Why T-shaped people?

Jason Yip
Jason Yip
Mar 24, 2018 · 4 min read

A T-shaped person is capable in many things and expert in, at least, one.

As opposed to an expert in one thing (I-shaped) or a “jack of all trades, master of none” generalist, a “t-shaped person” is an expert in at least one thing but also somewhat capable in many other things. An alternate phrase for “t-shaped” is “generalizing specialist”.

Image for post
Image for post
I-shaped vs generalist vs T-shaped

T-shaped people is about adapting to varying demand.

Product delivery teams get asked to do a lot of different things, each of which require different skillsets.

Image for post
Image for post
Stuff to do vs what we can handle
Image for post
Image for post
Address variability by shaping demand
Image for post
Image for post
Address variability by being prepared to adapt

Use experts to clear bottlenecks.

Let’s imagine we have an incomplete task that is blocking overall progress due to dependencies. In this case, the best person to work on the blocking task is the person who can complete it the fastest. The word we assign to people who can complete a particular type of task the fastest is “expert”. Experts are most valuable to clear bottlenecks.

Image for post
Image for post
Leverage experts to clear bottlenecks

Use non-experts to free up expert time to clear bottlenecks.

Not every task requires an expert. Offloading non-expert tasks to non-experts frees up expert time to be available for bottlenecks. T-shaped people create more availability of non-experts for various tasks.

Image for post
Image for post
Use non-experts to free up experts to focus on bottlenecks

If non-experts can help with clearing bottlenecks, they should help.

Let’s say someone is an expert at a non-bottleneck task but can help out as a non-expert for a bottleneck task. What should be done? Even partial ability at a bottleneck is valuable. Being an expert on a non-bottleneck task is essentially wasting time. It has no impact on overall throughput. See Theory of Constraints.

Image for post
Image for post
Even non-experts should help, if they can, at bottlenecks

T-shaped people means we can do more with the same number of people (or do the same with less people).

If people only know 1 skill, then, if developing your product requires n skills, you will need n people. If people know more than 1 skill, then you will need <n people.

Image for post
Image for post
T-shaped people tends to reduce the number of people you need to do anything

T-shaped people help us communicate more effectively.

By learning each others’ skills, we also learn each others’ domain-specific language. This helps us communicate more effectively as we have more understanding of different perspectives.

Image for post
Image for post
Cross-training skills also means cross-training language and perspective

T-shaped people is about embracing human adaptability.

A skill that you know well and find mundane might be very interesting and challenging to someone else who doesn’t know that skill. A skill they know well and find mundane might be very interesting and challenging to you. Cross-training to be more T-shaped enables this learning and growth mindset.

Image for post
Image for post
What’s boring for me might be challenging for you and vice versa

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store