Sunday, February 22, 2009

Team Leadership in the Game Industry

A few of my friends contributed to the book "Team Leadership in the Game Industry" by Seth Spaulding II. So I was curious what you can write about leaders in this industry. Having spent most of my professional life outside of the game industry I believe I developed a different frame of reference than many of my colleagues.

First of all: the book is great and definitely worth a read. It is written in a very informative, instructive and entertaining way (... if you know the guys that contributed to it you know that it is worth it :-) ).

With that being said, let's start with the review by looking at the Table of Content. I know that I usually spent more time than other people with reading the TOC. This is the best way for me to figure out what a book has to offer. A good TOC shows you the big picture of a book and allows you to see the pattern that the author chose on how to approach the topic. In most cases it even allows you to proof the underlying logic.
The book consists of 9 chapters. Each chapter consists of a analysis of facts by the author followed by an interview of a game industry veteran. The topics span from "How We got here" over "Anatomy of a Game-Dev Company", "How Leaders are Chosen ...", "A Litmus Test for Leads", "Leadership Types and Traits ..." and then they go into more detail with the "The Project Team Leader ...", "The Department Leader ...", "Difficult Employees ...", "The Effect of Great Team Leadership" followed by a "Sample Skill Ladder" for artists in the appendix.

You might feel the need to discuss some of the details covered in each chapter but it is clear that this is the right formal approach to slice up the delicate topic of leadership in our industry.

When I first skipped through the book I wanted to figure out what kind of values the author has. After all a good leader makes it clear what kind of values he/she follows. I found it in the introduction. Here is the quote: "As will be seen, a major cause of people leaving a company is the perceived poor quality of their supervisors and senior management. The game business is a talent-based industry -the stronger and deeper your talent is, the better chances are of creating a great game. It is very difficult, in any hiring environment, to build the right mix of cross-disciplinary talent who function as a team at a high level; indeed, most companies never manage it. Once you get talented individuals on board, it's critical not to lose them. Finding and nurturing compentent leaders who have the trust of the team will generate more retention than any addition of pool tables, movie nights, or verbal commitments to the value of "quality of life"."
You might think this is the most obvious thing to say in the game industry.

Obviously the book wants to cover the process to setup a creative and great environment for all humans involved in the process of creating great games. Creating a great working environment starts with picking the right leaders that enable people by helping them to give their best. A great leader serves his/her people. He/she sees the best in everyone and has the ability to expose this talent. Many interviewees in the book also mention that humor is a leadership skill. I trained junior managers for BMW, Daimler, ABB and other companies back in Germany for two years on weekends and I always thought this is a strong skill. Making people laugh starts a lot of processes in the body that make people more relaxed and in general brighten up their day. Whoever can do this can certainly improve the morale and therefore efficiency of a team in seconds ... priceless.

Managing a creative team is a completely different story than -for example- a sales team. The human factor in the relationship between people plays an important role. They have to create something together, while a sales person is on his own out in the field and comes back with a number and relies on a relationship with a potential customer that only lasts a few hours face-to-face time, a creative team stays together for years and has to overcome all the things that come up when humans have to live in a small space together. There is a complex social network in place that defines the relationships between those humans and it is important to keep the team running with all the constantly changing love/hate -and in-between- relationships on board. People on the team might even deal with difficult personal relationships and you end up with a mixture of chaos and randomness typical for family or close friends scenarios. In that context it was interesting to see what the interviewees thought about the question if leaders are born and / or can be trained to be successful in the game industry. Obviously someone who was active as a boy-scout leader, speaker/president of the students association at his university or volunteered to work with other people in general, already showed some level of social committment that is a good starting point for a leader ship role in our industry.

So defining and following the right values is a fundamental requirement for a book on leadership. Obviously after having set the values comes the part where those values need to be applied and used and this is where the book shines. It is hands-down and even if you do not agree with the author in every detail the fact that he wrote all this down earns the highest respect.

So now that I made it obvious that I am excited about this book, let's think about how it might be improved in the future. A potential improvement I could see is to start the book with a target description. Not that the author fails to describe a target but I would appreciate it to go into more detail in this area.
What is the company you would want to work for? What is the environment you want to offer to make people as productive as possible? Obviously it is a hen / egg problem. Good people want to work in good teams and good teams consist of good people ... there are social -soft skills- and knowledge -hard skills- attached to each person of that team.
A good team starts with a good leader who sets values and standards and hires the right people.

Assuming you are the leader of this future team, how would you create the environment for your dream team? How do you want people to feel when they are part of this team? What should they take home every night when they are exhausted? What do you want them to tell their wifes / better halves how it is to work with you as their leader?
A happy employee -fully enforced to be creative :-) - should tell his wife/girlfriend that he works very hard but is treated fair and enjoys the family related benefits of the company.
He should tell his friends that he is working in a team where information is shared and where his potential is not only used as much as possible but also amplified. He needs to feel like he is growing with the team and the tasks.
He should tell his colleagues that he enjoys working with them and the team and that he enjoys coming into work every day and that he is excited about the project he is working on ...

So if we make that into a list of items we could describe how an employee should feel about working in a company with good Leaders. Might be a great starting point for discussing leader core abilities.


Justicle said...

Hi Wolf,

Thanks for the heads up, did you reckon this book is any good for someone who wants to step up from senior to lead engineer?

Wolfgang Engel said...

I would like to recommend the book. It is easy to read and really entertaining. It is also very small so you can read it easily in half a day.
Just the interviews alone are worth it.

SethSpaulding said...

Thanks for the review! I appreciate your closing recommendations. I am keeping a list of topics that I wish I'd covered in the event that I have the opportunity to write a second edition in a year or so.