Building Square-Shaped Teams With T-Shaped People

Posted on April 30, 2012


The cross-functional team is the basic building block of most lean-agile disciplines.  This is probably why many companies are beginning to ask, “how do I build a cross-functional team?”  Better yet, “how do I build a high-performing cross-functional team?”  This question seems to be broad and challenging to answer.  However, the answer is commonly understood and pretty simple and straightforward… in theory.  You build fill your team with ‘T-shaped People’ that have a focused area of deep expertise and a more general capability in many other areas.  These folks are more commonly known as ‘Generalizing Specialists.’ (or maybe that’s just me)  The image below is a graphical interpretation of T-shaped people.

T-shaped People


The first time I saw this image, it helped me make sense of the theory behind a Generalizing Specialist and how they could be valuable to a cross-functional team.  However, I didn’t grasp the power of the idea until a colleague of mine pointed it out to me.  I was stuck; focused solely on the individual and how this graph could portray their capabilities.  The great insight that my colleague had, was that this graph can and should be used for your teams, as well.  If you mapped all of the disciplines or functional areas that are necessary for your team to complete any piece of work that they may need to deliver as columns horizontally on the graph.  Then, assess each team members capabilities or expertise from one through ten in rows going vertically.  This would give you an image of the team’s capabilities as a whole.

New Team

Now, you have a whole-team view of your team’s capabilities.  If you want to be even more detailed, you can create a 3-D graph. so that you can assess the balance of your team’s abilities, based on the type of work flowing in (this is a bit more advanced and something for a future post).  With this view into the team’s capabilities, you can now begin discussing a roadmap for helping the team fill in those empty spaces.  This can drive all kinds of great discussion around helping the team grow into a truly cross-functional team.  With time and a ton of hard work, the team will eventually grow into a ‘Square-shaped Team.’ (or in this example, a rectangle)

Cross-functional Team

With this, your team is now optimized around the work (if you performed this exercise correctly).  Within a single team, there lies the capability to complete full-functioning pieces of value.  However, the fact that you have all capabilities necessary, most certainly does not ensure you have a high-performing team.  You have effectively accomplished step 1 of developing a High-performing Cross-functional Team.  To achieve the high-performance piece, your team will need to progress along Tuckman’s Group Development Model.  This area of development is often the most challenging for teams.  I will discuss team development in a future post.


For more information on T-shaped People and related articles I found interesting, please check out the following…

Posted in: Team-focus