How to Get Hired: Understand If You’re an I, T, or X-Shaped Person

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You’ve likely heard the terms T-shaped and I-shaped people thrown around, but what do they mean and why do they matter for designers and engineers?

The term T-shaped person was popularized by IDEO CEO Tim Brown. One of the tenants of IDEO’s success is assembling diverse and collaborative teams for intensive project work. IDEO evaluates candidates on both their breadth and depth of experience, so the term quickly caught on with designers and engineers.

In an interview with Chief Executive Magazine, Tim Brown explains where the term T-shaped comes from and why it matters:

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. It is composed of two things. First, empathy. It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective — to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them. T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills.

Beware of the I
 The antithesis of a T-shaped person is an I-shaped person. An I-shaped person likely has deep experience in one area or skillset, but they haven’t applied this expertise elsewhere. While deep experience is important, in order to collaborate, the disciplines of design and engineering work best when there is breadth. I-shaped people can succeed in many environments, but typically not in professions requiring intensive cross-collaboration.

Becoming a T
 The traditional educational system is built to produce I-shaped people. So how can you evolve into a T? Here are some ideas that don’t require going to back to school or changing careers:

Develop Breadth

  • Maximize Your Experiences: Expanding the type of projects you work on will immediately build your breadth. Can you take your current skillset and apply it to a new industry? Work on a project in a new country? Pick a collaborator from a different discipline and experiment together?
  • Develop Soft Skills: Learn the skills required for intensive collaboration. Evolve your communication skills by writing or presenting on you area of expertise for those who don’t know its specific jargon. Learn to how to deal with conflict and negotiation on teams by ensuring your projects are interdisciplinary. Enjoy a coffee date with someone outside your profession just to learn.

Develop Depth

  • Prototype: In the fields of design and engineering, you must be able to produce work — whether it’s a wireframe a model or a blueprint. Show you have mastered your craft by taking time to prototype as much as possible. It’s also the best way to improve your craft fast.
  • Produce a Body of Work: Start putting together a portfolio, and include your best prototypes. Showing examples of your work and learning how to talk about your process is the fastest and best way to prove your credibility.

Evolving from T to X
 While T-shaped people are important for organizations, it’s just as necessary to look for the same breadth and depth of skills in a boss or potential partner. What you’re looking for is an X-shaped person — someone who has a deep expertise built on solid credibility but can also lead diverse teams to accomplish a goal. Think John Lasseter or Ed Catmull of Pixar when you think of an X-Shaped person. Not all people aspire to an X-shaped position. X-shaped leaders may work less on their original expertise as they evolve into management and leadership positions and begin to deal more with strategy and people.

On the spectrum from I to T to X, where do you think you fall? Have you ever hired someone using this framework? Or been asked about it in a job interview? Let us know in the comments!

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