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#-Shaped People

#-Shaped People

| On 22, Mar 2018

Darrell Mann

I was having a discussion the other day about ‘T’-shaped and ‘pi’-shaped people. Later on, we also discovered there were also ‘comb’-shaped people, although I’m not sure how well the metaphorical interpretation works. Maybe ‘m’-shaped or ‘rake’-shaped would’ve made more sense. But then, the more I thought about the whole idea of horizontal breadth and vertical depth didn’t make sense. Or rather the horizontal part didn’t.

I get the vertical idea that as individuals we often choose to specialise in certain domain knowledge areas. I used to know a lot about mathematics, for example, and then later on, I also found myself being called an aerodynamicist. Then I received a Masters degree in ‘Gas Turbine Technology’ and became responsible for the design of whole engines rather than just the rotating bits. So, I suppose you could say I became ‘m’-shaped. Assuming that ‘life’ was also providing me with a certain degree of horizontal generalist knowledge.

Nowadays, if I’m known for anything it is ‘innovation’. I suppose, in theory, this adds a fourth vertical to my ‘m’-shaped skillset. But somehow that doesn’t feel right to me. Innovation – and especially the TRIZ/SI variant thereof – is by definition about crossing domains. In terms of the vertical/horizontal way of looking at the world, it feels like a horizontal skill more than it does a vertical one.

Innovation is multi-disciplinary and fundamentally demands that I’m able to connect together a number of different domains and disciplines. By the same token, so is ‘systems-thinking’. Or cybernetics. Or ‘Lean’. Or ecology. In theory, so too are Economics, Politics and Sociology. All of them are fundamentally integrative sciences. That most of them are taught – if they are taught at all as subjects in their own right – as verticals probably helps to explain why Economics and Sociology, to take those two examples, are often known as the ‘dismal sciences’. Perhaps the only reason they’re dismal is because they’re being taught as vertical specialities rather than the horizontal cross-disciplinary subjects they need to be.

The problem, in other words, with the T- or pi- or m- shaped views of the world is that they assume there’s only one horizontal subject to counter the myriad verticals. Whether academia recognises it or not, the world contains as many horizontal ‘integrative’ subjects as it does vertical ‘specialist’ domains. The only problem is that it’s still difficult to go and obtain a qualification in many of the horizontal subjects. Or, as speculated with Economics and Sociology, it’s difficult to obtain a meaningful qualification in any horizontal subject that’s currently taught as a vertical.

Perhaps it’s the same underlying problem we’re hearing and seeing in some Western societies at the moment in the growing rejection of ‘experts’. If I had to bet my next pay check, I think I’d be willing to speculate that the roots of the criticism are that as a society we have too many vertical experts and not enough horizontal ones.

I think there’s an equivalent problem when I hear physicists (as vertical a discipline as is possible to imagine) speculating about ‘Theories Of Everything’. If there ever is such a thing, it will only, I believe, emerge from someone thinking horizontally and not vertically. Or rather ‘horizontally and vertically’.

One of Genrich Altshuller’s final contributions to the science of innovation was a somewhat flawed piece of work to study the attributes of genius (Reference 1). The basic conclusion – although the authors’ never used the expression – was that ‘genius’ was effectively pi-shaped. More specifically, because I think they assumed everyone possessed a degree of horizontal ‘generalist’ knowledge, that genius stemmed from having a high degree of depth in two distinctly different vertical domains.

I can certainly see some merit in this view of the world. If I was minded to suggest a better definition of genius, I think I’d be more inclined to describe it as #-shaped. I think that having a detailed vertical knowledge of two distinctly different subjects is a necessary pre-condition for genius. It’s only when these twin knowledge depths have been dived that I believe an individual can even start to begin to recognise that, no matter how far apart the two domains are, there are nevertheless considerable levels of analogical similarity between them.

If two verticals are ‘necessary but not sufficient’, I believe that the missing pieces in the sufficiency jigsaw are having at least two horizontal expertise’s. One of which, I suppose is the generalist knowledge that comes with life’s experiences, but the other is an in-depth knowledge of one of the horizontal integrative disciplines… Taught in a truly horizontal manner…

Figure 1: Genius Is #-Shaped

…and, in keeping with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour hypothesis (whether it’s ‘right’ or not, it’s right – Reference 2), that each of the three – one horizontal and two vertical – specialisms has seen the individual exposed to 10,000 hours of meaningful, stretching, education and practice.

That’s my new rule.

Then there’s the next one. About how ‘lifelong-learning’ means adding progressively more horizontals and verticals. Ideally in alternating patterns of horizontal-then-vertical-then-horizontal-again… until we all become (much better metaphor!) potato-masher-shaped…


  1. Altshuller, G.S., Vertkin, I.M., ‘How To Become A Genius: workbook for creative personality development’, Minsk, Belarus, 1994 (in Russian).



  1. Darrell, I think you’re a masher, me too if that helps any.