Many Agile discussions talk about team members as generalizing specialists. Generalizing specialists are individuals that have a specialty; however, they also have broad levels of experience that can be applied. Tim Brown of IDEO coined term ‘T-shaped people’ (or skills) to describe this combination of specialization and experience. There are a number of other letter- or symbol-based metaphors, sort of an alphabet soup of metaphors, that describe the type of person you might find in a team.
- Dash-shaped people are generalists. They have a breadth of experience, but little depth. My mother used to describe these type of people as “a mile wide and inch deep.” In baseball, a generalist would be a utility player; highly valued because they fill in many positions, but not a starter.
- I-shaped people are specialists. Specialists have a single specialty or focus. My mother often called this type of person “an inch wide and mile deep.” Considering the concept of staff liquidity from Commitment, an I-shaped person is the most limited of the letters. For example, a person that is DBA that specializes only in NoSQL databases will be less valuable if the team needs help with business analysis.
- T-shaped people represent the classic agile team member. T-shape people have a specialty, and in addition, they have a wider breadth of experience with other skills. T-shape people have a focus but can fill in when bottlenecks are recognized.
- M-shaped people have multiple specialties. From the point of view of flexibility, a person with more than one specialty can be applied more flexibly than someone with single specialty. Each additional specialty shifts our mental picture from a letter to a comb.
- Pi-shaped people combine breadth with multiple specialties (combining T and M-shaped people).
- E-shaped people are people that combine experience, expertise, exploration, and execution. However, a lot of emphases is placed on the last E: execution. E-shaped people translate ideas into reality. I would suggest that Leonardo da Vinci was an E-shaped person.
Understanding where the individuals on a team fall in the alphabet soup is a powerful input for applying the concept of staff liquidity. A team applying staff liquidity will always allocate the people with the least options (the fewest things they can do or most specialized) to work first. These are generally the I-shaped people. Those with more options fill in the gaps in capability after the first wave of allocation and are available to react when things happen. The allocation process provides the team with the most flexibility. Even in high-performing teams, not everyone is an M, T, Pi, or E-Shaped person. In my experience, teams are a mix of generalists, specialists, and multi-talented superstars. Everyone on the team needs to recognize the mixture of talents and capabilities in order to manage the work and remove bottlenecks as the development process moves forward.