shaped man’ (sic) as a framework for their recruitment during the 1980s. 

IDEO and T-Shaped People

IDEO CEO Tim Brown has long advocated for T-shaped people and described how recruiting such people has driven innovation and complex problem-solving at IDEO. 

Atlassian battle against ‘brilliant jerks’.

Atlassian has publicly argued against brilliant jerks who might be great at what they do but pay no attention to collaborating with, developing, or supporting those around them. So much so, they’ve enshrined into their performance management system.

Limitations

There have been several models that have built on the T-shaped metaphor. A Pi or ‘M’ shaped person, with two verticals or three verticals, describes the need to have more than one area of expertise. Similarly the V-shaped person with the beginnings of deeper, broader expertise. ‘X’ shaped people have also been suggested as a leadership model. 

Build your latticework
This model will help you to:

T-shaped people is a useful mental model for development or recruitment and aligns well with Munger’s latticework and the purpose of ModelThinkers. 

Use the following examples of connected and complementary models to weave T-shaped people into your broader latticework of mental models. Alternatively, discover your own connections by exploring the category list above. 

Connected models: 

  • Munger’s Latticework: as Charles Munger said, “use the big ideas from the big disciplines’.
  • Idea sex: to develop greater innovation. 

Complementary models: 

  • Lean startup: when thinking about the ‘who’ is involved. 
  • Deliberate practice: in terms of developing soft skills or any expertise. 
  • Cialdini’s 6 Principles of persuasion: as a cue for potential soft skill development. 
  • Scrum: T-shaped people are crucial in cross-disciplinary teams. 
Origins & Resources

McKinsey originally used the term ‘T-shaped man’ (sic) as a guide for internal recruitment in the 1980s and the term became further popularised by IDEO in the 90s. It has since become a popular model in agile software development. 

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