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Thursday
Sep292011

Makers and Managers

A recent article by Jon Evans on the "Tragic Triumph Of The MBAs" reminded me of the constant dichotomy between "techies" and MBAs or, as I like to call it, makers and managers.

It is a dichotomy that bothers many people in the startup community. Aaron Patzer of Mint promotes the following rule of thumb for the valuation of startups:

When valuing a startup, add $500k for every engineer, and subtract $250k for every MBA.

Aaron Patzer, Mint

Jason Fried of 37signals is well-known for his public contempt for managers. To him, there are two things preventing people from being productive at work. He calls them the M&Ms: managers and meetings.

While I do sympathize with these points of view, I have a slightly more nuanced theory of the rules of makers and managers within an organization and how they should relate to one another. That theory is very much inspired by the thoughts of Paul Graham, author of "Hackers and Painters" and founder of Y Combinator, a hugely sucessful startup incubator.

The maker

A maker creates stuff. Makers are engineers, programmers, product designers, interface designers, graphic designers, artists, software architects, system architects—you name it. These are the people who build products and services, who deliver results. Makers are down on the ground. They are the ones who get their hands dirty.

Without makers, nothing happens. Makers are the substance of a company. For a small startup, makers are everything. Even for a company of the size of 37signals, makers matter most.

Makers operate on the maker's schedule. The smallest unit of time in the maker's schedule is half a day. That is what is necessary to make something. The best day for a maker is a day with no meetings and no appointments—a day that offers ten straight and uninterrupted hours of time to get something done. Even the mere thought that there might be an interruption later that day will kill the maker's productivity. When you create something, you need to be left alone for a while. You need long, uninterrupted stretches of time. That is the maker's schedule.

The manager

A manager sets up processes and designs organizations. Managers are not necessarily MBAs. Managers are leaders. Good managers are invisible. Managers have a birds-eye view. They are the ones who see the future, the ones who ensure that everyone else is safe and productive.

There are a lot of bad managers, let's face it. But managers are indispensible as well. The more processes a company needs and the larger it gets, the more important the management becomes. For a small startup, process can easily become overkill. Startups are experiments. Established businesses are not.

Managers operate on the manager's schedule. The smallest unit of time in the manager's schedule is a quarter of an hour. That is what is necessary to talk to someone. The best day for a manager is a day packed with meetings—a day where every single minute is being used productively, in the manager's sense. The manager's schedule is for people who delegate work to other people. It is for people who don't do the actual work.

Managing makers

Problems arise when managers meet makers.

Here are my rules of thumb for managing makers:

  1. Makers are a necessary good, managers a necessary evil. An organization should always seek to have as many makers as possible while having as few managers as possible. When in doubt whether you need an additional manager, you don't need one. Once you do need an additional manager, you will know soon enough.

  2. Good managers get out of the way and leave the makers alone. One of the most established facts of motivational psychology is that for any work that requires rudimentary cognitive or creative skills, autonomy is the most important motivator. Too much control and the wrong incentives worsen results.

  3. Good managers respect the maker's schedule. For makers, meetings are toxic. Managers need to understand that makers operate on a different schedule. A conference call in the middle of the day completely destroys a maker's day which could have otherwise been productive. Good managers schedule necessary meetings with makers at the end of a working day. Most meetings are unnecessary. Whenever managers and makers need to talk a lot, it is a sign for a lack of process.

I consider myself a maker, but I am also a manager. I respect both roles and I think that understanding both worlds—the worlds of makers and the world of managers—helps you overcome the dichotomy and appreciate the magic inherent in building organizations.

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