Reprise: Many years ago I wrote a blog post on T-shaped consultants that surfaced in a recent work discussion around debating the benefits of T-Shirts versus Pencils in terms of technical specialisation. The argument was that a team comprised primarily of deep technical experts with little overlapping skill would not perform as well as a team of people that combined deep technical expertise with breadth and therefore had the ability to both “go deep” to solve technical problems as well as “go wide” to ensure a holistic perspective (Checkland’s Worldview). This post is essentially a development of that concept.
The Riddle Game
Scene setting: Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit consultant from The Shire, has lost his companions, a partnership of dwarves in the mountains. He has accidentally stumbled upon a ring and stuck it in his pocket but at the same time finds himself face-to-face with a rather nasty client named Gollum who appears to block his exit.
So, Gollum enquired smarmily, “and will you return me The Precious if I wins this game of riddles?”
Bilbo replied uncertainly, “Of course, let me start.” Thinking on his feet he immediately came up with an idea, and so he began.
“I am PMI certified and have led multi-million dollar transformation projects, but I am not a Project Manager.
I have 20 years of practical experience delivering enterprise architecture on projects, but I am not an Enterprise Architect.
I can code in C++, Java, Perl, Python and PL/SQL but I am not a Programmer.
I can optimise databases, build virtual servers and have managed everything from an IBM S/360 to Linux-Apache-Hadoop but I am not a sysadmin or a DBA.
I delivered my first Agile project 20 years ago but I am not a Scrum Master or Agileist.
I contributed to the Product Management Handbook, that is used by business product managers across the world, and have helped simplify product portfiolios across the world but I am not a Product Manager.
What am I?”
Gollum squealed and squirmed. “What’s he saying, My Precious. I don’t understand all his big words.”
“He’s a mess, that’s what he is,” Gollum continued. “Can you give me a clue, nice little hobbit?”
Bilbo thought. On the one hand he was desperate to get out of the cave he was in and didn’t want to lose the game, but on the other hand he needed Gollum to help him. He was confident Gollum would never guess so he decide to offer some help.
“OK, let’s see,” he said. “I have lots of qualifications but I work in a field where there is no formally recognised qualification.”
“Yuk”, said Gollum. “That means you cants get a job, cans you?”
“No,” said Bilbo, “I am in demand everywhere and people pay a lot of money to hire me.”
“Aaah,” squealed Gollum excitedly. “I knows it, I knows it, you’re a T-shaped consultant aren’t you? You knows nothing but you’s a know it all. Give me the Precious now, I earnt it. I’m getting the Precious and you’re not getting my watch, no you’re not you nasty little”, he corrected himself quickly, “nice little hobbit.”
“We needs hobbits don’t we? We loooove those hobbits when they give us our Precious back.” And then he muttered under his breath, “but we gets rid of them we don’t need them anymore, nasty little expensive consulting hobbits, we hates them, don’t we My Precious.”
The Flock of T-Bars
I wonder if Gollum is a typical consulting client?
Perhaps Gollum Underground Cave Dwelling Ltd needs to expand into the open daylight, but Gollum can’t stand the daylight because it hurts his eyes. He is also dimly aware that digital disruption may affect his supply chain of unsavoury creatures that he feeds on so he needs some help to build an online presence.
It’s a difficult job, taking Gollum into new markets, and who best to do it, if not Bilbo Baggins Management Consulting LLC.
The problem with BBMC (their new re-branding) is they have never dealt with an underground supply chain or having to re-brand products like “Shelobs Lair” or “Small Goblin Pieces”. It’s a bit of a challenge but they know they have the transferrable skills to do this.
I have over-used the Hobbit metaphor so let’s move on to our T-Bar metaphor.
A Flock of T-Bars is the team of T-shaped management consultants that have insufficient depth in anything to be truly T-shaped. They are the crossbar of the T without the tail of the T.
Let’s think about team dynamics for a second …
In general teams work best when there is mutual respect and mutual dependency between team members. A good example of this in IT terms is the account manager with the project manager. The account manager knows that a good project manager is needed to deliver whiles the project manager knows that there is no project unless the account manager sells it – voila, the interdependent team!
By contrast it could be that a team of T-bars have a little bit of knowledge about a lot of subjects but what they really need is some depth …
Depth vs Breadth: which is best?
The question I’d like to pose is, if all other things are equal, would a team of specialists beat a team of generalists?
My thinking on this topic leverages what I see as the increasing complexity of business, complexity of business process and complexity of business systems, with the data and technology that they rely on.
Let’s take a simple order entry system (one that we used to demo how to build in a 30 minute seminar in my Oracle days). What has happened to that order system:
1. The product portfolio has progressively become more complex, requiring some advanced data modelling and process modelling skills in order to understand how a complex configuration of products gets ordered.
2. Channels have proliferated – the omni channel experience requires skills that understand how mobile sites and web sites are different, how to combine IVR interfaces with online CRM systems and so forth.
3. COTS software now dominates common functions in most enterprises … but customising COTS to specific business needs and integrating across channels, across processes and with other COTS software requires a diverse skillset.
4. Our development processes and methods have become more sophisticated (I remember creating a project management course in the mid 80’s because it seemed this product did not exist – now I get 2 emails a week from someone trying to sell me a project management course).
To fulfill these needs seems to suggest that overall skills needed (and supplied) are broadening but I’d say there is complexity here. Depth in technical areas cannot be ignored – as a colleague of mine describes it, “we don’t need any more warm bodies.”
It feels like we have a conundrum here … in order to deliver the best fitting technical solution to ever more in-depth problems requires more and more deepening of technical skills. Yet at the same time the evolving complexity and dependencies to organisational changes, business impacts and so forth demand broader skills. Our T is getting wider and deeper and it seems like the T-bar will not cut it. What do you think?