T-Shaped People vs Generalists

I’ve been reading Mary and Tom Poppendieck’s new book on Lean Software Development, and in one of the already released chapters, it mentioned the term T-Shaped people, which I had never heard in this context, and suddenly clarified a concept I have in my head for some time.

Since Scott Ambler published the essay Generalizing Specialists, it has become a trend in software development to talk about how generalists are better than specialists for a team, which (in a misinterpretation of what Scott meant) has leaded to a common anti-pattern, where persons become generalists in a lot of stuff, without having a deeper knowledge in any any area.

This way they know a little about a lot of languages, tools  and methodologies, but when it comes to make a difference, these persons are no assets to any team, since they don’t have any deep knowledge on any subject.

This was already covered by Jay Fields in this post, and what I want to point here is how the T-shaped term makes so much difference.
According to IDEO’s Tim Brown, in the  the article is called “Strategy By Design”, here is how a T-shaped person could be described:

“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. That’s what you’re after at this point — patterns that yield ideas.”

And that’s what happens in software development. Once you have a deep knowledge in some language, for example, it is easy to branch out to different ones, since you can recognize the same (technical and behavioral) patterns, which will lead you to soon become competent in that area too.

But this situation does not happen if you always stay at the novice level, without never mastering anything you do.

  1. jchyip said:

    The first time I encountered the phrase “T-Shaped people” was in the context of IDEO described in The Ten Faces of Innovation. Toyota Culture or Toyota Talent, can’t remember uses this phrase too.

    I’m pretty sure we were talking about the concept before Scott Ambler wrote that article but “generalising specialist” was a pretty good way to describe it. I usually prefer T-shaped these days.

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