Managers are Makers Too

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As a manager, does it ever nag at you that you can’t find the time to properly think about your team members and plan their career development?  Perhaps you find yourself staying late to prep for 1:1s, or to put together that piece of feedback that you just couldn’t find the headspace for during the day.  

And that’s just in the daily routine.  What about when it comes to performance reviews and you have to put down some of those thoughts on paper?  Where does the time come from to write those? Evenings and weekends? Yep, we thought so. 

Why is it so hard to find time for these things during the normal workday?  Well, we’ve found some clues back in 2009, and some ideas on how to tackle it.  

‘Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule’

Back in 2009, Paul Graham, the legendary silicon valley investor and founder of Y Combinator, penned a blog post which remains one of his most famous and most-shared.  

Paul Graham screenshot
Source: Paul Graham

Some of our readers will already be familiar with ‘Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule’, but to do a quick recap. 

Graham describes how the typical daily schedules of productive managers (multiple ongoing projects, constant context-switching, lots of meetings) are disastrous for ‘makers’ -  those who spend their time on complex, creative work (e.g. programmers, writers, designers, analysts, consultants).  Makers instead work at their best when they have long stretches of unbroken time without distractions.  

Graham’s piece concludes: 

  1. Adopt the schedule which suits your type of work.  As a manager, you should have lots of things going on at once, be context-switching, and making lots of decisions, because that’s how you create value for your company.  As a maker, you should be doing the opposite - working in a distraction-free environment on complex problems.
  1. Don’t force a manager’s schedule on a maker: given point 1), putting a manager’s schedule - lots of meetings, email exchanges, updates etc - on a maker, will prevent them from doing their best work.  

Point 2 in particular resonated widely in the tech community, and increased awareness of the need to remove unnecessary distractions from programmers, designers and similar (we spoke about this in a recent newsletter).  There are also strong echoes of it in more recent work by Cal Newport and others focussing on the importance of ‘Deep Work’ for getting things done.

‘Each type of schedule works fine by itself. Problems arise when they meet. Since most powerful people operate on the manager's schedule, they're in a position to make everyone resonate at their frequency if they want to. But the smarter ones restrain themselves, if they know that some of the people working for them need long chunks of time to work in.’  Paul Graham 

But whilst the piece is most famous for raising awareness of how to schedule makers’ time, there’s valuable lessons here for the manager’s time too.

The Manager’s Schedule

If you’ve been promoted to manager, chances are it’s because your bosses think you’d be adept at running a manager’s schedule.  After all, it’s what makes you effective in the role.

You’re able to take on multiple projects at once, ruthlessly organising your time into a series of meetings, calls and emails to keep all your plates spinning, all your stakeholders updated, and all your outputs delivered.   

Shane Parrish describes it well in his writing on the topic:

‘Managers spend a lot of time, “putting out fires” and doing reactive work. An important call or email comes in, so it gets answered. An employee makes a mistake or needs advice, so the manager races to sort it out. To focus on one task for a substantial block of time, managers need to make an effort to prevent other people from distracting them. Managers don’t necessarily need the capacity for deep focus — they primarily need the ability to make fast, smart decisions. In a three-minute meeting, they have the potential to generate (or destroy) enormous value through their decisions and expertise.’  Shane Parrish

Doing this well is the job, why you get paid, and why you run a manager’s schedule.  

When a Manager becomes a Maker

The manager’s schedule is also why you find it almost impossible to find time for your team during the workday.

Thinking about your team members’ goals, planning career development, arranging mentoring, making introductions, giving project feedback, doing performance reviews - none of these tasks are ‘putting out fires’ or ‘reactive work’.  

Or if they are, you’re doing them wrong.  One manager we spoke to recently said their boss had clearly copied and pasted some generic text for their performance review from somewhere else.  She knew because her boss was apparently pleased with ‘his’ performance.  Now of course this could be put down to an uncaring manager. But it's also probably true that her boss had tried to rush the review to get onto something else - he was doing maker’s work on a manager’s schedule.

Some elements of people management require time, thought and creativity to do well.  It’s makers’ work and it requires a maker’s schedule. 

Don’t believe us?  Here’s Graham again:

‘I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you're a maker, think of your own case. Don't your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all?’ 

If you’re a manager, haven’t your spirits also rose before at the prospect of a day with no interruptions? And did you use that time to work on team development? Yep, thought so. 

Fortunately, there’s nothing stopping managers becoming a maker now and then.

Graham’s work is sometimes mischaracterized as creating a dichotomy between managers versus makers, in headlines like this:   

Maker vs manager

Actually, his key point is that it’s not an issue of identity, but how you arrange your work.  When you’ve got management work to do, work like a manager.  When you have to create, work like a maker.  He modelled this behaviour in his own schedule:

‘When we were working on our own startup, back in the 90s, I evolved another trick for partitioning the day. I used to program from dinner till about 3 am every day, because at night no one could interrupt me. Then I'd sleep till about 11 am, and come in and work until dinner on what I called "business stuff." I never thought of it in these terms, but in effect I had two workdays each day, one on the manager's schedule and one on the maker's.’

We’re not suggesting you do performance reviews until 3am (unless that suits you), but we are saying this:

  • Not all parts of being a manager work on a manager’s schedule.  Think about which elements of your role require considered, creative thinking - these are maker tasks, and likely include many aspects of progressing the careers of your team. 
  • Don’t pretend you’re going to get maker work done on a manager’s schedule.  You won’t.  You’ll get distracted and end up doing these tasks after hours.
  • Instead, change parts of your manager’s schedule to a maker’s schedule for those specific tasks.  Block out time where you are not going to be distracted to dedicate to your team.  Whether that be for 1:1s, development planning, or collecting feedback.
  • We appreciate that finding this time might not be easy.  But neither is doing this work in your spare time because you’re running the wrong schedule. Discuss it with your boss if you need to and emphasise the long-term benefits on the team of you taking this approach.
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