T-Shaped Professionals

The Service Thinking framework produces T-shaped individuals who are

  • Ready for adaptive innovation
  • Ready for Life-Long-Learning
  • Ready for Teamwork
  • Ready to Help Build a Smarter Planet

What does it mean to be T-shaped? To quote the T-Summit 2014,

Currently higher education is producing I-shaped graduates, or students with deep disciplinary knowledge. T-shaped professionals are characterized by their deep disciplinary knowledge in at least one area, an understanding of systems, and their ability to function as “adaptive innovators” and cross the boundaries between disciplines.

T-Shaped Professionals

Scale-obsessed enterprises imposed unreasonable requirements on their employees. They populated a military-inspired hierarchical organizational architecture with specialists operating in functional silos. If you were a lawyer, a chemist, or an accountant, that specialist designation became your career-long label. If your specialty went out of favor in the enterprise, you had very little option for career adjustment.

Through Service Thinking, you have much more opportunity to avoid the restrictions of specialization and much more opportunity to make contributions that are both broader and deeper. To do so, you need to actively cultivate your T-shapedness, which is the way forward to become more successful.

T-Shaped professionals deliver the benefits of deep problem-solving skills in one area, based on their specific knowledge and expertise, combined with broad complex-communication and collaborative skills across many areas. As knowledge grows exponentially and technology increasingly augments human capabilities, you can better navigate your career by continuously developing your T-Shape experiences and skills. The figure below illustrates this.

T-shaped professionals combine problem-solving and communication skills.


T-shapedness also refers to systems thinking or design thinking. T-shaped people are experts in specific technical areas, but also intimately acquainted with the potential systemic impact of their particular tasks or projects. Universities traditionally educate professionals who become specialized in one specific field; we can describe them as I-shaped.3 But a change in technology or market conditions can quickly devalue the knowledge and skills of I-shaped professionals. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO design firm, searched for T-Shaped People for his company. “They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T—they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need.”

Perhaps the most important element of T-shapedness is empathy. Service Thinking values empathy, where understanding the emotional and subjective evaluation of the service experience is critical, and where collaboration in Service Systems and in Co-Creation requires fitting in and humility. If you can examine and understand experiences from another’s point of view, without personal or institutional bias, you can become a better Service Thinker.

As a professional in charge of your own career–whether as an employee of a large enterprise, or an entrepreneur–you can manage your own T-shapedness. Dr. Louis Freund, PhD, of the San Jose State University Human Factors and Ergonomics program has developed an assessment technique you can use to measure and augment your T-shapedness. He identifies five areas of “Boundary Crossing Competency” for the T-Top (the horizontal)–such as Professional Development of Self and Others, Education of Self and Others, and variables such as “Improvement” and “knowledge of systems”. You can even measure “Likes For Your Blog” and number of Twitter followers (an online personal brand is a very important component of T-shapedness). Similarly, he suggests a number of measures for your T-Stem that cover growth and achievements in your core discipline, whether it is marketing, or engineering or HR. The point is that T-shapedeness can be cultivated and enhanced for a lifetime.