In a recent McKinsey Global Survey, 87% of leaders acknowledged skill gaps in their workforces — yet less than half of respondents had a clear plan for confronting this challenge. The COVID-19 crisis has only made this issue more urgent. From mastering new technologies at home to remotely managing sales relationships and collaborating virtually with colleagues, the need for upskilling employees is only increasing.
Why the future of work is all about T-shaped teams
As a futurist who’s helped organizations anticipate change for nearly 20 years, I’ve witnessed the evolution from hiring employees who are specialists to recruiting those who are generalists. I believe we’re now on the cusp of a hybrid model where the most valuable employees are interdisciplinary. While generalists know a little about a lot of subjects and I-shaped employees are experts in a single area, a T-shaped person is a subject-matter expert in at least one area and knowledgeable or skilled in several others.
Depending on who you ask, the phrase “T-shaped person” was coined in the aughts by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO Design Consultancy, or by McKinsey & Company in the ‘80s. Either way, the vertical bar on the letter T represents the depth of your skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is your breadth or ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and apply knowledge to areas beyond your primary field.
In other words, T-shaped employees excel in their core responsibilities and also perform other tasks effectively. In addition to technical skills — like proficiency in programming or design expertise — T-shaped folks also possess cognitive skills like emotional intelligence and creativity. Their ability to contribute, pinch-hit and problem-solve makes them high-performers who can boost an org’s overall productivity.
According to Jason Yip, a senior agile coach at Spotify, since every task in our workday doesn’t require an expert, non-expert tasks can be offloaded to T-shaped team members. Because their skills and experience aren’t limited to a single niche, they can contribute to various projects across the org. This kind of cross-functional work encourages cross-training, which means leaders can do more with the same number of people.
To start cross-training your people, first identify the major tasks and skills in a specific area of your org. Because it’s easier to pick up skills and technologies that are similar to the ones we already know, Yip at Spotify recommends cross-training at points where one role hands off to another. Cross-training in adjacent activities helps smooth hand-offs — and eventually leads to an employees’ ability to step in and perform that activity when needed.
At the individual level, you can become more T-shaped by cross-training in areas adjacent to your own area of deep expertise. By gaining familiarity and fluency in adjacent topics, you’ll increase breadth and, eventually, your depth in those same areas. Whether you want to develop technical skills on Coursera and LinkedIn Learning or build cognitive skills through a platform like FutureThink, remote learning opportunities are only keystrokes away.
Investing in T-shaped skills — across your org or individually — strengthens collaboration and communication for team members and between teams. You’ll open up silos and increase the agility of employees, which improves an org’s overall efficiency. Even if 2020 remains less predictable than an earthquake, creating an upskill plan now can help leaders build teams that are equipped for a T-shaped future.