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Good ideas for building a culture of creativity that actually suck

January 22, 2017


An organizational culture is not something that gets dictated from on high and then magically trickles down to the rest of the organization. It’s a lot more complicated than that. There need to be explicit goals, incentives, policies, rules, regulations and much more, all respected and enforced by an entire organization. It really does take a village, as they say.

That said, even though the actual building and maintaining of a culture is a massive endeavour involving basically everyone in the organization, some people will ultimately be more influential and responsible than others. I’ve personally been part of both articulating and building several organizational cultures throughout my career. The list of “do’s and don’ts” I could put together would be quite large. For this piece I’ve chosen to focus on the seemingly great ideas or policies that nonetheless backfired catastrophically. Bear in mind that your mileage may vary; much comes down to the specifics, and just because I and/or someone else failed at something doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. Consider the list below more of a “be careful” than a “don’t even try it”.

Idea #1: Unclear Demarcations & “Consensus Culture”

A lot of people are in love with the idea of the self-organizing, hyper-productive development team. Very few people know how to make such a team happen – but there are quite a number of folks who are willing to give it a go regardless. One of the favourite approaches of those who don’t know any better is to look at the final result and to try to “force” it to happen in various ways (something that we’ll see more than once on this list). For example, among the many qualities of these “agile super-teams” is that people very rarely “pull rank”, and that there often seems to be a consensus and shared focus driving the creative decision-making within the team. Everyone seems to be taken seriously, nobody feels “forced” or “micro-managed” and the HR-related Key Performance Indicators like staff turnaround are all close to optimal levels. What manager or team lead wouldn’t want that?

And this is where the mistake happens. In a brilliant example of “cargo cult leadership”, demarcations between departments, seniority-related hierarchies and individuals’ authorities are done away with at the policy level. Who has the time to wait for teams to organically gel together and find their stride; let’s just force the behaviours we want. Right?

Wrong. So very, very wrong.

In truth, many of these hive-minded dream teams only came about because the team leads possessed the disciplinary tools (and of course skills) to align the team members’ visions and ensure they were all pulling in the same direction. What an outsider would see may look like a harmonious hippie collective, but in actuality it’s much more of a wolf pack; harmonious because there are demarcations, because there is a hierarchy.

If you try to hotwire this process and “skip to the good bit” by putting policies in place to emulate what seems to be going on in your ideal team and/or studio, you may actually end up shooting yourself in the foot. For example, if it’s not clear who gets to say yes or no to whom for what reason, you’re very likely to create a culture of escalation. Indeed, I’ve known several Leads and Directors who seemed to have wanted just that. The problem with this is that this escalation culture will completely pacify certain types of people. They simply don’t want to have to deal with such a heavily politicized decision making process, and will thus stop trying to push their agendas and become, in essence, high-capacity zombies who wait for someone else to tell them what to do. And the people who end up dominant in that kind of environment are not necessarily the best at actually producing the desired results.

Then there’s the issue of using consensus as a decision-making mechanic. First, there’s the obvious issue that when it’s combined with the aforementioned escalation culture you’ll usually find that the very same people who benefit from escalation are usually the ones who block consensus from happening (imagine that). But aside from that, consensus is often achieved by ideas that are not necessarily the best for the project. First, there’s the issue that not everyone feels as strongly about the value of what’s best for the project. Some people, even though they are very good at their jobs, are more concerned about going home on time than what’s best for the game (an issue in its own right, but inevitable). Then there’s the fact that not everyone agrees on what’s best for the project. So the ideas that pass through the “design committee” are often the ones that are as inoffensive as possible to the largest number of people. But not necessarily ideas that anyone gets excited about.

In short, by removing formal demarcations and authority, you may find that you’ve created an environment where people are spending more energy jostling for position and playing politics than adding value to your products and business, and where much of the team has mentally and emotionally checked out – feeling pacified and demoralized by the lack of clarity and the capriciousness that permeates the decision making process within the team.

Ultimately, your game and your studio will both suffer in exactly the ways they weren’t supposed to. Development speed will slow down drastically, quality will go out the window and the only employees you’ll be able to retain are the ones who thrive in the kind of environment you’ll have created – or who can’t land a job elsewhere. Have fun cleaning that up.

Idea #2: The “Everything-Is-Discretionary” Culture

If “Everything-Is-Discretionary” culture isn’t self-explanatory, it’s the kind of culture where phrases like “my door is always open if you need to talk about anything” can be heard, and/or where you are allowed to “take as many holidays as you think is appropriate, so long as work gets done”. And what could possibly be wrong about that? I mean, are we seriously supposed to wait until some sort of quarterly or semi-annual performance review to raise issues with management? Also, what’s wrong with taking more or fewer days off depending on how much work there’s left to do on a given project? Or what if I’m blocked by someone else’s project, for instance? Wouldn’t that be a great time to travel somewhere and recoup ahead of the next sprint?

Indeed, there isn’t anything inherently wrong about having an open-door-policy towards your employees, or a holiday policy like the one I mentioned, just to stick with these two examples. However, they need to be considered in a larger context.

For example, I’ve known absolutely dreadful managers who have advertised their open-door-policy for all the wrong reasons. These people were so bad at understanding when they needed to pull information from team members that they simply opted out of it altogether, instead putting the onus to communicate on the employees themselves. The advantage for the managers was obvious; they got to remain terrible at soliciting relevant, timely feedback from the team while managing to seem genuinely concerned with their well-being. It’s a neat trick; if team members don’t bring something to your attention, you can never be held accountable for that thing. And through various mechanisms, it’s quite easy to make the team unwilling to bring stuff to your attention. But even if you don’t do anything actively, you can be sure that there’s a pretty large group of people – especially in the games industry – for whom taking uncomfortable issues up with the manager is something to be avoided until the last possible moment.

As for the “infinite holidays” bit, you’d best believe that it sounds much better than it generally is, no matter what the PR reps will claim. First of all, the company is keeping track of the number of holidays you are taking, and that number is being interpreted in the least generous way possible. If you take time off while your services are in demand, you’re not a team player. If you take time off because you have a bit of downtime for some reason, you might be redundant. And even if the company itself doesn’t actually think like this (insofar as a company can “think” at all – I’m talking about policies and overall values here), individuals still might do so – and not just managers, but team members too. Having infinite holidays invites all kinds of societal norms into the equation that really should have no business being there.

If you, as a leader within your organization, are serious about wanting the best for your staff when implementing these kinds of policies, I would recommend that you find a sweet spot between what is discretionary and what isn’t. If you want to have an open-door-policy that exists in addition to a set of formalized methods for checking on team morale and the well-being of individuals, then there’s nothing wrong with that. If you want to have discretionary holidays on top of a minimum allocation, then I really have no beef with that. The trick is to try to be as inclusive as possible, to ensure that the only people who are heard aren’t those with the guts to step into your office and air their grievances to your face. And that even the people whose services are in consistently high demand in the office go on holiday without feeling guilty for doing so.

Unless, of course, you’re intentionally going for a culture of fear disguised as permissive and caring.

friendly office

They may not look it, but they are terrified of each other

Idea #3: One Big Happy Family

All right, so this one is really, really tricky. Because the goal itself is impossible to attack. I mean, the worst thing you can say about it, on its face, is that it all sounds a bit too utopian to be feasible. But I don’t necessarily think it is. I think there are plenty of companies and teams that have gotten close to this ideal, if not all the way.

The issue is not in chasing the ideal. The issue is when you start putting policies and processes in place that assume that you and your team have already reached this promised land; when you start taking the implicit attitudes and the behaviours that should follow these attitudes for granted.

For instance, if you’re One Big Happy Family (Driven by Passion!), it’s reasonable to think that you:

  • Can offer salaries that are 15% lower than those of your immediate competitors; people getting to do what they love is worth more than the difference.
  • Don’t have to offer perks such as stock options, bonuses or fancy health insurance.
  • Don’t have to invest in expensive education of staff; they will learn on the job, from each-other – or if necessary they will spend their own time and money learning what they need to know, for the good of the team and the company.

The issues with this type of thinking are several. For starters, you absolutely have to be sure that your employees all feel that the company is indeed One Big Happy Family. If they don’t feel that way, then they will be very easily be swayed by promises of better compensation and perks somewhere else in the industry.

It gets worse. Because if you’ve done too good a job at communicating the corporate propaganda of “we’re One Big Happy Family” to the staff, you may find that you’ve created an environment where it’s taboo to actually discuss matters of compensation and perks openly, and especially with management. This may then result in people leaving and never really telling you the real reason – because they don’t want to burn any bridges or whatever.

Then there’s the issue of trust. See, one problem with claiming to have One Big Happy Family culture, and then using that same culture as an excuse for not compensating people generously, is you’re basically driving a wedge between the values of the employees and those of management. Because you’re signalling that what management cares about is money and shareholder value – but that it’s somehow petty and greedy and not-passionate-enough for a wage slave to be motivated by those same things.

A strong, charismatic leader can rationalize these things, but doing so will rack up what I like to call “political debt”. People are taking what you are saying on faith because they trust you as an individual or as a management team – but if there is any implicit or explicit promise attached to your rationalization, you should look forward to either delivering on that promise or risk losing the trust of the team. And any little discrepancy between the culture that’s being advertised, and the way management behaves, will likely be seen as cynical hypocrisy. Meanwhile, companies that simply treat employment as a business transaction between employer and employee – familiar atmosphere optional – won’t be as likely to have this problem, because they are managing employee expectations better.

This stuff is hard. Of course it’s better to have people be motivated by the love of their work and their team mates than by material compensation. But equally, one can actually make a strong case for having competitive compensations and perks specifically because of the existence of such a culture; “the company loves its employees so much that it would rather take a hit to its bottom line than risk you feeling underappreciated”.

Personally, I recommend simply being honest with staff about realities on the ground. There really is no shame in saying, for example:

  • “This company has a rocky road behind it, and even though we had a good year we can’t take success for granted. If we do better in the future, we can revisit salaries and other perks, but for now we simply can’t afford to do so.”
  • “We would rather have the kinds of employees who are motivated by the types of games and the working environment we offer. We simply don’t want to fight a wage war with other companies.”
  • “The company cannot both offer competitive salaries and hit its growth targets. Only key staff will be given exceptional salaries. Everyone is welcome to make their case to HR, but right now there are several roles where we have stacks of unread applications from enthusiastic juniors, so we don’t really feel the need to adjust those roles’ salary brackets in any way. This is a business after all.”

While it may be tough to say such harsh-sounding things to people, you’ll actually rack up a fair bit of respect by being so direct. And, perhaps paradoxically, this type of bluntness is much more consistent with the One Big Happy Family culture than a bunch of half-truths and rationalizations are. What you’re communicating is that “management respects you enough to level with you on this”. Which not only basically nullifies the “political debt” problem, it also serves as a not-so-gentle nudge to those who may not have any faith in the culture you’re trying to build, or who actually are so motivated by compensation and perks that they would rather work somewhere else. It might suck to get handed a bunch of resignations sooner than absolutely necessary, but trust me when I say that these people are the first to go toxic when you fail to pay your political debt. It’s better for everyone that it never even gets that to that point.


From → All Posts, Games, Other

  1. deathchants permalink

    Haven’t had a chance to read this yet (probably tomorrow); just wanted to say I’m glad you’re back.

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