T-Shaped Skills, I-Shaped Skills and Dash-Shaped Skills

The term T-shaped skills – also known as T-shaped persons or simply, T-skills – is a metaphor for the depth and breadth of a person’s skills. What do they mean?

T-Shaped Skills
A person with a deep (vertical) expertise in one area, and a wide (horizontal) yet shallow knowledge in other areas. This person typically excels in one specific domain, and can also do a fair job in others.
I-Shaped Skills
A person with a deep (vertical) expertise in one area and practically no experience or knowledge in other areas. This person is typically known as a specialist. Their expertise is usually deeper than a T-shaped person in the same discipline.
Dash-Shaped Skills
A person with a wide (horizontal) yet shallow base of knowledge, and no discernible specialties. This person is typically known as a generalist. Or, more derisively, a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none.

It is generally believed that T-shaped people are the most desirable, though this differs with the situation, environment and role. I tend to favor T-shaped people for startups and leadership positions. Some of the best managers I’ve known may not have a deep technical skill, but a deep leadership aptitude.

I avoid I-shaped people in startups because you need an organizational infrastructure in place before you can support I-shaped people well. But once you do, they tend to excel faster than T-shaped people in their particular roles.

I don’t find many people who are true dash-shaped people. Most have some kind of specialization in something, no matter how deep.

This skill metaphor unfortunately doesn’t map explicitly to one’s actual skills. Some of the most successful people I know have multiple vertical lines extending from their base of skills. In other words, they dominant in multiple areas while having a broad understanding of other disciplines. Too bad there’s no letter for that.

Photo by: TooFarNorth

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.

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