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What shape are you in?

This month Martyn Jones looks at our shapes as individuals and organisations and asks if we are in the right shape.

Many of us in construction have deep specializations in one domain, but rarely contribute outside of that domain or comfort zone. And that’s fine as we need the input of the very best specialist knowledge at each stage of the design, manufacture, construct, operate and recycle stages of the building lifecycle.

Such people are known as ‘I-shaped people’, since like the letter ‘I’, they have depth of knowledge and understanding (the leg of the I), but not much breadth.

By contrast ‘T-shaped people’ supplement their expertise in one area (the vertical leg of the T) with valuable but less-developed skills in associated areas, the horizontal arms of the T.

As an example, a person who can contribute to the development of other parts of a construction project outside their specialism is a T-shaped person. For example, a construction manager contributing to design. T-shaped people tend to be more collaborative by nature and hence drawn to organisations such as Constructing Excellence with our ethos of learning, collaboration, and customer focus.

In the post-Egan era, people in construction still need a defined, recognized specialization and primary role, but also the skills, versatility, and aptitude for collaboration to help other people where necessary when working in construction project teams.

Both types of people are essential within construction organisations, project teams and their supply chains. But the perceived wisdom is that when we commit to being T-shaped, we get the benefits of specialization and generalization, while avoiding the pitfalls of being only a specialist or generalist. We can foster the diverse connections, interactions and conversations that can result in new, exceptional construction project ideas and outcomes.

Here are just a few benefits of becoming T shaped.

T-shaped people by nature are better at collaborating with other people because they have a broad range of knowledge and can communicate and interact meaningfully with specialists in different fields. This makes the whole idea of creativity through collaboration much more feasible and rewarding.

People still retain the satisfaction of depth in the leg of the T by also getting to experience the gratification that comes from diving deep in one subject area and being able to bring more expertise and specialist knowledge in that area to the table in the horizontal arms of the T.

People become more creative. There is a classic idea in the arts and in business that the greatest ideas happen at the intersection or interfaces between disciplines and indeed industries. When people have a broad base of knowledge, they build immunity to the ‘paradox of expertise’ where advanced knowledge and success in one field can cloud one’s ability to see new patterns, prospects and possibilities.

People stay more engaged and interested. When people focus on just one area, no matter how fascinating, they can become stale. Variety is key to keeping minds engaged with other areas of challenge and interest outside their specialty.

T-shaped people are more attractive to employers. This happens for two reasons. The first is that they have standout resumes compared to those who only focus on their specialism and never branch out. Second, being a T-shaped person just makes you more interesting.

But is being T-shaped now enough? More than ever, we need effective coaches and leaders to help us respond to the opportunities and challenges posed by the new Digital paradigm. This is expressed in yet another shape – the ‘X-shape’. This is typically called the ‘executive’ skill shape since senior leaders often possess it.

Yes, of course, people with X-shaped skills have deep expertise in a core knowledge area, as depicted in one arm of the X, but also strong leadership skills, credibility and standing as represented in the other. They can formulate strategies and execute them. They aren’t just practitioners, they are effective coaches, managers, delegators, and leaders. This skill shape recognises the ability of an individual to set strategy, lead people, and motivate and coach a team alongside their specialist skills.

How to become X-shaped?

Engaging with Constructing Excellence would be a great way to start as membership provides the opportunity to learn alongside those in other disciplines and leadership roles right across the development process. Through this interaction you get a better understanding of what their work involves and identify opportunities for creativity at their interfaces between the specialisms.


Find time to attend conferences and engage with LeadersMeets and other opportunities for learning to develop your knowledge and skills in as many ways as possible to enhance your abilities and knowledge.


Work on soft skills: Look at areas such as communication and take opportunities to make presentations to your colleagues, and members of your project teams and supply chains but also to the wider construction community. Again, this is where Constructing Excellence and LeadersMeets can help by providing opportunities for you to present and test your thought leadership ideas.


Identify gaps: Don’t’ just focus on the stuff you understand and are comfortable with. Look to expand your current expertise and experience, starting with clearly identifying where you need to gain additional knowledge and expertise.


Work on projects that are different from what you normally do to again widen your experience,


Make an impact: Use what you learn to make a difference in the teams you work in so that your ideas and abilities get noticed.

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