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The T-Shape Deception

Every individual is naturally T-shaped. I have never worked with a single person who mastered no more than a single skill only. Every individual I worked with had the (at least intrinsic) capability to perform more than one type of work only. Every individual I worked with had the (at least intrinsic) technical and social capability to join forces with people that master other areas of expertise better and still contribute to that ‘other’ work, learn from it or even acquire it as a new skill.

Ultimately, when people self-organize, i.e. form organized groups without external instructions being imposed on them, around shared challenges and objectives, they unite to form collectively T-shaped eco-systems, entities, teams. The entity as a whole is cross-functional and houses all the disciplines to tackle the complex challenge end-to-end. Within the entity, ultimately cross-fertilization of skills happens.

Every individual is naturally T-shaped. I have also never worked with a single person who mastered every possible skill needed to perform any type of work that might arise when dealing with complex challenges like software and other forms of new product development. The demand for people to be able to do that, is absurd. Yet, it is how the T-shape metaphor is abused. The idea that a cross-functional entity can only be composed of fully cross-functional individuals, in which every single person can pick up every possible task, is absurd.

I find over and over that people are impeded or blocked from employing their intrinsic T-potential rather than being unwilling to do so. Common causes are function descriptions, hierarchy, systems, structures, procedures, instructions, incentives, rewards and other HR processes, enterprise career pressure.

The message that external forces need to mould people into T-shapes is an expression of distrust and disbelief in the potential of people. People are not resources or an assembly of ‘skill’ parts. People don’t need to be deconstructed, disassembled, reconstructed or amended for any preferred shape, like parts forged to fit a pre-empted construction. Systemic impediments need to be removed that prevent people from exploring and discovering their needs and interests, from growing their talents and potential.

Rather than judging people for the expertise they (don’t) demonstrate, focus on creating a context, an environment in which people can unleash their motivation and their multi-skilled potential. Focus on fostering an environment where people can bring in their multi-skills and expertise to leverage a cross-functional and multi-skilled entity (like contributing to T-shaping a team). In the end, complex problems go beyond any individual’s problem-solving capabilities, T-shaped or not. They need T-shaped teams and eco-systems to be an integral part of. And -ultimately- a context in which cross-fertilization happens; people extending their skill sets through peer collaboration and peer learning.

Check in with people about their feeling of valuation. Help them increase their feeling of valuation and unleash their intrinsic motivation. Help them become better at what they do and how they do it. Or, if needed, help them move to a place where they would feel more valued. Help them increase their feeling of valuation.

  • Is the work you are doing right now in your domain of interest? Does it excite you?
  • Do you feel you have the talent and skills to be great at what you do? Can we help you develop your talents and skills?
  • Is the work happening in a (business) domain that makes you feel at home?

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

(Principle #5 from the Agile Manifesto)

The purpose of the Scrum framework is to establish essential boundaries of such an environment of self-organization and intrinsic motivation thriving on the professional drive of people to create excellent products. Scrum frames people’s creativity and intelligence with empiricism. Scrum Master, as a modern manager, is accountable for fostering such an environment of Scrum. A safe environment where people can demonstrate traditionally unsafe behavior, like going beyond the limitations of their function descriptions.

1 thought on “The T-Shape Deception

  1. Gunther,
    Dank voor de video scrum.master. Als ik je beluister dan moet ik aan Senge denken die ook sustemisch naar (de interacties) in de organisaties kijkt. En tijdens trainingen refereer ik vaak aan door hem genoemde discipline van meesterschap: dat je jezelf elke dag traint. Oefent. En met kleine stapjes. Dank voor inspiratie en delen. Collective brains! Sterk! Ik spreek ook vaak over collective intelligence bij teams. Met professionele groet Astrid Anna

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