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In my recent post, Why Can’t we all get Along, I discussed the value of overlapping roles in multi/inter/transdisciplinary teams and referred to using the broken comb shape to describe skills and capabilities. In this post, I’ll expand on that theory and add an approach for using it to help teams build empathy, understanding and opportunities for contributions.

I first saw the broken comb from this post to describe a step beyond T-shaped and π-shaped people, referring to the skills that someone has. T-shaped means a deep specialism with broad general knowledge and skills, and π -refers to a couple of deep specialisms with breadth across the top. Broken comb-shaped refers to different levels of skills in multiple areas.

I’m not overly keen on having the word “broken” in there, so I’m calling this the capability comb.

The Capability Comb is a brilliant way for people to think about how they describe their unique capability profile, where capability encompasses knowledge, skills and experience; it starts to break out of the box that a job description puts them in, then talks about what they excel in and how they want to portray themselves.

How the Capability Comb can help teams

Doodle by Paul Downey, words by Jamie Arnold

Teams are most successful when they have a shared responsibility for success. They blur the lines of rigid roles so that they can collectively get to the value as quickly as possible. That means people stepping outside of their expected specialisms to support the goal. And the great thing is that most of us have specialisms and interests outside of our job titles, so why not embrace that?

Using the Capability Comb at a team kickoff or reset to help to build empathy and find opportunities for collaboration. Brilliant for understanding the shape of your team, blurring the edges of roles and creating one team.

The Workshop

1. Introduce the Capability Comb

The Capability Comb is a quick way for people in the team to introduce their capabilities and interests while building empathy, learning more about each other and identifying opportunities to collaborate.

2. Title the combs

Ask people to write their names and role on the top of a piece of paper.

3. Describe some capability levels

I like to use these based on the Dreyfus model of skills acquisition

Awareness: I speak about it and take part in conversations
Novice: I can follow rules and patterns and need support to do it within constraints.
Competent: I can follow guidelines or do on my own in less complex situations.
Proficient: I can do it on my own in different situations.
Expert: I can do it on my own in most or all situations; I make my own rules.

3. Drawing the combs

Ask people the question: How do you want to describe yourself?

Ask people to draw their combs, using the different length teeth to add capabilities at different levels. They should consider what capabilities best describe how they want to present themselves to their teammates. They can add things they are an expert in, or want to develop in, even if they are currently a novice and things outside of or work adjacent. They can also leave off things that they don’t want to be known for in the context of the team.

Drawing of a comb with the
Elizabeth, Delivery manager at the top and a series of different capabilities / skills along the teeth
What a Capability Comb might look like

4. Share your combs.

Go around the team and ask people to share their combs, what they put and why; ask questions as a team and look for opportunities to overlap or places you can help people learn.


Remember that your Capability Comb is a snapshot in time, and things will change. Revisit the exercise whenever new people join the team, so you can get to know them too.

If you try this out, I’d love to know how it goes.