How to grow your T and gain skills

Jenny Hsiao Sanchez
Apr 9 · 6 min read
T-shape variations

2021 is here and we are all excited to set new goals to make 2021 more meaningful for us. While looking for tools to help me gain clarity into setting up 2021 goals, I discovered the “Growing your T” worksheet that our design colleagues at IBM created. The T structure was an easy way to understand how to grow my skills, and I enjoyed the time I spent on it. Below are some lessons you can take with you in hopes that this can prove a useful tool for you as well.

What does the “T” stand for?

The T stands for the T-shaped model, which is a model used to describe the abilities and skills of an employee. It was popularized by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, who endorsed this approach as a method to build interdisciplinary teams. Earlier references can traced back to the 1980s when the “T-shaped” man was used by McKinsey & Company in recruiting.

What is the “Growing your T worksheet”?

The growing your T worksheet can help you take a close look at the skills you might want to hone or develop to enable you to deepen in your skills, and generally make you a better all-around designer and contributor.

Growing your T worksheet

The structure of the T has two main components: the vertical bar and the horizontal bar. The vertical bar T represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single skill area. These are also identified as “core skills.” The horizontal bar represents the ability or knowledge to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas outside of your core skills. These are also identified as the wing skills, also because it looks like the wings of a bird when you squint hard enough!

What should your T should look like?

We all have different growth needs and goals. None of our Ts will look the same, so there’s no perfect T for us to measure our own shape. You should enjoy the uniqueness of your T, treat your T with love and care, and see how it grows over time. It can be a good tool for reflection at the end of the year.

T shape variations

How do you Grow your T?

Step one: add your core skills. These are skills that correspond to the role you were hired for within an organization. The core skills are the fundamental skills for you to meet the expectations of your role or job responsibility. Examples of the core skills for a designer could be visual design, user experience design, content design, design research, etc.

Step two: add your wing skills. The wing skills are the disciplines-related skills you need to collaborate and communicate across disciplines and specialties. Examples of wing skills for a designer could be enterprise design thinking, agile, facilitation, domain knowledge, etc. As a designer, you might also collaborate with other designers who bring different specialties to the table. To more easily collaborate with these colleagues, you might add these skills into the wings of the T as skill areas where you’d like to gain broader knowledge.

Step three: add stars. Add two stars in the most important skill areas for your growth — one core skill and one wing skill to mark where you’d like to grow in the next three months. By doing so, you’ve defined the two skills you need to focus your attention on. The three-month timeline also is a good milestone for you to evaluate your growth in those goal areas and make adjustments. Once you see progress, you can move on to the other skills on your T.

Top two skill areas of focus


  1. Grow with a strategy in mind. Think about what core skills you need to do your job and fulfill the responsibilities for the role have. If you are new to a team, focusing on the growth of a core skill can help you deliver better outcomes as expected from your teammates and manager therefore, it’s a quick way to build your reputation. Remember, more skills added to the worksheet does not make you a stronger designer. Being able to grow your skills strategically is the key to success.

I hope that by sharing how I used the T-shaped model, that it also proves helpful for you and that you are excited to try it. Growing yourself means not only skills but also growing your mindset. Having a growth mindset, making a plan, and growing steadily to nurture yourself is important.

Without goals, we will just like a boat sailing in the ocean without a direction or distinction. Without focus, even arrived at a destination, we can’t truly experience the meaning behind it. Without a deadline, we will drag on and lose the desire to see the world.

What other tools do you use for skill development or career planning?
If you have used this model before, what was the experience like, and what were your findings? Please feel free to share.

Based in Austin, TX, Jenny Hsiao Sanchez is a Design lead with Digital Growth and Commerce based in Austin, Texas. She loves coaching others about design thinking, builds design culture, and shares things to support designer’s professional and personal growth.

The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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