Building Square-Shaped Teams With T-Shaped People

T-Shaped People are individuals who are experts or specialists in a core skill but also have a broad range of skills in other areas. A T-Shaped Person combines the broad level of skills and knowledge (the top horizontal part of the T) with specialist skills in a specific functional area (the bottom, vertical part of the T). They are not generalists because they have a specific core area of expertise but are often also referred to as Generalizing Specialists as well as T-Shaped People. A Generalizing Specialist does one kind of job very well and some other jobs adequately.

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A Generalizing Specialist is someone who: 1) Has one or more technical specialities […]. 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 specialities as well as in other areas, including both technical and domain areas. – Scott Ambler, “Generalizing Specialist: A Definition”

T-shaped people work well in teams because they can see a situation from a different perspective, can reduce bottlenecks, fill skills gaps and take on new skill sets quickly. This then leads to higher team productivity and greater flexibility.

The cross-functional team is the basic building block of most lean-agile disciplines.  This is probably why many companies are beginning to ask, “how do I build a cross-functional team?”  Better yet, “how do I build a high-performing cross-functional team?”  This question seems to be broad and challenging to answer.  However, the answer is commonly understood and pretty simple and straightforward…in theory.  You build fill your team with ‘T-Shaped People’ that have a focused area of deep expertise and a more general capability in many other areas.

The great thing is that you can use a T-Shaped Skills graph to build your team. First, map all of the disciplines or functional areas that are necessary for your team to complete any piece of work that they may need to deliver as columns horizontally on the graph.  Then, assess each team members capabilities or expertise from one through ten in rows going vertically.  This would give you an image of the team’s capabilities as a whole.

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Now, you have a whole-team view of your team’s capabilities. With this view into the team’s capabilities, you can now begin discussing a roadmap for helping the team fill in those empty spaces.  This can drive all kinds of great discussion around helping the team grow into a truly cross-functional team.  With time and a ton of hard work, the team will eventually grow into a ‘Square-shaped Team’.

squareteamcrossfunctional

With this, your team is now optimized around the work (if you performed this exercise correctly).  Within a single team, there lies the capability to complete full-functioning pieces of value.  However, the fact that you have all capabilities necessary, most certainly does not ensure you have a high-performing team.  You have effectively accomplished Step 1 of developing a High-performing Cross-functional Team.  To achieve the high-performance piece, your team will need to progress along Tuckman’s Group Development Model.  This area of development is often the most challenging for teams.

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