Makers, Breakers, Stones and Stoppers

You can divide people into four categories: makers, breakers, stones and stoppers. It’s a vaguely construction-related metaphor:

  1. Makers – They make things happen. These are people who instinctively create, assemble or lead. Where other people see Widgets, one maker has an idea for a new iWidget. When other people see two people talking about new iWidgets, another maker sees an iWidget web site in the making. And six months down the road, maybe an iWidget 2.0 Conference.
  2. Breakers – They like to tear things apart. On a bad day, a breaker will just be heard talking about how iWidgets suck and the iWidget 2.0 Conference is full of geeks who will never get a date. On a better day, he’ll be proving that the iWidget 2.0 protocol has security flaws. Breakers tend to see things divided into “bad” and “worst.”
  3. Stones – Stones don’t have much initiative, but they can be very useful. You can put a bunch of them together and create walls, even buildings. And once you start pushing a stone down a hill, it keeps rolling and gathering momentum. People who are stones can support the building efforts of makers.
  4. Stoppers – Some people don’t create on their own, and don’t destroy things directly, either. They simply like to slow down the efforts of others. When you’re trying to roll that big stone down the hill, the stopper is the one on the other side of the stone, pushing back.

So far, makers sound like the good guys in the group, right?

Not necessarily.

Context

It’s all about context. First, because different people are needed for different things. And second, because people take on different roles in different situations.

Makers

Makers sound like very important, useful people, but they can also be problematic. If you’ve ever been in a team where everyone was a maker, you’ll have grown to understand the old saying about “too many cooks.” A team with a lot of creative people can lead to a lot of great ideas that go nowhere, and teams with too many “leaders” can end up neutralized by power struggles.

Also, makers tend to always want to move to bigger and newer things, often neglecting core business activities in the process.

What about as clients? Sometimes, makers are great clients. They’re the ones who contribute advice in online forums about your product; they may even have created the web site. If they like your product, everyone will hear about it. Then again, in six months they may be your next competitor. And in the meantime, they’re very insistent about where the product should go. They may want things out of your product that won’t benefit 99% of the other users.

Breakers

They sound like the bad boys, and they can be. As clients, they might be reverse engineering your new product to break your security features. In your organization, they’re probably vocal about how the rules or organizational structure is horrible. They can be a pain.

Then again, they’re an enormous benefit. If your organization or product needs changing, they’ll help you know what to change and how. They probably won’t shut up about it. They’ll also be out there organizing boycotts of companies that use child labour, or convincing customers not to buy software that installs spyware–and recommending other software. If you’re the one selling the spyware-free software or clothing made without child labour, these breakers are your friends–and customers.

Stones

Stones are the foundation, so to speak, of an organization. When you get them going, they can go far. But they don’t create momentum by themselves.

A lot of this depends on the situation. I might be more of a maker in my business, but if I joined a rock-climbing class I’d be more of a stone. Why? Part of being a stone is that you want other people to show you what to do. You rely on the expertise and resources of others. While some expert rock-climbers might join a rock-climbing club as makers, intending to get really involved, I know nothing about the sport. I’d just want to show up, spend an hour a week climbing stuff, and then leave. I don’t want to pick out my gear or research great new locations. (If my examples suck, well, it’s because I really don’t know rock-climbing.)

Similarly, great leaders know when to be stones. Sometimes it means trusting projects that aren’t being done your way; other times it’s about just getting out of the way and letting the experts you’ve hired do the job. At the same time, leaders can’t afford to abdicate completely. You also have to know when to step back in. How do you know when? When the project loses momentum, becomes scattered or loses focus on primary goals.

Stones are great customers–they tend not to complain much. Then again, that’s the problem: they don’t tend to warn you before they all roll away down the hill to a product they like better.

Stoppers

Stoppers seem completely negative until you realize where you need them. A stopper in a brainstorming session will just frustrate everyone. But when the brainstorming has ended and you’re about to bet the company on a new product line, the stoppers might be there to save you from investing in something that isn’t financially feasible, or has a fatal flaw. Where makers divide things into “has potential” versus “amazing,” stoppers see “acceptable” and “inacceptable.” Stoppers can make great accountants, lawyers or QA people, but of course anyone can take on this role when faced with a new idea that they don’t believe in.

Roles

After all, the categories are just roles.  We tend to take on different roles depending on the situation.  The trick is identifying the roles people take on, and learning to see how they fit together.