“T-Shaped People” Don’t Really Exist

The T-Shaped competency model is oversimplifying our constellations of knowledge and experience

4 min readNov 10, 2020

Organization X:
“We are looking for people who are T-Shaped — a broad, general knowledge across many disciplines, and [at least] one deep competency.”

The classic T-Shaped person. Such discipline in creating these orthogonal, aligned adjacent skill sets!

Organizations are attracted to this model of a Contributor, and why not? T-Shaped People are the best of both worlds:

  • They can use their general knowledge to work across silos, understand the context of how best to apply their deep competency
  • They can then dive deep to the heart of the problem to get things done, like a smart missile for productivity and outcomes.

Modelling people in this orthogonal, simplified way also simplifies the process of Tetrising them into an organization:

Your knowledge is a constellation of points. It is not a line.

The T-shape analogy, made of straight, right-angle lines, misses out on a key piece of reality: when it comes to skills, there is no absolute ‘deep or shallow’, ‘broad or narrow’.

Instead of building a “T” of competency, you are really adding more points to your knowledge model. Maybe spread out if you are exploring, maybe in dense related clusters if you are really getting serious about a domain.

For example, that coffee shop you frequent in your neighbourhood: if you’ve been there a few times, you might have limited knowledge of the morning shift staff, your drink of choice, where the sugar is.

But suppose you have spent a lot of time there, and maybe attended their weekend coffee roasting seminar, gotten to know the owner, and tried a whole range of their offerings; do you now have deeper or broader knowledge of the coffee shop? Is it more of the top of the ‘T’ or the stem? Well it’s neither, and both. It’s a cluster of experiences, closely related competencies.

Knowledge is more like constellations and galaxies

Through deliberate variation of experience you can build constellations which are denser with points of experience — it is a smaller leap from one point to the next, so all the points feel connected, and you can navigate the whole galaxy cluster with more ease. That’s what competence feels like, easy traversal of the domain using points of experience and knowledge that matter to you.

What you might end up with is a constellation of points of knowledge. Some points are pretty much alone from limited exposure, but others are part of a close cluster of similar experiences, like stars in a galaxy.

Fractal detail is depth

This cluster is not unorganized. Instead if you zoom in, you see it is likely made of clusters of cluster — for example, you know a lot about steamed milk tea drinks, not just drinks. There is a fractal structure to your knowledge — the details you learn have details on them, and smaller ones on those. It is also a more genuine model of understanding “depth” than the vertical part of a “T”.

“Depth” is really a subtlety and nuance of understanding.

That is the nature of competence, gaining that fractal dimension around a topic, not just diving deeper, or skimming across broad domains and magically finding connections between them.

Yes, you will have clusters of expertise that allow you to be a competent Front End Developer, Artist, or Teacher, but don’t think that you must be T-Shaped to be effective.

A few tips

Understand the connections between your experiences by reflecting on them. Try to draw a common thread between two apparently different skills or interests, because they are connected through you they are connected to each other.

When seeking out new experiences, balance their distance from one another (a wealth of different experiences) with their clustering (closely related and similar experiences).

Go easy on yourself, and teammates. People are not a Tetris pieces that slots into an organization or project. It is an adaptive process of finding connections and building mutual experiences.

More to read

“Paint Drip People”: the successor to the T-Shape model, Kent Beck, 2016

“T-Shaped Skills”, Wikipedia, also includes links to other letter shaped skill models, such as I, X, Tree, Gamma, M, and Mu.