Steve Fenton

Manager vs individual contributor vs lubricator

You can’t have been following leadership literature for very long if you haven’t heard of manager time vs individual contributor time. The general concept is that individual contributors need some big chunks of time to get stuff done, and managers (partly to protect these big chunks for their team) work in small fragments of time. You could loosely say that managers work in half-hour fragments, whereas individual contributors need to work in half-day chunks. It’s not precise; you could track it on a sun dial in winter.

Manager Time vs Individual Contributor Time

Mode management

When you are both a manager and an individual contributor, you can only survive with strong mode-management. The first defence of mode-management is to ensure you aren’t doing things that your team should be doing. As a manager, leader, or bossy-boss, you first thought in respect of IC-work should be… “If I’m doing this… why can’t my team do it?”. Now go and make it possible for them to do it. The second defence of mode-management is that you have to know what you are trying to achieve and defend it. If you are being the IC for a morning; you make sure you get that big chunk of focus time to get stuff done (See The Ultimate Productivity Suite).

Defending Work Modes

Reality will come after you with a vengeance when you do this, but I’m serious when I say…

If your organisation regularly cannot survive half a day without you, the organisation is already wrecked


There is another type of contributor that doesn’t fit the two modes above. The lubricator. These are the people who have some kind of knowledge or ability that has an asymmetrical demand/supply balance. For example, if you have one IT person and 300 old machines, there will be a constant queue of two-minute tasks with an interrupt-driven immediacy to the work pattern. Unlike managers or individual contributors, their day isn’t neatly divided into chunks, it looks more like… well, this:

Manager vs Individual Contributor vs Lubricator

Can you service this kind of work alongside manager-mode, or alongside individual contributor mode? Not really… unless you have steely resolve and limitless energy.

To survive a mixed-mode that includes lubricator work, you need to deploy intense quaductionism. Yes, everyone approaching a lubricator wants urgent attention, but it’s very often not important. You might be able to give them the fastest, easiest, more painless solution to their problem; but if you weren’t available they would very often sort it out for themselves in a slightly slower or more challenging way. They will become more robust to future challenges by figuring things out for themselves.

Yes, you may need to be prepared to annoy some people when you can’t solve their biggest problem immediately. However, your biggest problem may be orders of magnitude more critical to the organisation.

Triple-mode working

To survive triple-mode working, you need to put a simple system in place that will direct otherwork into queues when you need focus time. You need to identify tasks that fall into the queues that needn’t do so and give power to the people to complete these tasks without you. Many people will jump at the chance to control their own destiny, some will be upset. Learn to live with the fact that making people happy is not the goal (unless you want to grind yourself into a hollow shadow of yourself).

Important side-note: not everything that goes into a queue needs to come out. Have a dumpster available for all the things that become “no longer needed” after ten minutes in a queue.

Plan out your day. Know which mode you are in right now, and defend it.

I use the Ultimate Productivity Triumvirate of Getting Things Done, Personal Kanban, and The Pomodoro Technique to help with this.

Written by Steve Fenton on