Building success in the future of work: T-shaped, Pi-shaped, and Comb-shaped skills


This morning we completed the five-city Tomorrow-Ready CIO event series, run by CIO magazine and sponsored by IBM.

My keynote across the five locations was on the Future of the CIO, using a Future of the CIO framework I recently created. I hope to write a number of posts in the next little while on some of the more important ideas covered in my framework and keynote.

There were a number of excellent other speakers at the events, including Tennis Australia CIO Samir Mahir, Australian Government CTO John Sheridan, Forrester VP John Brand, IDC NZ country head Ullrich Loeffler, and head of Deakin University’s School of Information Systems Dineli Mather.

In her presentation Prof Mather discussed the skills required for data analytics, in the context of a new Master of Business Analytics program the University is launching this year.

As we chatted before the event this morning we started talking about “T-shaped” skills. I think I first came across the T-shape concept – combining breadth and depth – in the well-known 2001 Harvard Business Review article Introducing T-Shaped Managers: Knowledge Management’s Next Generation. Since then I and others have often used the “T-shaped” concept to describe the skills we all require in the future: deep, world-class expertise, combined with breadth to span disciplines and understand the context for that expertise.

Dineli then mentioned the idea of “Pi-shaped” skills – a term I hadn’t come across before – in which breadth is combined with not one but two separate domains of deep expertise, creating a shape similar to the symbol for Pi. In business analytics the two domains are technology and data analysis. Now I find that others including marketers and IT architects are talking about the need for Pi-shaped skills.

This tallies with my own thoughts – and certainly personal experience – over the years. We absolutely need world-class expertise today, otherwise we will be a commodity.

There is then a balance to strike. It can be dangerous to have just one area of deep expertise, as the value of any single domain of expertise can erode rapidly with new developments. Complementary sets of deep expertise can make people extraordinary valuable, if combined with a breadth of perspective.

However if you try to be expert across too many domains, you cannot maintain your depth of expertise as much as someone who focuses in one domain. That is usually balanced by the value of having complementary domains of expertise.

My experience is of building expertise and then adding multiple new domains over time. For example, I spent many years working in financial and capital markets. Today I can hardly say I have world-class expertise in the field, however the depth of knowledge I had in the past means I still understand the fundamentals of the space, and is highly complementary to the new skills I have acquired more recently.

So there is the potential for us to develop what we might call “Comb-shaped” skills, in which we have many specific domains of expertise as well as breadth. In this case we can certainly never match the knowledge of a deep specialist in any one area.
However in an increasingly complex, interconnected and interdependent world, if we have sufficient depth in several – or even many – domains, we can often be more valuable than a specialist.

What do you think? Do you think developing “Comb-shaped” skills is a viable strategy for many people, or should most focused on “T-shaped” or “Pi-shaped” skills?

  • Geoff Barbaro

    G’day Ross, I’d suggest that what you are looking at is the very reason to create organisations and teams, so you can create a mixture of these. Unfortunately too often, job ads are aimed at individuals with a very specific skill set to fill what is an apparent gap in an organisation. Little thought is given to whether the organisation can benefit from the introduction of T, Pi or Comb employees while filling that apparent skill gap.

    The long-term result – brilliant engineers, great chefs, excellent specialists are prevented from rising higher in their organisations because they don’t have broader management skill sets. Perhaps even worse, many turn to management, which they don’t enjoy and aren’t always good at, because that’s where the money is. It’s the CEO who usually gets the great deal, not the Chief Engineer.

    I think the concepts you are discussing can be used to demonstrate to organisations where true value lies, so perhaps salaries reflect true value to the firm – after all, in an engineering company the core business is engineering, not management. Why should the CEO always be the highest paid person in their organisation (writes one who is not the highest paid in my own organisation!).

    Having said that, I think the comb should be one of those in travel packs rather than a big one. I don’t think an individual should have too many specialities.

    Cheers, geoff

    • Thanks Geoff, good insights. The organizational perspective on the effective use of people with these skills sets is critical.

      To your final point, absolutely, there is a balance. Too many specializations means ultimately none.

  • I think developing into a multi-dimensional person is invaluable, no matter the “shape”, particularly in this economic environment. I am an bio-organic chemist by trade and training, but because I saw the opportunity to differentiate myself from others in the field, I have been working to develop into a Pi-shaped person. I have deep technical expertise in drug discovery, but I’ve been expanding my knowledge about financial analysis and investment strategies. I saw the need to be able to bridge the gap of technical bench science expertise and business acumen.

    The ability to communicate across disciplines is often lacking in many management teams, and I think anyone who possesses those types of skills will position themselves to do very well.

    I think smaller organizations, particularly startups, can benefit immensely from pi-shaped people, or people who can transition through multiple roles simultaneously. For instance, it would absolutely be invaluable to a startup for you to be able to both perform the technical experiments/coding, but also be able to handle the sales and customer acquisition role. Wearing many hats would enable the startup to be lean, while still getting stuff done.

    On the other hand, larger companies would probably prefer the expert specialist and would discriminate for those who can focus on the singular role. So I think it ultimately depends on what type of organization one would like to join.

    Great post!

    • Thanks Pi Shaped – you’re a nice example of the phenomenon! Two judiciously chosen, complementary domains of expertise can be enormously valuable.

  • Lawrence Blank-Cook

    Flexible comb-shaped with the adaptability to be Pi-shaped and T-shaped when the situation calls for it. In this hyper-connected world, it is the power of the team, not just an individual contributor that will shape future success. We have to be able to adapt based on the opportunity in front of us and the team around us.