Implementers and Integrators

Organizations need both Implementers and Integrators.

Implementers are those who specialize in nuts and bolts execution work. Migrating a database, designing a landing page, and running event logistics are all examples of implementation. Integrators observe disparate pieces of a system working in tandem, and discern ways of helping them work better together. This could mean noticing where teammates have a pattern of talking past each other and intervening to resolve confusion before the wrong thing gets built, or recognizing that two people want to develop similar skillsets and pairing them up to take an online course together.

In tech, we over-index on Implementers. I believe part of this comes from companies initially facing an existential chasm as a matter of course, which must be crossed by getting V1 out the door, or risking not having a company. At this point, implementing your way forward is really your only option. After you’ve implemented successfully enough to see another day, that experience stands as a powerful object lesson among your early team. A dopamine cycle has formed up around implementing, and the time you crossed the chasm becomes the stuff of shared legend.

As organizations age, the technical and human systems being maintained grow in size and complexity. The more pieces you have, the more different ways there are for them to malfunction. This is when the need for Integrators who can recombine or fine tune the pieces so they run together more powerfully, or reliably, or humanely, starts to really show.

This is tricky. Integration work can be a lot harder to account for. It requires observation before action, and often action takes the shape of nuanced adjustments which are only later felt system-wide. Frequently, an org under strain from growth will respond by seeking more Implementers, without realizing what they need is more Integrators. This is rational. We use our past experiences to inform our present strategies, and based on the past, adding more Implementers to make more things is how to get out of a pickle. Unfortunately, this old strategy applied to this new problem exacerbates the strain. An uptick in Implementers creates more complexity which needs to be managed, further increasing the need for Integrators. Contributing to the force of this tightening ratchet is the fact that Implementer work, with its tangible outputs, is vastly better understood, and almost always more rewarding in the short-term. Proper recognition of Integrator work requires a lot of faith, and interpersonal trust, and moving through uncertainty.

You might know Integrators under a different name: managers. Good management is more than bossing people around. A good manager bridges the divergence in people’s frames of reference, creating shared meaning so that more than one person can do productive work on same problem. Inevitably flat organizations realize they need management once they hit a certain scale. Without designated Integrators, it becomes unclear where individual contributors can make the best impact—to say nothing about where they go when things stop working. Meanwhile, managers who do just boss people around leave their people feeling helpless and blindsided as a matter of daily course, as they lack a sense of the bigger cohesive picture and their role in influencing it.

Changing your toolset at a point when you’re facing high stress and high stakes is exceedingly difficult. When nothing is working, and the pressure is weighing on your chest, stopping to ask yourself and your collaborators why things feel so off, or whether you’re all solving the right problem, can seem like the most outrageous thing anyone could possibly do. Yet this sort of non-complementary behavior may be the best way to ensure integrity in the systems you’re all maintaining.