T shaped consultants are great. But here’s why you should consider being H shaped instead
The term “T shaped consultant” isn’t exactly a new one, as its origins can be traced back to the consultant world of the 1980’s. The idea is that you have broad knowledge stretching over many fields and then deep knowledge in one (or more) field(s).
Or, as Wikipedia tells it:
The concept of T-shaped skills, or T-shaped persons is a metaphor used in job recruitment to describe the abilities of persons in the workforce. The vertical bar on the letter T represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own.
In short, a T-shaped consultant knows a little about a lot and then has one (or more) areas where she knows a LOT. I know that’s not the complete explanation — you can read that above — but it’s useful shorthand.
So far, so good.
Now, let’s talk about H shapes for a moment. The term (coined by ex-Disney animator Dave Zaboski and yours truly during a podcast interview) is quite simple. In fact, it’s so simple that there are probably others out there who’ve described the same thing, but without using the term H shape.
There isn’t (yet) a wikipedia article about H-shaped people, but if there was, it might read like this:
The concept of H-shaped people is a metaphor used in job recruitment to describe the abilities of individuals in (or outside) the workforce. The vertical bars on the letter H represent the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field or discipline, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to combine those two disciplines to create value in a way that was hitherto unknown.
Notice that “our” (still non-existent) wikipedia article has the word “hitherto” in it. A word that starts with an H. Coincidence? Actually, yes, since I didn’t realise it until after I’d written it. But I digress.
The basic thought is that while it’s great being T-shaped (with broad knowledge and one or more domains with deep knowledge), the real power lies in the combination of the two.
The advertising legend, Rory Sutherland, puts it thus:
““The advice I would give to anybody is to be good at two things, not one, know about two things rather than one, and if possible make the two things overlap a bit.”
― Rory Sutherland, Rory Sutherland: The Wiki Man
He has a beautiful example, which roughly goes like this:
“Becoming the world’s best ice skater is incredibly hard, just as becoming the world’s best violinist is almost impossible. Becoming the world’s best ice skating violinist, however, has a much great chance of happening.”
Ironically, during the video interview LITERALLY titled “Be good at two things” Sutherland doesn’t really touch upon that. It’s a good video anyway, and since I’m always up for referencing one of my heroes, here it is. If nothing else, you can read the title and think “Ahh… wise words…”
Now, let’s turn to our H shaped consultant.
First, a note on why people bring in consultants at all. Usually, they do so when they’re lacking the expertise needed, have some money to throw at the problem, and are in a shitty position. There are organisations that pull in consultants at other times, true, but the majority are brought in when the shit has hit the fan, the (often considerable) expense seems justified and there’s no chance of solving the issue in-house or by hiring a regular freelancer.
That’s why the T-shaped consultants are in high demand. Someone with massive expertise in real estate projects can be brought on to save a development gone wrong, but usually when it’s gone wrong, it’s no longer “just” about the real estate side of things. So not only is the T-shaped consultant an expert on the subject matter, but she also has a decent understanding of all the other aspects that might lie at the fringe of the core problem; megatrends, politics, HR worries, design, etc, etc.
We’re not interested in T-shaped right now, though, but H-shaped.
My friend Jason Pomeroy — seen above, and below captured at a Tedx talk in Singapore in 2012 —is an architect who specialises in carbon neutral buildings. He’s an expert on both architecture and sustainability and his ability to combine those two disciplines is so strong that he melds them into one. If people want to bring in an architect to consult on their project, there are countless amazing ones, just like there are tons of great sustainability experts out there. But if they want a specialist in both architecture and sustainability, they bring in Jason.
Now of course, Jason isn’t the only architect out there who does this (though he might be the most well-dressed one, and certainly ranks high on the Architects With Amazing Smiles Global Ranking list). There are other H shaped fish in that sea, so when he competes with those, he can add another vertical bar called “Singapore” to the H (making it a kind of HH shape), or if that’s not what the client is looking for, he has a “TV Host” vertical as well. And suddenly, whether going one way or the other, he’s in a one-man field like the ice skating violinist.
For my own part, finding and connecting the proper verticals is also what allows me to stand out. I do leadership training in many forms (transformative leadership among them, as mentioned in the short video below), but while I’m not a heavy weight in the leadership sphere, I’ve spent 25 years designing and creating extraordinary, participatory experiences. This allows me to bring something completely different to the table and to attack client challenges in a new way.
This isn’t meant to belittle leadership experts with half a lifetime in negotiation training or some such. Not the least. It’s just an explanation of why I get to play in the big leagues, even though I wouldn’t qualify to do so if we only adhered to the logic of T-shapes. Because while there are plenty of superbly skilled leadership trainers out there, there are incredibly few who have the same depth of expertise from the participatory experience industry and who know how to combine the two in a good way.
So what happens when you combine your disciplines into a new, dual-faceted discipline? If you’re succesful, at some point that grows and is copied and emulated and expanded by both yourself and others, and you need to add another vertical to your H to stay on top of things. Twenty years ago, there were plenty of web designers, who combined design skills with web skills. Today, that H has grown into a complete discipline full of sub-disciplines, full of bewildering titles like frontend devs, User Interface designers, UX specialists and many, many more.
And those few, who have the HHHHHH shape and can “do it all”, they’re still there. They’re sometimes called full stack developers and while they’re awesome (I’ve worked with a few, so I speak from experiences) they almost always get outclassed by specialists if there’s budget enough to bring on a bigger team.
But when you’re in a position where you don’t need 10 people to be really good at one thing, but one person to be good at 10 things, they’re unbeatable. So when the shit is all over the fan and you’ve only got one phone call to make, I suggest making it to one of these H-shaped individuals.
Claus Raasted spent fifteen years of his life building the world’s largest live action role play company, and then a year struggling to save it from collapse. He failed, and is now using his hard-earned knowledge to stand out in other spheres; most noticeably those of leadership training, experience design and culture design. He serves as the Director of the College of Extraordinary Experiences, is the Chief Experience Officer of The World of Hans Christian Andersen and does high-level consulting for clients around the world.