Some people have deep specializations in one domain, but rarely contribute outside of that domain. These people are known in agile communities as “I-shaped people” since, like the letter “I,” they have depth, but not much breadth. By contrast “T-shaped people” supplement their expertise in one area with supporting, but less-developed skills in associated areas and good collaboration skills. As an example, a person who can test some areas of the product and develop different areas of the product is considered to be a T-shaped person.
A T-shaped person has a defined, recognized specialization and primary role, but has the skills, versatility, and aptitude for collaboration to help other people when and where necessary. This collaboration reduces hand-offs and the constraints of only one person being able to do the job.
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Both types are essential in any organization. Many leaders today, however, feel that T people are better at fostering the diverse connections and conversations that bring exceptional ideas to the surface. And these leaders express what they see as a scarcity of them in today's hyper-specialized environments.
When you commit to being T-shaped, you get the benefits of specialization and generalization, while avoiding the pitfalls of being only a specialist or generalist. Here are just a few benefits:
You’re better at collaborating with others.
Because you have a broad range of knowledge, you know just enough to communicate with specialists in different fields. This makes collaboration much easier. For example, if you’re a history major (i.e., a history specialist) with a basic understanding of data visualization, you’re going to be able to work much more effectively with the computer science student helping you model a historical trend for your final project.
You stay interested.
When you focus on just one area, it can get monotonous. No matter how fascinating the topic, variety is key to keeping your mind engaged. As a T-shaped person, you always have other areas to dip into when you need a break from your specialty.
You experience the satisfaction of depth.
Even as you get to move around to different areas to avoid getting bored, you also get to experience the satisfaction that comes from diving deep in one subject area. The deeper you go, the more you realize how vast your area of knowledge is and how there’s a lifetime of learning ahead. I find this super exciting, more thrilling than any video game or Netflix series. If you’ve never experienced this, you need to give it a try.
You become more creative.
There’s a classic idea in the arts (and in business) that the greatest ideas happen at the intersection of disciplines. When you have a broad base of knowledge, you build immunity to the “paradox of expertise” where your advanced knowledge of one field clouds your ability to see new ideas. For example, Vihart’s YouTube channel shows you what happens at the meeting of math, music, and visual art.
You’re more attractive to employers.
This happens for two reasons. The first is that you’re going to have a standout resume compared to someone who only focused on their major and never branched out. Consequently, you’ll be able to bring more to a job than someone who only meets the requirements the position specifies.
Second, being a T-shaped person just makes you more interesting. This benefits you from the moment the hiring manager sees your resume to the moment you interview. I mean, come on, who doesn’t want to talk to interesting people? (Especially if the other job candidates regurgitate the same boring formulas in their applications).