The Worst of Two Worlds: The Maker Manager

You are great at what you do. You get noticed by either your boss or customers and suddenly you find yourself surrounded by a small team. You’re not just part of the team; you’re supposed to lead and manage this team. The kicker is that you’re not yet relieved from your role of individual contributor just yet, as we’re still transitioning. Welcome to your new role as a maker manager.

The concept of the maker’s and manager’ schedule was originally coined by Paul Graham and describes how either roles typically would prefer to spend their days. Managers live from meeting to meeting. Coordinating with direct reports and stakeholders. Their days consist of 1-hour to half-hour slices. Makers, on the other hand, prefer uninterrupted spans of time, ideally about half a day in which they can hunker down.

Graham’s premise is that the maker’s productivity is often destroyed by those on a manager’s schedule due to the high cost of context switching. Making requires focus and being pulled into a meeting thrice a day destroys the maker’s flow time in which tough problems are cracked and productivity levels are high. Either schedules work fine, but how are you going to fill a role that requires you to live on both?

Option 1: Protecting your productivity

Whether you need to protect your productivity as a maker depends a lot on your organization and role. Some organizations, customers and colleagues might favor synchronous communication (calls, meetings and one-on-ones) while others might lean to asynchronous media (email, chats). The latter has become increasingly difficult in a world where the majority of the people seem to require answers as soon as possible.

More senior team members are more often asked for their input, increasing the number of interruptions they can expect; this only increases when they are also expected to manage others, requiring a bunch of additional communication about a host of other topics aswell. How is the maker manager supposed to deal with this while still being productive as an individual contributor?

Protecting your productivity as a maker is not different to being a maker manager. Set clear boundaries to manage interruptions to manage expectations (“I’m not available on Monday and Wednesday mornings for meetings/questions”) and minimizing interruptions (silencing your phone, mail and chat). While this isn’t much different, its implications are way different: what is the result of you not being available during these times?

The answer to this question is highly dependent on the team and the type of work it does. Knowledge-intensive and creative work, performed by a team of varying levels of seniority often benefits from feedback loops through knowledge sharing and exchange of ideas. If the manager is also a subject matter expert or project manager you can quickly see how the productivity of the team gets constrained through the manager’s availability. (While these roles can be shared with other senior team members, it’s natural the manager in smaller organizations take on most of these responsibilities).

This approach guarantees uninterrupted stretches of productivity, but at what cost? Remember that blocking these two mornings a week does not only impact availability during those periods, but will also see an increase of scheduled meetings during those afternoons, meaning that team members will be having even more trouble getting hold of you. I previously wrote on this concept, explaining how increasing busy schedules (high utilization) leads to disproportionate throughput (wait time). As your team grows, the more troublesome this approach becomes.

Sadly I have to confess that I used this approach when I was starting to build a team. Wearing my headphones, closing my email client and setting my Slack status to “inactive” were my signals and ways to protect my productivity, but at the cost of the team as a whole. 

Option 2: Available by default

If blocking your team from interacting with you is not the solution, what is? Let's take a step back and understand what we’re optimizing for. In the case of a (maker) manager, you should be optimizing for your team’s or company’s productivity, not for you as an individual contributor. This means that you should be available for your team by default when working. 

If one of your team members can not proceed working on a task, or worse, continues working on a task under the wrong assumptions, productivity drops. While it might be possible to switch to another task, postpone asking a question and returning later, this is seldom the most efficient way when optimizing for a whole. Being available by default allows your team to access you when they have trouble moving forward on their own.

This does not mean that queries that do not block work should be communicated at random. There is still a time and place to communicate these, either asynchronous (for things like status updates), or through scheduled/recurring meetings. It is important to note that “available by default” does not (necessarily) extend externally for customers, unless you optimize for this (meaning that customers pay your company to pick up the phone at random times).

It is often hard to assess the urgency or importance of a query when communicating. Both as a sender and as a receiver. But does it really matter for communication within the same team, with the same goals? If you can help out a team member at a lower cost than having her wait or execute the wrong work, it’s worth it. Keep in mind this only applies to maker managers; a maker should guard their productivity.

This is a nice segway into how the maker manager should deal with their own productivity as an individual contributor. How can you ensure predictable output when there is little time to think deep, or little time at all? The answer might be depressing, but the reality is that there is no way to achieve this. But there are ways to manage the downsides. Limit your work to low-cognitive tasks or tasks you’ve a great deal of experience in. This will greatly reduce the cost of context switching. Take on tasks that have little pressure in terms of lead time, so you can correct if needed. Is it a great answer, certainly not, but it certainly is possible.

Wrap up

While the “available by default” option is the only real option, it is far from ideal. You would not be able to deliver the same amount of work at the same quality as before. Always saying “yes” to your team, results in lots of “noes” in other areas of responsibility, or making good on your obligations outside normal working hours. You will not be able to extend this mental state indefinitely.

Makers managers have only one option to move forward, and that is growing the team. Remember that your role as a maker manager is supposed to be transitory. Either ensure your organization prioritizes growing your team or takes another look at structuring its teams. The Maker’s vs. Manager’s schedule paradox exists for a reason; unifying these schedules for a prolonged period of time can only be done by the supernatural.