Architect, Merchant, Hacker, Visionary
I have begun to use the following model to reason about team formation. Directly inspired by the director-cartoonist-hacker-emissary model from Emissary’s Guide to Worlding, this model involves the interaction between four basic talent positions: Architect, Merchant, Hacker, Visionary in teams pursuing ambitious creative goals.
First to clarify the word talent. By talent I mean Naval’s concept of Specific Knowledge.
Architect architects - she is innately driven and experienced in architecting plans towards achieving goals. The Architect is innately impelled to take the responsibility of seeing the biggest pictures possible from the most practical standpoint and decide on action plans. The Architect may architect everything from annual goals, quarterly goals, project scoping, task chopping, sequencing and prioritisation, as well as hiring plans and fundraising plans. For the team, the Architect helps distill its vision and direction into actionable plans as well as drive risk identification and mitigation.
Merchant sells - she is innately driven and experienced in finding leverages to sell goods and services at high value. Experienced Merchant knows when to sell and when not to sell. For the team, the Merchant helps ensure team survival resource-wise, maximize its economics and build leverage to improve its sustainability. For every opportunity the team has to accrue more resource, the Merchant helps improve the resource it generates; for every risk the team faces that may take away resource, the Merchant helps mitigate the risk or reduce its impact. The Merchant knows when to best step on the gas pedal and when to step on the brake.
The Hacker hacks - she is the closest to the medium that underlies the product produced by the team, and she innately enjoys working with the medium. To everyone else, working with the medium feels like work, but to her it feels like play - masterful play. She’s the closest to seeing the bottom-up opportunities that emerge from the medium. Note that a product may touch upon multiple medium. If a team produces software tools for other software developers, the Hacker is the software developer among all software developers. If a team produces software tool for social communication, the Hacker either has talent in developing softeware, which embodies the product, or has talent in handling social dynamics, which the product acts upon, or both. The Hacker is the craftsman. For the team, the Hacker helps provide no-bs assessment of feasibility of plans, as well as identify risks and create opportunities stemming from the medium itself. Medium-native opporunities are the most scalable.
The Visionary envisions and communicates - she sees the ambitious creative goals and communicates them to the rest of the team. For her whole life she feels like bring a prophet and preacher. She sees beautiful possibitilies for the future. Merely being possible is sufficient; the vision does not have to be probable and most likely or dramatically improbable. The Visionary is closest to the existential artist position, living at the boundary between genius and insanity. The Visionary needs to at once keep her sensibilities in check to avoid going insane, while flaming her sensibilities to see what others cannot see. The Visionary is also fully responsible in communicating what she sees in the languages understood by Architect, Merchant, and Hacker.
It is difficult for pure Hackers to talk to pure Merchants. Pure Hackers care about the beauty emanated from the medium itself and the craft of expressing that beauty, making the medium sing, while pure Merchants care about what is to be gained and what is at risk of being lost from the resource standpoint for the team (and of course themselves, with stakes in the team). The “decline” of creative game studios into money-making companies peddling uninspiring but addictive games stems from the tilting of power from Hacker towards Merchant. Under the pressure from growth investors and private equity investors, both taking the pure Merchant position, it is difficult to fight that tilt. But when the Hacker loses power in the team, the team is disengaged from the medium that underlies its products. This disengagement leads to unscalable and unsustainable growth, making the team fragile and subscribe to the grow-or-die cadence of corporate capitalism. Balancing their powers allows the team to stay engage with the medium, achieveing sustainable growth and antifragility.
It is difficult for pure Visionaries to talk to pure Architects. Pure Visionaries care about beautiful possibilities, while pure Architects care about maximizing probabilities of success and minimizing probabilities of failure. Pure Visionaries think open-ended and the infinite game, while pure Architects think close-ended and finite games - these tendencies are virtually polar opposite, making it very unlikely for a single person to embody the two positions. Balancing their power allows the team to both dream big and materialize those dreams. The infinite game is played by engaging and winning in a never-ending stream of finite games.
Missing a good Merchant means the team is susceptible to leaving value on the table and not sidestepping risks, both reducing its leverage and lifespan.
Missing a good Architect means the team is suscpetible to chaos and never being able to ship.
Missing a good Hacker means the team is susceptible to losing touch with the underlying medium, which makes its product unoriginal and subpar in quality. The reason why copycat as a team strategy is common is that it’s difficult to balance the power of Hacker and Merchant; the Merchant is likely to win because she is closer to gatekeeping team resource and she understands power dyanmics much better (unless the Hacker works with power dyanmics as her medium!); this leads to team disengagement from the medium and losing creative power, which makes copycat the only viable business strategy. In case of Hacker winning over Merchant, the team may produce original products that are not sellable, which leads to resource draining without income, which leads to team dissolution. In short, because of this difficulty to balance Hacker and Merchant, most surviving organizations in any business are copycats.
Missing a good Visionary means the team is not able to discover and tell great stories, which means the inability to identify directions with high risk/reward ratio. Having a good Visionary, who is able to see the counterintuitive truth (quoting Thiel), is the foundation of every great startup.