Want to become a knowledge-driven firm? Build some “T-players” and get yourself a coach.


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The following post is in response to a comment left by Randy Deutsch on the KA Connect LinkedIn group. Click here to join the KA Connect LinkedIn group and read (or join in on) the full discussion thread.


I agree and disagree with your latest comment about the role of the writer, librarian, and teacher in a knowledge-driven firm. But before I respond, I’d like to share a story with you. You’ll see that the idea of a “T-consultant” is something we have in common. 


“The T-consultant”

My first job out of college was with a large technology consulting practice which served the Fortune 1000 as well as several dot-com clients. We had lots of technical experts on the team — business analysts, database designers, user interface designers, web and software developers, quality assurance experts and functional testers. Of course we also had partners, project managers, and the expected administrative staff.

The western region of our company was about 100 people when I joined. The guy that ran it was named Chris Lord. Chris was excellent at taking the new consultants under his wing and teaching them about the business. One thing that Chris was particularly passionate about was the question of "What makes a good consultant?" His big idea was that the most powerful consulting practices were full of "T-consultants."

Chris explained to me that the advantage that our firm had over many of our larger competitors – Accenture, IBM, and the like – was that our consultants not only had technical depth in at least one area (the "|" in the T) but were also horizontally savvy  (the "–" in the T.)  One of the ways that Chris ensured that we had breadth as well as depth was to make sure that all of our consultants got experience in as much of the full lifecycle of bringing technical projects to life as possible.

Chris felt that the horizontal integration of our teams differentiated us from the rest of the market. Most firms simply reinforced their expert culture and ended up with silos of expertise. Or they were staffed with generalists who had no depth. The truly exceptional consultant could go deep in at least one technical area but also speak intelligently to the whole process.

Chris was the architect of the team and the culture. Another way to describe Chris was as our coach.

Play to their strengths

Your March post on “T-Shaped BIM” was spot on with Chris’s philosophy. Here’s my takeaway:

Each player in an IPD project should bring their vertical expertise (architecture, structural engineering, fabrication, etc.) to the table in a concerted effort to become horizontally integrated through IPD.  The truly successful IPD teams will bring empathy for their fellow collaborators to the project because they have made the effort to experience and understand each other’s roles and expertise. In short,  successful IPD teams will be made up of “T-players.”

I think the same thing is true when it comes to sharing knowledge.

You wrote in your comment that:

"… to play collaboratively we need to wear multiple hats, see from more than one perspective. Our titles and roles become in the process smeared. There’s no time at the table to be "just" a librarian, writer or teacher. You have to nurture the development of all three."

I agree (to some extent) that all of us should have the responsibility to embody the writer, the librarian, and the teacher. Creating, capturing, and sharing knowledge are basic skills that we should all develop and employ in our daily work.  Understanding all three activities is the horizontal integration, the "–" in the T.

However, I also believe in the Marcus Buckingham approach which suggests that one should prioritize playing to people’s strengths over shoring up their weaknesses.

You are going to have folks with communication skills in your organization who will create amazing content.  Those “writers” might not have the “librarian’s” temperament or organizational skills. So focus on getting them writing.

Conversely, there are people in your organization whose organizational talents make them great librarians,  yet they are not strong communicators, written or orally. Put them in charge of organizing content on your intranet or website and/or hounding your writers for more content. Librarians naturally gravitate towards bringing order from chaos, so empower them to do so.

In a "T-organization" we recognize that knowledge management is a team game. The larger the organization, the more opportunities exist to leverage the diverse strengths of the team.

The trick is orchestrating the performance…

Coaches – The missing team member

The good news is that architecture and engineering firms often have their “role-players” in place.  Writers, librarians, and perhaps teachers busily execute their various roles and produce “stuff” on a regular basis. Yet all too often we see that individuals and teams within firms are working in isolation from each other as they struggle with organizing information and sharing knowledge.

In other words, we usually find that there is “knowledge work” going on inside of architecture and engineering firms. Very rarely do we find “knowledge management” or  especially “knowledge leadership.”

The following excerpt from your comment made me realize that I was missing a key role from my triumvirate:

"As much as I love the triumvirate of Writers creating Librarians capturing and Teachers sharing, why is it the most valuable team members are inevitably those who embody all three characteristics in one person?"

I think that the person you are describing is the coach. And most firms don’t have a coach to orchestrate their efforts to organize information and share knowledge. Here’s why they should:

Coaches set the vision for the team, develop a plan, establish roles, and motivate the team to perform.

Coaches channel the “knowledge work” of the writers, librarians, and teachers to makes sure that their efforts align with the organization’s vision and objectives.

Coaches “embody all three characteristics in one person” and can leverage the collective strength of the organization by tapping on the individual skills of the role-players. And the best coaches realize that their best players are “T-players.”

A couple questions

Here are a couple questions back to you. (Not just Randy, the “collective you.”)

Why is leadership missing from most architecture and engineering firms efforts to organize information and share knowledge?

Do you agree that coaches could help?

Are you actively building a team of “T-players?”

Posted: May 2nd, 2010 | Filed under: General, Most Popular | Tags: | 6 Comments »

6 Comments on “Want to become a knowledge-driven firm? Build some “T-players” and get yourself a coach.”

  1. 1 Chris Brandt said at 1:33 am on May 3rd, 2010:

    Actually to the best of my knowledge, all consulting firms see a T-shape as the ideal – but that is the easy part. The hard part is finding the right people and supporting them well.
    One very important practice in that regard is: Don’t specialize! Just like Toyota got rid of all the very expensive specialized machines and instead got general purpose machines that could be re-tooled easily, at our company we keep de-specializing.
    We are a software company, we used to have dedicated testers, dedicated team managers, dedicated designers. These days we expect every one of our developers to
    a) design the interface for “his” task
    b) make sure his stuff is bug-free
    c) and most importantly: manage himself
    Some have a deeper vertical bar in their T, some have a broader horizontal bar, but we call all of them “developers” to emphasize that we expect to excel in all aspects of our job.

    P.S. one important corollary to c) above is that there are no “Mangers” in our organisation. Everybody also needs to be an individual contributor. You lead by the quality of our “stuff”, not by your level on the pay-scale.

  2. 2 Christopher Parsons said at 5:32 am on May 3rd, 2010:


    I totally agree with your direction. One way to get T-shaped people is
    to eliminate the silos.

    Have you read ReWork or Getting Real by Jason Fried?. It has shaped a lot of how I think about building our company.


  3. 3 Randy Deutsch said at 4:18 am on May 4th, 2010:

    Chris –
    Great post – one everyone ought to take a good long look at and revisit from time to time.
    So the triumvirate – of writer, teacher and librarian – becomes a quartet when you add the coach.
    Perhaps now with four they’ll play more harmoniously?
    I’ll buy that. Perhaps the distinction (in what you and I are saying) resides – as you point out – in the size (and also age) of the organization.
    Larger organizations can support individuals who play these separate parts, whereas one is expected – in a smaller firm – to wear many hats.
    It may be generational as well. Just looking at the books on coaching. They can be divided into two types: What to expect from working with (or becoming) a coach and how to coach yourself.
    The coach yourself approach may just be a leftover from the DIY movement favored by Boomers?
    Do I agree that coaches could help? Absolutely.
    Learning to coach and even facilitate oneself is well and good, but as one soon discovers when working with a trainer in the gym, it is just too easy to lie to oneself, letting things slip, when one doesn’t have a coach to help you stay focused and accountable for what you say you’re going to do.
    If, over time, you can learn to internalize this, all the better. But until that day comes, coaches are a critical part of the foursome.

  4. 4 Chris Brandt said at 3:25 am on May 7th, 2010:

    @Chris I’ve been following 37signals for a long time. Here is great coincidence: I came back to this page to post this link: http://www.deincarnate.com/2010/05/05/team-member-specialization/ and found your comment about Rework.
    Check it out: Jason Fried makes the point that having a T-shape is also important so you appreciate the work of your team members. Very good point.

  5. 5 Christopher Parsons said at 8:36 am on May 7th, 2010:


    That’s dead on. I went ahead and posted it over on the KA Connect LinkedIn group.

    Thanks for the link.


  6. 6 The Rise of the Knowledge-Driven Architect « Architects 2Zebras said at 10:29 am on July 10th, 2010:

    […] Architecture  and the ever growing LinkedIn group, tribe and movement, KA Connect, wrote a post on becoming a knowledge-driven […]