Maker Mind vs Manager Mind

Updated: Jul 16, 2019

They Are Different Here's How.

The Question(s)

Why is there frequently tension or misunderstanding, sometimes conflict, between Makers (coders, designers, writers) and Managers? Why is the transition from being a Maker to a Manager often so tricky?

About ten years ago, Paul Graham wrote a useful and influential piece on the difference between a “Maker’s Schedule” and a “Manager’s Schedule”. A “Maker” works best in long, uninterrupted chunks; a “Manager” typically works in one hour blocks, changing context frequently. For a Manager, a mid-morning meeting is just another time slot. For a Maker, that same meeting can be a disaster: they know the morning is going to be broken up so it’s hard to commit to a solid chunk of work, and whatever technical context they build is dissipated during the meeting and has to be reconstructed. The “one hour” can end up flushing an entire morning. (Thisis a useful primer on the true cost of “short interruptions” to the maker schedule).

I think that the two schedules are symptomatic of a bigger divide, between two quite different mindsets — the mindset of a Maker, focussed on creating and building, and the mindset of a Manager, concentrated (ideally) on getting the best out of a group of people.

This piece outlines the differences, as I see them, having been both, and now coaching both. I exaggerate the differences somewhat for clarity — of course, managers have to make things, and makers have to deal with people. My purpose is to shine some light on why the tensions occur, and why the transition from one to the other can be complex and challenging.

Focus and Context Switching

A Maker requires intense focus. The thing being built takes shape over time in the head of the person doing the building — it is being formed as the work takes place. Maker Mind is taking the thing and translating it into code, or design or language. Every attempt at translation then needs to then be tweaked, accepted, rejected, reworked.

We might say that the Maker Mind is full of approximations of the new thing: versions, sketches, glimpses of it — the Maker Mind has to hold it close so it can be described, built. When Maker Mind is interrupted, or asked to do different work (a meeting, a sudden bug fix), the thing itself moves away, even slightly, from being created, and needs to be pulled back into working memory.

A Manager is always faced with too many claims on their time and attention. By definition: they are responsible for the work of multiple people and can’t possibly understand or address every single task (and, of course, the idea that the manager can and should address every single task is the Primary Failure Mode of new managers).

So the Manager Mind is constantly looking for ways to move the work forward with a minimum effective investment of time and attention. This doesn’t mean being careless, or casual or shallow. It means being skillful at getting to the essence of what the work needs, and providing it, whether the “it” is a decision, a deadline, a clarification or some motivating words.

The Manager Mind, therefore, becomes practiced at rapid context switching, and short, intense focus on clarification and problem-solving. The Manager Mind is always asking “is this truly necessary right now?”, “what exactly does this team need?”, “what is clear here and what needs to be clear?”, “does this move us to where we want to be?”.