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What are T-shaped workers and why are they important to the workplace?

Business publications have lately been discussing the need for hybrid or “T-shaped” workers with a combination of “hard” and “soft” skills.

Hard skills involve in-depth knowledge in a specific area such as engineering or programming. Soft skills are things like adaptability, empathy, cultural competence, 360-degree thinking, and intellectual curiosity. Typically, the “T” is drawn with hard skills in a vertical column, soft skills in a horizontal crossbar.

I think it’s a useful construct – with some caveats.

First, every model involves simplification. Even the best models only approximate human complexity and human behavior. Second, you can draw a “T” in various ways. The column can be tall or short, wide or skinny. Likewise, the crossbar can be wide or narrow, fat or thin. You could represent the crossbar in multiple boxes, one for each skill, each of different size because no one is equal across all skills.

Finding the best T-shape worker

So what is the “right” or “best” T-shape for the workers you hire? It depends on what you’re solving for. If you’re managing a mission to Mars, you need some seriously deep skills – a tall, narrow column – and you’re less concerned about the soft skills in the horizontal bar. If you have a problem, you need someone who can fix it fast, no matter what their social skills. On the other hand, some industries need more “generalist” problem-solvers – a wide crossbar, but not a tall column.

In tech, we’re probably somewhere in the middle. We need people who can collaborate, but who also have the technical expertise to quickly solve problems in their area of responsibility – in “T” terms, a combination of width and height. The problem might be a service outage that’s costing you revenues and customers.

You mainly need someone with technical knowledge to get you back online quickly. Collaboration skills are probably handy, but in most cases cultural competence won’t be critical.

Maximizing the value

Besides getting the right mix of skills, it’s important to also think about how you maximize the value of the different T-shapes you have in your organization. There’s an interesting model from the gamification world that considers how you motivate people. It goes by the acronym SAPS, for Status, Access, Power, Stuff, and it can help identify ways to get people to do their best work.

For example, “stuff” such as discounts is not a good motivator, but conferring “Status” through public recognition is a very good one.

In addition, you should also prioritize “efficient and effective” — the ability to problem-solve to get things done right, the first time, with the least effort.

When I build a team, I always look for people who are problem-solvers, stalwart and dependable, able to think in both linear and non-linear fashion. I don’t necessarily need them to have gold-medal skills, but I’m not inclined toward the fifth-place finisher. I aim for the silver or bronze medalist.

To extend the Olympics metaphor, I like decathletes — people who are good at many things, and very good at something, not people who are mediocre at everything. I look for people with an “anchor” skill — a base, a focus — who also can handle a range of other things.

Also, it’s key to remember that we rarely deal with individuals in isolation. Almost always, they are part of a team, or multiple teams. So, very often, the goal in hiring and team development should be to get the right mix of skills – to find people who complement each other, so your team as a whole has the right “T-shape,” while individuals skew one direction or another and can effectively specialize in different areas.

 

 

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Ryan Duguid

Chief of Evangelism & Advanced Technology Ryan Duguid is responsible for setting product and platform vision, driving continuous innovation, and delivering technology to help everyday people solve their process problems. Ryan joined Nintex from Microsoft, where he was responsible for the content management business in the SharePoint Product Group.
Follow him on Twitter @PvtRD

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