The "Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule" Balancing Act

In 2009, Paul Graham (co-founder of YCombinator) wrote an article called Maker's schedule, Manager's schedule. In this post, he presented two different styles of working, which I've outlined below:

The Maker's Schedule

The maker's schedule is based around long periods of interrupted time that is spent working on difficult, cognitively demanding tasks. The focus is on making stuff.

These long stretches of time enable the person doing the work to focus and deliver a high-quality product. Cal Newport calls this "Deep Work." I consider these people to be like a craftsperson. Success in their role is based on the output of a final "product". Quality is paramount.

The Maker
Here are a few examples of jobs that requires this type of schedule:

  • Writing
  • Programming
  • Engineering

As more and more work becomes knowledge work, it's important for people producing the output to be able to focus on delivering their best work. The output is not from a machine on the factory floor, but from someone's brain. 

Interruptions are a disaster

In the maker's schedule, constant interruptions are bad news. I remember when I worked as as an engineer, I would start to achieve a sense of "flow" in my work, only to be interrupted by someone with a question, comment or a meeting. Then, after answering the question, it would take 10-15 minutes to get back into the problem at hand. If this happened consistently, I would struggle to get work done.

The Manager's Schedule

On the flipside, the managers's schedule is based around coordination of people who produce the output. The focus is on organizing the people making the stuff. As Andy Grove writes in High Output Management (the best business book I've ever read):

"A manager can do his 'own' job, his individual work, and do it well, but that does not constitute his output. If the manager has a group of people reporting to him or a circle of people influenced by him, the manager's output must be measure by the output created by his subordinates and associates."

Grove continues:

"The key definition here is that the output of manager is a result achieved by a group either under his supervision or under his influence. While the manager's own work is clearly very important, that in itself does not create output. His organization does. By analogy, a coach or quarterback alone does not score touchdowns and win games."

In other words, balancing both of these schedules is necessary to making sure work gets done. Without the makers, there is no output. Without the manager's schedule, coordination is extremely difficult, causing people problems. 

Meetings: where the two worlds collide

If someone is on a manager's schedule, meetings is one of the best mechanisms for organizing and aligning the people producing the output.

For the maker, too many meetings can create roadblocks to output, increasing the probability of missed deadlines.

How do we balance these two modes of work?

It's not easy, but it can be done.

We believe that effective meetings are critical to balancing the needs of those on the maker's schedule and those on the manager's schedule. This is where both world's collide.

Terrible Meetings

In the rest of this post, we're going to offer some suggestions to help.

Tip #1: Improve the quality of existing meetings

Many companies have two types of meetings, listed below:

  • process-oriented meetings (regularly occurring meetings, like 1-1s, weekly staff meetings, etc)
  • mission-oriented meetings (ad-hoc meetings that produce a specific output, like a decision)

Process oriented meetings act as a "safety net" for mission oriented meetings. If you have too many ad-hoc meetings, you're not making the best use of the regularly scheduled meetings.

Therefore, you need to focus on improving the quality of existing, regularly occurring meetings. For example, you should collect items (or compile an agenda) for discussion and establish a foundation before the meeting even happens.

For example, Amazon is known for an "internal press release" when launching new products. In short, if someone wants to pursue a new initiative, they need to compile a 6-page memo. At the beginning of the meeting, this is circulated with the rest of staff for review.

While this is unreasonable to expect your team to put together a 6-page memo before a weekly staff meeting, you can dramatically improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the meeting if you kickstart it beforehand. We have tools to help this process. The simple act of preparing and documenting can have a dramatic impact, as in the future, your team can refer to something tangible vs. trying to remember what was said.

Tip #2: Chunk meetings on particular days

The next tip is to dedicate specific days to meetings. For example, the weekly staff meeting could be on Mondays and the other meetings could be scheduled on Wednesday. Then, the team has time on alternating days to focus and do deep work.

If you're a manager, it's your job to protect the time of your team. You can't expect meaningful output if you are constantly dragging them into meetings all the time.

Here's what Paul Graham says about this process:

"How do we manage to advise so many startups on the maker's schedule? By using the classic device for simulating the manager's schedule within the maker's: office hours. Several times a week I set aside a chunk of time to meet founders we've funded. These chunks of time are at the end of my working day, and I wrote a signup program that ensures all the appointments within a given set of office hours are clustered at the end." 

This approach can help minimize switching costs, as the meetings are chunked at a particular time of day.

Also, consider if you should eliminate any status update meetings.

Tip #3: Limit the Pings

The next piece of advice is to eliminate the chatter on Slack or Email. Reducing meetings is helpful, but not if you spend your day chatting back and forth instead.

If you need to focus and work in a maker's schedule, set yourself as "away" on Slack or Microsoft Teams.

If you're a manager, respect the people who are in deep work. If someone doesn't respond right away, it's not the end of the world.

Tip #4: Let the makers...make

This may sound harsh, if people aren't able to produce an output on a maker's schedule, it doesn't matter how you coordinate them. Making is the dependency.

Therefore, managers need to be cognizant of the needs of the people producing the output. If someone needs several hours of interrupted time, you should do everything you can to support them.

As Andy Grove said, your output as a manager is the output of your team. Do everything you can to protect their time. They will appreciate it and you will be more successful as a manager.