T-Shaped People

I love specialists.

But specialization has its problems. It can lead to bottlenecks when specialists are unable to cope with demand, and others are unable to take over for them. For example, I personally designed the corporate web site of our business unit, including interaction design and graphics design, because our regular designers were unavailable for weeks.

And specialization can lead to stagnation when the specialists are unable (or unwilling) to pick up work that they are unfamiliar with. For example, I did ask a software developer to help me carry out some marketing activities I could not have done on my own. Our marketing efforts would have stalled if he had not willingly co-operated.

I have no use of people telling me they have a “broad range of skills,” meaning that they never specialized in any specific area. I prefer specialists over generalists. But I like it even better when the specialists have a few extra areas in which they have built up some knowledge and expertise. Fortunately, I’m not alone in that opinion.

A generalizing specialist is someone who: 1) Has one or more technical specialties […]. 2) Has at least a general knowledge of software development. 3) Has at least a general knowledge of the business domain in which they work. 4) Actively seeks to gain new skills in both their existing specialties as well as in other areas, including both technical and domain areas. – Scott Ambler, “Generalizing Specialist: A Definition

A generalizing specialist does one kind of job very well and some other jobs adequately. With generalizing specialists your teams enjoy the benefits of high productivity, while lowering the risk of bottlenecks, and retaining flexibility. Generalizing specialists are sometimes called T-shaped people:

We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they’re willing to try to do what you do. We call them “T-shaped people.” They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T — they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. – Tim Brown, “Strategy by Design

When hiring people, and putting together teams, look for T-shaped people. Always check if they are specialists in at least one useful area, and then verify that they are willing and able to pick up other kinds of work as well. If you’re looking for a software developer, make sure it’s a good one. But also ask some questions about graphics and design. Maybe even marketing. Or you could go totally crazy and ask about blog writing.

(picture by TooFarNorth)

This article will be part of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. You can follow its progress here.

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