This Post is Brought to You by the Letter T

Joseph Greaser and I were discussing an article the other day. Over on the Game Development site, Gamasutra, Andreas Papathanasi wrote about Unleashing the Power of Small Teams. The whole article is worth the read because there are many gems. However I am going to focus on only one gem, The T-Shaped Person. Andreas talks about how he found this analogy in the Valve Handbook.

Valve looks to hire T-Shaped people for two reasons:

Valve's T-Shaped Employee, found in their handbook
Valve’s T-Shaped Employee, found in their handbook

1. A “T” has a deep knowledge and understanding in a skill area. Their knowledge here is so deep that they can contribute concrete ideas, solutions, deliverables within the skill area. You’re the best baker your friends have ever known? You’ve got the vertical part of a “T”.

2. A “T” has a broad range of knowledge across skill areas. They may not be masters of those areas, yet even some knowledge helps in communication, understanding of what’s possible, and often the eyes of a newbie can reveal the simplest solutions. This is the horizontal part of the “T”.

“T”s are especially useful on small teams or startups that are focused on delivering minimum viable prototypes. With their deep knowledge in one area, but broad knowledge of many areas, a “T” can construct testable prototypes easily. I may not have the development chops as some of my peers (I definitely do not), but I have enough knowledge to build prototypes that I can put in front of customers. You want to talk “minimally viable”? Have a “T” make you something from out on their horizontal branches.

Papathanasi went on to explain how the “T” exposes two other types of people. It shines light on people once thought to be “the best in the world”. We’ll call the first type “The Dash” because they consist of only the shallow horizontal part. We’ll call the second type an “I” because they have the deep skill and knowledge in one area, but don’t really understand anything outside of that. They prefer to stay within the wheelhouse. However I feel the “I” type can be broken down even further.

T is for Team
T is for Team

There are lower case “i”s that still have the deep knowledge, but sitting right on top of them is a dot. Dot = Period, Period = Stop. Holding them down is this dot that tells them to stop and go no further. Lower case “i”s have reached the point where the say “I’m good here. I can do this thing, and I’m happy with that.”

There are also capital “I”s that also have the strong vertical component, but they don’t have the dot sitting on top of them. No, they keep going up and up. These “I”s are looking to get better in their expertise area only. This can be extremely beneficial, but not on a small team. A small team needs everyone pitching in and doing jobs that they aren’t experts in to get the product shipped.

All of these types of people (“T”, “I”, “i”, and “the Dash”) have places on teams and can be extremely valuable to many organizations. Yet it is the “T” that is especially suited for a flat, small, innovative team.

Get a bunch of “T”s together and you get a platform you can build on ( TTTTT ), but if you put a bunch of “I”s together you will build a fence ( IIIII ).

So how can you become T-Shaped?

Let’s use the acronym FEEL because I had drafted my thoughts and was surprised that I could actually spell a word with the first letters. It worked out, so I’m going with it.

  • Fail – Yep! Fall flat on your face while trying something different. It’s ok. As Jake the Dog from Adventure Time says “Sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.” Remember when you learned to ride a bike? You undoubtedly fell then, and you will fall know. The trick is getting back on and broadening your T-Zone!
  • Experiment – Try stuff out. You’re not an expert so be cool with yourself just giving it a go. If you get some basic ideas down, try mixing and matching ideas. “What if I tried to make it do this?” Whether it falls apart or works flawlessly, you just leveled up in your T-Zone.
  • Explore – Wander into the unknown reaches of your work. If you know everything about your role, then you need to to explore into work-adjacent areas. Go beyond the edges of the map. You can either pick the brains of the other experts on your team OR you can see where your team’s skills overlap and leave gaps. This is fertile ground fro exploring because no one is currently in this region. Perhaps your prototype needs some video work done but nobody has video editing skills. Sounds like an opportunity to broaden your T-Zone.
  • Learn – Never stop learning. Your brain is like a muscle in that the more you give it something to workout with, it’s going to get stronger. You may not be an expert in your T-Zone… yet, but you could work up to it. Ask questions, read blogs, watch tutorial videos, you have a wealth of information at your fingertips. You found me, now I’m telling you to go find more!

Whether your small team is designing games or tea cozies, it will benefit from numerous T-Shaped people with different areas of expertise, but a culture of working outside the strengths to get prototypes validated. So fail spectacularly with your experiments in the unknown, because in those failures is where true learning lives.

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