Repositioning the T

T-shaped people have two kinds of characteristics, hence the use of the letter “T” to describe them. The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer. The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines.
— Tim Brown interviewed by Morten Hansen

A T-shaped person is someone who has a strong descender (the vertical stroke of the T) and a well-developed crossbar (the horizontal stroke). The descender represents deep experience in a certain discipline, and the crossbar represents the ability to work with people across disciplines. Like rock bands, creative groups need specialists who can contribute something unique to the collaboration. The last thing they need is I-shaped people—specialists who have useful skills but don’t connect with others.
— Marty Neumeier, Finding X: Why T-shaped People Are Valuable but Insufficient in an Age of Nonstop Innovation

The beauty of simple models, like IDEO’s T-shaped thinkers is they are simple to convey and remember. Their marketing power is undeniable, and they serve the consulting model superbly. But the drawback is they are often too simplistic to be accurate. In fact, I say the T-shaped thinker model is quite poor in capturing the generalist-specialist synergy.
— Liviu Nedelescu, Forget IDEO’s T-shaped Thinkers – Enter Meta

The concept of the T-shaped person advocated by the likes of Tim Brown at IDEO and Morten Hansen and Bolko von Oetinger in the pages of the Harvard Business Review is one that continues to provoke ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, I am attracted to the notion of people who can combine a deep set of skills with shallower managerial practices, potential leadership capability, and the facility to connect with others and develop collaborative experiences. On the other, I am mystified by the notion that a T-shaped person could be confused with a generalist.

A T-shaped person, following a traditional career path, tends to be one who develops and refines a deep specialism over time. Often this has a basis in their education, and is subsequently narrowed in focus as the subject is mined ever deeper. It is a practice that has become emblematic of the silos we are all so keen to bemoan. The span of time and the deepening specialism ultimately results in promotion and the acquisition of managerial responsibilities. It does not mean that the blinkers of specialism have been wholly removed. Responsibilities remain largely operational, drawing on the experience and deep knowledge of someone with subject expertise. For me, it feels like the T-shaped person is a category that should be associated more with the hierarchy than with the network. My case, then, is that the T should be positioned on the specialism curves of a specialist–generalist continuum.

We need both specialists and generalists.

In The Neo-Generalist, the book we are writing at present, Kenneth Mikkelsen and I make a case for recognising the value a generalist can add to a world which, in so many walks of life, has skewed towards hyperspecialism. Our aim is to reclaim the term generalist as something that is positive rather than detrimental. Also to position it, in its various manifestations, on a continuum with specialism. Borrowing from and adapting the hedgehog–fox continuum developed by Philip Tetlock in Expert Political Judgment, we propose a model that looks like this:

Infinite Loop

The suggestion is that various forms of specialism reside on the left loop, while generalism – from its most rudimentary to its most polymathic – is found on the right loop.



In this continuum, Archilochus’s fox and hedgehog, discussed in Natural lessons and The myopia of expertise, view one another from either extreme of their respective loops.



Because of the nature of an infinite loop, curving back on and crossing over itself, hyperspecialism and polymathy align with one another. For the polymath is able to hyperspecialise in multiple disciplines.



The T-shaped person, more specialist than generalist, therefore can be found between the polymath and the hedgehog, while the polymathic generalist inhabits the ground between the polymath and the fox.



Where any one individual sits is not a question of nature or nurture but rather of context. It is more than likely that at different times someone will occupy different positions on the continuum. Previous roles, for example, and the expectations that have attached to them, have pushed me into the specialism loop in the past. Sometimes even down the deep shaft of hyperspecialism. For now, though, I see myself floating around the foxy apex to the right of the continuum.

How about you? Where do you see yourself? Does this embryonic model even work for you? Both Kenneth and I are keen to hear your thoughts.

Maybe we have to become flatter. Maybe the stem of the T gets shorter, the bar gets wider. Maybe we are getting pretty squished out, widely spread, more like a pancake. But what this metaphor of flattening doesn’t show us is that we are connected. There are fewer and fewer isolated Ts, fewer lonely, solitary pancakes. Who we are and how we operate, how we think, is increasingly related to our connections. We are becoming the Stickle Brick people.
— Carl Gombrich, T-shaped People, Pancake People and Stickle Brick People

The typical “T-shaped” team member is no longer adaptable enough to keep up and maintain their value in a market that evolves as quickly as today’s market does. The ideal evolving skill set for today’s digital strategy world is shaped more like an expanding square than a “T”.
— Mike Arauz, Square-shaped is the New T-shaped

So there is the potential for us to develop what we might call “Comb-shaped” skills, in which we have many specific domains of expertise as well as breadth. In this case we can certainly never match the knowledge of a deep specialist in any one area.
— Ross Dawson, Building Success in the Future of Work: T-shaped, Pi-shaped, and Comb-shaped Skills

8 thoughts on “Repositioning the T

  1. Pingback: Repositioning the T | Socially Build

  2. Hi Richard,

    I recently hear the Chairman of Mitsui Banking Corporation say that in graduates he looked for ‘pi-shaped people’ – those with two specialisms and breadth. And my colleague at Warwick University who is leading their new liberal arts courses talked recently about ‘E-shaped people’ – so there is definitely something in the air! Many of us are searching for new metaphors with which to describe ourselves and our learning in an age when the new combinatorics of knowledge and learning are obliging us to rethink such notions as ‘breadth’ and ‘depth’. Thanks, as ever, for your interesting thoughts on these matters.

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