Learn how a design team at IBM built trust, transparency, and teamwork through a culture of skill growth with the T-shape model.
Consider the T. It’s a common and understated letter with perhaps less personality than a Q or a J. It’s a frequently used letter, worth 1 measly point in scrabble. By the end of this sentence, the T will have already appeared 20 times in this article (excluding the title and subtitle).
Yet despite its rather mundane nature, the T can be leveraged by companies in a powerful way. Read on to learn how IBM unleashed the power of the T and metamorphosed culture across its design organization.
What is the T-shape model?
The T-shape model gained increasing popularity by IDEO CEO Tim Brown to paint the vision of a well-rounded creative professional, and as a means to foster interdisciplinary teams and to help them deliver exceptional solutions.
Tim Brown notes in an interview, “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. The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills.”
The idea is that by fostering a disposition to collaborate with those fluent in the skills of other disciplines, a person increasingly gains empathy and enthusiasm for those disciplines. Over time, they begin to expand the arms or the “wings” of their T by actively seeking to develop skills in those areas. Their fluency in those skills increases horizontally, while they retain deep expertise in one core area, or the vertical stroke of the T.
The T-shape is just one mental model used in the tech industry and in HR to help frame skills and hire qualified employees. There are other models that HR organizations use, such as the I model, or the X model, which are variations on the T concept. The I-shaped person has a deep set in a particular skill, but has less ability to collaborate or expand on their skills as compared with the T-shaped individual. The X-shaped skill set is a T-shaped person, usually a seasoned T-shaped individual that has expanded into one additional and important area of expertise; leading impactful teams. Thus they have branched out another “wing,” and morphed into the exceptional X.
Although these other metaphors exist, the T is the foundational model for these variations. IBM decided to deepen and broaden how we talk about skill growth, starting with a T.
The T-shape model at IBM
The IBM Designer Practices and Community team recognized the T-shape model could be a useful framework for self-reflection, assessment, and a starting point for fruitful career conversations.
After plucking this relatively bland model from the pages of tech and HR blogs, the team then integrated the model into their IBM Design Career Playbook. The playbook is intended to be a central guide for designers and design managers to grow collaborative skills, evaluate career progress, facilitate healthy career conversations and envision long-term career paths at the company.
The IBM Designer Practices and Community team released a worksheet and a video that introduces the concept to the population of approximately 2,500 formally trained designers at IBM. The worksheet and video comprise an activity module embedded in the IBM Design Career Playbook. After the team published these artifacts, they perhaps thought nothing more of it. They never intended for the T to take flight and become a phenomenon.
The Designer Practices and Community Team added their own flair to the concept, recognizing that the T-shape can take on many forms and variations, depending on the unique skill sets of individual designers.
Now, this isn’t a novel or new approach by any means. What happened next was a fortuitous result of innovation and skill growth that the designers at IBM embraced.
IBM Security’s T-shape transformation
Early on in 2019, IBM’s security business held an annual meeting which brought together key executives and stakeholders with designers across the organization. Part of the meeting was structured as a retrospective, revealing results from key 2018 surveys and feedback. A few top takeaways bubbled to the surface, including the need for more meaningful career conversations.
IBM Security Design Executive Haidy Pérez Francis made this mission her own. She explains, “I thought we did a great job here, but it was clear something was missing.” Haidy prompted her organization with the T-shape exercise as an experiment that had the potential to grow designers in their career and foster better discourse with management. She asked them to create their own Ts, and in turn bring this reflection into conversations with their managers. “I had no clue how my team would take this and if anyone would even do it,” Haidy explained. “What happened next was magic.”
Among the Security Designers who received Haidy’s call for Ts was Visual Designer in IBM Security, Jimmy Dyer. He explored how he might communicate his strengths and experiences, along with the skills he wanted to build on this year. Using a tool familiar to him, Sketch, he built a T-shape which captured his skills and then shared it with his team.
His colleague, Senior Design Lead Esteban Pérez-Hemminger saw the T that Jimmy made, and the hamster wheel in his mind began to turn. Esteban reflected, “wouldn’t it be nice if we turned this into a template that each designer could use as a starting point and modify to create a T-shape for themselves?”
That he did. Esteban outfitted Jimmy’s Sketch file with all the design skills he could possibly think of into a template library. This allowed designers to easily map the skills they had with skills they want to grow in, with the functionality to easily grab skills out of the library and iterate on them. After the template was shared with the broader team, the T took off, and a number of other team members started creating and sharing their own Ts.
Jimmy and Esteban explain, “It not only served as a means to foster a conversation with our respective managers but also a way to build transparency across the Security Design org. Using the T-shape artifact as a point of conversation, each designer was able to communicate who they are and what should be a priority of improvement for this year. Additionally, it helped align our organization’s goals with our individual ones.” The Security team felt they were better equipped with a framework for effective conversations around collaboration and skill gaps in order to get work done more efficiently. They were now turbocharged with a template for those tough-to-navigate conversations on career growth, and a newfound understanding of which direction to set their sails towards collaboration success.
The benefits of better career conversation
As businesses grow in complexity, so do the problems they seek to solve. The current enterprise landscape is increasingly sophisticated, as technology advances to better serve client needs across a multitude of industries. And with trends in technology like AI and automation, data, quantum computing, blockchain, edge computing, cloud computing technologies like Kubernetes, digital ethics, internet of things, and more leading the current era, it’s crucial for employees to be adaptable. Growing skills and collaborating across roles and functions is an essential ingredient for combating a wide range of business inefficiencies. Starting at the individual level, using the T-shape lens to create dialog can build a beneficial culture of skill growth and collaboration that enterprises so fundamentally need to succeed.
One way for companies to start building these skills is through fostering a culture that values and promotes conversation around skill growth and success, starting at the individual and team level. And a structure that can bring clarity to that conversation is the T. It allows employees to reframe the way they think about the skills they have and the skills they need to grow in, encourages them to reflect on how they can be better collaborators, and understand where team skill gaps and collaboration opportunities lie.
IBM Security’s design organization is one example of how using the T can procure a beneficial culture change of growth. The exercise allowed team members to learn about each other’s expertise in a short amount of time. While many employees had been working together for months, often with desks collocated side-by-side, they did not engage directly in conversations about career growth. Using the T-shape as a method for reflection gave them the ability to craft better goals, greater transparency and a birds-eye vantage point of the teams’ skills, gaps, and an understanding of where to fill those gaps. The exercise could, they conjecture, even act as an icebreaker when new team members join the team. With this new framework implemented, Haidy says, “I can see where I have gaps on the team that we need to fill. The designers are crafting better goals, they understand where they fit within their team, and I have a holistic view of my entire organization.”
Haidy described the end result as one of positive change. “It certainly has been amazing for me to sit with everyone and see how they feel their T needed to be communicated,” Haidy said. “I can have more meaningful conversations with them and when opportunities arise, I know who to go to for either a growth opportunity or as an expert.”
And that, my friends, is the power of T-shape transparency.
To learn more about IBM’s steadfast commitment to building a sustainable culture of design and the creation of the Design Career Playbook, visit this article
If you’re an IBMer, and would like to grow your wing skills and fly, get acquainted with the IBM Design Career Playbook yourself here.
Allison Biesboer is a Content Designer & Strategist at IBM. She’s based in Austin, Texas. The above article does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies, or opinions.