Beyond The “T” – Coordinating Realistic Design Teams

It’s not uncommon, when talking about designers and what to hire for, you hear about “T-shaped people.” IDEO is most commonly identified with this, wherein you hire people with with a strong “vertical leg” in a specific skill, and an empathy that allows them to branch out and engage other disciplines.

Yesterday at Adaptive Path’s UX Week 2007, I sat on a panel on “Skills for Current and Future User Experience Practitioners”. As the conversation evolved, we started talking about design teams. Through the discussion, I had a lightning storm in my brain, where I realized that “T-shaped” is insufficient.

Let me step back a bit. I have long had issue with the fetishization of “T-shaped” people for the simple reason that I’m not T-shaped. I’ve never been able to articulate my “vertical leg”. Throughout my career I’ve moved from activity to activity, from web development to interface design to information architecture to user research to product strategy. And I think my success is due to my ability to understand the synthesis across these skills and disciplines, to appreciate how to orchestrate them, to know how these integrate to achieve optimal affect.

So, where do I fit, if I’m not T-shaped?

On the panel, and, honestly, this idea germinated as I was sitting on-stage, I realized that you don’t necessarily want a team of all T-shaped people. The reality of the world is that you have T- and I- and bar-shaped people, and I suspect that the strongest teams are comprised of all three that work in concert. Me, I’m a bar-shaped person. I’m all about the connections between disciplines, and being able to articulate the power of that integration. Obviously, T-shaped people are important, too, people who can bridge that synthesis and go deep. But perhaps most important is that we no longer marginalize I-shaped people. It’s easy to dismiss I-shaped folks, people who simply want to focus on, geek out to, their particular passion. But these people can be amazing on teams, because once you give them a bit of a direction, they can do amazing work.

Anyway, I think it’s unreasonable to expect to live in a world of T-shaped people, and, honestly, it’s remarkably limiting. Let’s instead figure out how to coordinate across different types of creative people, ideally realizing a whole that is greater than its parts.

This is a subject I think will come up a lot at Adaptive Path’s upcoming MX Conference, taking place October 22-23 in Philadelphia. If this topic resonates with you, I encourage you to attend! (Use promotional code FOPM to receive 15% off the registration fee.)

15 thoughts on “Beyond The “T” – Coordinating Realistic Design Teams

  1. Peter,

    I also wonder if there’s a relationship between T, |, and _ resources and level of experience, seniority, or even just leadership.

    For example, I could envision someone out of college becoming very fluent in a vertical (e.g., IA or visual design), begin to spread their wings to become a viable T and potentially manage across disciplines, and then ultimately ascend to assert a more broadly informed vision but be responsible for no specific project element. At least, that’s the type of arc I’ve seen many tend towards.

    That arc may take significant time, or someone naturally finds their way to _ quickly. Your self image is not surprising given your role at AP, and I’d be curious if you’ve always seen yourself as a _.

    Regardless, I agree that teams likely benefit from having resources that vary in the spectrum from | to T to _.

    Nathan

  2. So one would start out as a lowercase t, become more experienced and become uppercase T… :)

  3. Brian Herzfeldt

    Hi Peter,
    Had to comment as you described my angst at realizing I’m not t-shaped in a field where many are and in most jobs, in my experience, you are expected to be. I always just thought I had midlife onset of ADD and here you have validated me! Seriously, my late start in design coupled with a similar history of projects requiring that bouncing around between disciplines causing me to often feel ‘marginalized’. I too, tend to synthesize the connected and seemingly disparate to see a future state and put the pieces of the story together. Still don’t know what they call this but I would love to get a job doing it. Cheers. Or maybe I’ll have to hope for at least becoming a lower case ‘t’.

  4. In addition to T, I, and bar shapes, my personal response to the T is that there could also be a Π. Someone who is broad, but deep in several areas.

  5. The metaphor gets in the way of the t-shaped discussion. I never thought it was meant to mean 1 deep discipline. I think I’m t-shaped, but have 3-4 things I’m deeply good at. That doesn’t have an easy to articulate shape ;)

  6. Peter,

    I liked the “Tetris” analogy I heard about—did that come from you?

    Also, I’ve evolved my thinking on this since I put that stake in the ground a couple of years ago. I know “Sun Shaped” doen’t sound as sexy a “T-shaped” but take a look as it speaks to your point about Passion.

    http://darmano.typepad.com/logic_emotion/2007/04/tshaped_sun_sha.html

    And on teams:
    http://darmano.typepad.com/logic_emotion/2007/04/collaborate_the.html

  7. Agree that the metaphor is limiting. T-shaped people are usually interesting, but that doesn’t at all mean they are productive, creative, or useful on a team.

    I went off on the “T-shaped” metaphor myself a while back: http://ryskamp.org/brain/creativity/against-tshaped-people

  8. I have a hard time with any system seeking to categorize people into neat little personality type buckets.

    Who is the “user” of these categorization systems?

    Well, for the person being characterized, it always either (a) rings very false, missing the mark completely, or (b) it is so empty and flattering to the ego that it could describe anyone, like a horoscope saying “you are creative and will find happiness” (Peter, you are probably one of the few people who has ever read about T-shaped people and actually didn’t think immediately “Yes, I am definitely one of those awesome T-shaped people!”.

    Conversely, for a person evaluating another person based on such simple characterizations, for example an employer or a team-builder, it enables laziness and shallow people-reading. It lets us forego real investigation and learning about people’s strengths and weaknesses.

    So what use is any discussion of T-shaped people? Such instruments are the tools of giant lumbering corporate HR departments and of course the military, where their main objective is to weed out the sociopaths as best they can (a low bar indeed), but they are hamfisted bludgeons for people who want to build small, creative, and energetic teams of highly skilled and talented people.

    Peter, your gut distrust is right on. Go all the way with it: Let’s stop defining people’s shapes!

  9. You’re right on here Peter, and I’m in the same boat that articulating my “leg” is rather difficult.

    Another way I’ve thought about is based on the typical People/Business/Technology triad, arranged as 3 circles in a Venn diagram. I think of “kidney-shaped” people. In other words people who cover one of those main three areas and then spread to overlap one or both of the others to a degree. If you can imagine a kidney bean running around the perimeter of the Venn diagram.

    OK, a bit hard to visualize, easier with a drawing…

  10. In web development, I have found that there are folks whose talents more resemble an ‘m’ or an ‘n’, who either feel pressured to masquerade as a T or end up getting lumped in with I’s. The more I think about it, I could find someone I know to fit just about any letter of the alphabet!

  11. [...] Beyond The T – Coordinating Realistic Design Teams, by Peter Merholz. [...]

  12. Ohoh, that doesn’t have an easy to articulate shape.

  13. [...] More recently, Peter Merholz realised that he’s not t-shaped — and that a team full of tees doesn’t necessarily work. To form an effective workgroup you need some synthesisers and other personality types. Posted in knowledge management, unimelb | [...]

  14. Peter,

    I’m jumping into this conversation kind of late but…I think you’ve hit the T-shaped nail on the head. It’s not that “T” is better “I” or a “bar” or “π” shaped or whatever we want to label people as. What we’re talking about is the way in which people engage the world and their capacity to do so. In my work, we help people and organizations develop “T” and, after “T”, “H-shaped capacity which is similar, perhaps, to the way in which you describe your ability to integrate. These labels, though, are just that and we caution people not to get stuck on the types and the characteristics of a particular “shape.”

    What is important is the recognition of and respect for a diversity of worldviews and the ability of the team or organization to innovate and stay flexible and loose. The more the team can learn from and capitalize on their differences the stronger, happier and more productive they will be as a whole.

    Recognizing the strengths and weaknesses we all bring to the meeting table is essential. We don’t want to get hung up on people “I” “T” “M” “W” or whatever we want to call ourselves. But, we do want to appreciate and understand who we are working with, how they see the world and how we can work well together. If the shaped based analogies work, great. If not, let’s find a better way to relate and communicate.

  15. [...] peterme.com there is a good discussion about this: Let me step back a bit. I have long had issue with the [...]