T-Shaped Organizations

by Vaniver1 min read16th Dec 20197 comments

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Social & Cultural Dynamics
Frontpage

Back in 2012, the Valve New Employee Handbook made the rounds on the internet, and claimed that Valve was looking for T-shaped individuals, who were broad generalists (the horizontal top of the T) with a depth of expertise in a particular topic (the vertical base of the T). I was reminded by this by thinking about Your Price for Joining. Eliezer argues that people (and skeptics / individualists in particular) likely overestimate the amount of ‘negotiating pull’ they should have in interacting with groups, and set standards that are too high, especially for incidental factors (like use of a subpar font or money storage method).

According to me, a T-shaped organization should be ‘broadly generalist’, in that it needs to do lots of different things in order to exist at all (like keep money in a bank, and comply with regulations, and have an office, and a website, and so on), and ‘narrowly expert,’ in that it performs exceptionally well on the functions related to succeeding at its primary mission. But with limited attention and resources, whenever the organization is given a choice between doing a lot better on a secondary factor or a little better on a primary factor, it should choose the primary factor. The organization should be half-assing everything; ideally in the way where the derivative of the goal with respect to each input is the same, and failing that hitting each quality threshold with minimal effort, and failing that being a trier at the primary goals and a slacker at all the other goals. The difference between a good bank and an okay bank probably has almost no effect on organizational success, whereas the difference between having a bank at all and having no bank has a huge effect on organizational success.

This means that you should think very differently about organizational performance on primary tasks and non-primary tasks. You almost want to cultivate a sort of Gell-Mann Amnesia, where you see a restaurant’s menu use a font no designer would be caught dead using and forget about it as actually not very informative about the quality of the food. You don’t want to forget it all the way, because underlying generators do cause things to be correlated; just as real budgeting constraints mean that money spent on the menu can’t be spent on the food, real variation in wealth and profitability means that some restaurants can spend more on both than other restaurants can. The same reasoning goes through for human capital in organizations.

Your Price for Joining’s examples implicitly assume that the criticisms levied are on secondary factors, but I think the post’s proposal also goes through for primary factors. If you think the restaurant doesn’t have good food, and you could make the food tastier, either you join as a chef or start a competing restaurant or withhold your support conditional on the food improving to some other standard. But also someone else's ox likely is gored by you joining the restaurant and being a chef, and perhaps what you think is tasty is not what their customers think is tasty. 

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