Office Speak: T-Shaped People – I’m not sure I’m any shape?

The idea behind T-shaped people goes like this: The vertical axis is supposed to symbolize someone’s depth of skills in one particular area, whereas the horizontal demonstrates the breadth of their skills across different areas. Think about it like this, if you invest all your energy in training people on how to do their job you end up with I-shaped people who only have the skills to do one job. That might be fine in a world where people just do one job, but in the creative economy you need people to work across different disciplines, people who can work interdisciplinary. They don’t need to know every discipline in detail, they need a basic understanding. These people with a wide, shallow knowledge in many disciplines and a deep knowledge in their own disciple can be envisioned as a letter T, rather than an I.

Lay a set of T shaped people together and you get lots of areas of overlapping skills which make for great interdisciplinary teamwork.

While I understand the metaphor, it’s not very good, is it? I don’t use the term myself, it’s the kind of Office Speak that I dislike, let me explain why.

Let’s start with the beginning of the metaphor – the I-shaped person. Do you know anyone whose skills are truly I-shaped, absolutely linier? The only thing that this person brings to the business is their ability to do one role. Let’s pick an example, in my business that could be a coder who can only code – they can’t do even the smallest amount of design, product management, test, deployment, analytics or even user documentation. I’m sure there are people who are like that, but they are very few and you may want to employ them because they probably bring something special to the role that they do.

If most people aren’t I-shaped, what are they? Honestly, I don’t think that they are any shape. I’m not even sure that you can describe most skills in a way that would allow you to put them into a box and classify someone proficient. Even in the skills where you can clearly define proficiency there’s a huge variance. Take driving as an example, there’s a defined proficiency for it in most countries – the driving test resulting in the driving license. Yet, how many of us know someone who has a driving license, yet wont drive on the motorway, or in the dark, or into a city. Are these people proficient, or not?

Think about other skills, ones for which there isn’t a defined level of proficiency. How do you measure someone’s amiability, or their honesty, how about clarity of thinking, or adaptability, and a huge one for our current age their ability to learn? Where do these fit into the I or the T? How do you even measure these in such a way that would allow you to put them on any chart?

Most of us don’t just have our employment skills though, we have all sorts of other skills. These skills aren’t in a separate bucket that we leave outside our office when we start work each day, they are our skills. A few personal examples: I learnt map reading as a boy scout, I’m convinced that the way I understand technical diagrams is heavily influenced by that skill. I used to do youth work at the local church and that’s strengthened my listening abilities and my ability to command a room. Working with people in volunteer roles has taught me about motivation. I’ve read several books about neuroscience, a fascinating subject. Where do these skills fit in the T?

The final reason I don’t think that the metaphor is very good is that it’s been endlessly corrupted. Let me give you some examples.

There are the people who want to define the thickness of the T – “that’s a fat-T role” or “that’s a thin-T role”. I don’t think that this is a comment on someone’s stature, I think what they are trying to say, in the case of “fat-T” is that the role needs someone to be very general with only a small amount of specialty, whereas a “thin-T” person needs to be very highly specialized in one area, but not so much in the breadth areas.

Then there are the people who start applying other letters to different situations.

There’s the X-shaped Executive, which just confuses me, I can’t see how this fits with the metaphor at all. The best that I can understand is that the X is there to symbolize that someone has intersecting skills as a leader and as a subject-matter expert. In other words, Executives have more than one I and they overlap?

Where do the E-shaped people fit in? Well, it turns out that this is a different metaphor all together with E symbolizing the four attributes that happen, conveniently, to begin with an E – expertise, experience, execution and exploration. These are often depicted as the different strokes that make up the letter E.

We haven’t finished though, where do you think an M-shaped person fits in? Here we are back to the metaphor with the two vertical bars of the M representing people who have deep skills in multiple areas.

Then there’s Pi shaped people? From what I can understand they are just M shaped people with an attitude.

People without a specialty can be described as a dash or hyphen. I hope no-one ever uses this definition in real life to describe an actual person.

Then there’s the ultimate description, the one that blows the metaphor completely apart – the comb-shaped person. They have deep skills in many different areas spread across a breadth of knowledge. This, for me, would represent most people except I don’t believe that you can put people’s skills on two dimensions. None of us fit neatly into two dimensions in any way that is meaningful.

Things have various qualities and the soul various tendencies, for nothing presented to the soul is simple, and the soul never applies itself simply to any subject. That is why the same thing makes us laugh and cry.

Blaise Pascal

Header Image: This is the view from the White Beach on Iona looking north towards Staffa and Mull.

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