Individual Contributor vs. Team Member

Many people draw distinctions between people who do management-kind of work and people who do "individual contributor" kind of work. I've been asking if they mean individual work or team member work. Sometimes, they do mean individual work. More often, they mean team member.

Our culture shapes our language (and, our language shapes our culture). When we recognize and reward people for individual work, more often we will call them individual contributors. We reinforce a culture of resource efficiency. (Sometimes, we reinforce a project culture where teams break up after they're done with the project.)

When we talk about teams and reward and recognized team-based work, it's more likely we will talk about teams and team members. We reinforce a culture of flow efficiency. (Flow efficiency can help create and reinforce a product culture.)

Technical team members tend to work on just one team. (Okay, the people who have reasonable managers do. Too many people multitask, which is costly and crazy-making.)

You might think managers work alone, as individual contributors. Some of a manager's work is individual. For example, managers conduct one-on-ones as individuals with another person.

The most effective managers I've seen are part of several teams. That's why it's so difficult to understand many managers' roles.

Here are some possibilities for how managers work as part of various teams:

  • A cross-functional management team who assesses the systemic problems teams encounter, to resolve those problems.
  • A cross-functional team who manages the project portfolio for their part of the business, for a product line, for an organization.
  • As part of the regulatory/governance/operational team at the senior level of the organization, if your org has one of those teams.
  • As part of product value teams.
  • As part of a sales team.

There might be more. Why do you think managers have hours and hours of meetings in a day? They're trying to work across the organization to accomplish something. Managers are team members, too.

Let's rethink the term individual contributor. No one is literally an individual contributor. At minimum, everyone's work has a customer of some sort. That means everyone is part of a team, and that includes managers.

If you want to move to an agile culture, start thinking in terms of teams. Not just technical teams, but management teams.

Let's change how we refer to people. Instead of individual contributor, consider using the term "team member."