Category Archives: Project Management

The Problem With Promotions

The game industry is rife with bad management.  You could probably say this about any industry; it’s a common sentiment: “I’m really good at my job, but the people above me keep messing up.”  If this seems like a completely alien concept to you, congratulations, you won the lottery.  Keep doing whatever you’re doing, because it’s hell out there.

The common explanation for this is the Peter Principle, the idea that people get promoted because they’re good at what they do, and this puts them into a position that requires them to do things that they’re not, actually, very good at.  It happens all the time in game development.  A great character artist gets promoted to lead the character art team; what they’re really good at is making art, not giving direction, managing people, writing up schedules, prioritizing goals, but now that’s what they have to do.  Or, a great programmer gets promoted to lead because they understand architecture, but they’re incapable of interfacing effectively with people outside the programming team.

They’re not bad people.  In fact, they’re often as miserable in their new roles as the people under them are.  If you got into game programming because you love programming, and you want to spend all your time programming, being promoted to lead is a disaster.  Now, you don’t have time to program anymore.  Instead, you have to go to all these meetings, and every time a problem comes up in the code, you know you could fix it, if only you had the time, but you don’t because you’re busy being a lead.  It can drive you crazy.

But, promotions mean raises, and everyone likes money, right?  It takes a particularly mature and self-aware person (rare in any field, much less the game industry whose rank and file are filled with 20-somethings) to turn down a raise and a promotion because the type of work it entails is not what they are well-suited for.  So, how do you avoid this?  I mean, recognizing the problem is a start, but solutions are what matter.

First, it’s important to test people on both their skills and their comfort levels before promoting them into a position.  At Stomp Games, our policy was that if you wanted a promotion, you had to demonstrate that you were doing that work effectively before the promotion would be considered.  Some people wanted this the other way around – promote me, and then I’ll prove that I’m up to it – but that’s a huge risk to take with a team, and people who need to be given authority to take on responsibility don’t make very good leaders.

You can use trial periods, probationary promotions, sub-project level responsibilities – no two studios, or teams, or projects, are the same.  But, you need to be upfront with the people you’re asking to do the work exactly what the changes are going to be in the new role and you owe it to the team to make sure (as much as you can) that the person you’re promoting is going to be both passionate and skilled enough about the new role to learn how to do it well.  Plus, you need to plan for bumps in the road as they learn how to do it.

Second, and this is the harder one, as an industry we need to recognize and create space for the truly phenomenal individual contributors who do not have the skills, personality, or interest necessary to be an effective manager.  You may not be able to change the entire industry in one fell swoop, but ask yourself if there are promotion (and raise) paths for team members that do not involve managing other people.  Can you be a senior concept artist, do concept art all day, and get paid what a lead concept artist is paid in your studio?  If not, there’s a problem, and this applies to all disciplines.

Design is probably one of the worst.  How many great systems/content designers stopped making great systems/content because they were promoted to lead?  In many studios, senior designer is a step on the road to lead; that leaves no space for great in-the-trenches designers, which means we turn over the bread and butter to junior people, who make the same mistakes that we all made when we were junior designers.  In general, if all your most senior people are management, you’re missing out on great, experienced talent and making a high-risk bet that you can grow your people to top level before your game ships.

The good news is that we’re learning.  The change is slow, to be sure, but looking over the arc of the last fifteen years, it’s definitely getting better.  Bad management will continue to be a problem for years to come, but thankfully, in fewer and fewer places.

Tips For Running Meetings

A lead artist at my last job said that I could run a meeting like nobody’s business. It’s an odd compliment. On the one hand, I’m happy to be recognized as an expert; on the other, I know that expertise comes from practice, and I’m not sure I like what that says about me. Meetings (formal, scheduled, official meetings) should be a last resort. They’re such notorious black holes for team time, energy, and focus that they should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. But, inevitably, you are going to need a meeting for something, and when that day comes, keep these tactics in mind:

  • Schedule early.  People need time to prepare for a meeting.  Make sure you get into people’s consciousness and not just their calendar.  Before you schedule a meeting, check in with all of the attendees and make sure they really need to be there.  Attach any relevant information to the appointment.  Meetings interrupt workflow, so try to give your attendees time to mitigate the interruption.
  • Own the meeting.  One of the simple things I started doing a few years back was to announce at the start of every meeting I called that it was my meeting.  This serves a number of purposes; it says that the meeting has officially begun; it orients everyone around the speaker; and it makes meeting organizers responsible for the productivity of the meeting.  Over time, other leaders in the studio started doing this, not because anyone pushed them to do it, but because it works.
  • Bring a clear agenda.  If you don’t have an agenda, cancel the meeting right now.  You (and everyone on the attendee list) should know exactly what you’re trying to accomplish in a meeting.  If not, you’re wasting someone’s time because you can’t be sure who you need if you don’t know what you’re doing.  Don’t go overboard here; an agenda is not a list of topics you’re going to cover, it’s a commitment to achieving resolution on certain issues.  Keep the agenda as small and focused as you can manage.
  • Limit the size. Communication efficiency decreases by the square of the number of people in the room.  I’ve heard stories about an EA exec who would walk out of any meeting that had more than 5 people in it; that’s a bit extreme, but it is good to keep meetings as small as possible, not just because of communication issues, but also because the more team members are in the meeting, the fewer are directly working on the project.
  • Stay focused. The biggest time thief in meetings are the digressions – personal stories, arguments for the devil’s advocate, getting side-tracked into some other issue, etc.  If the topic you’re trying to cover has so many dependencies that you can’t resolve it in one meeting, you’re doing it wrong.  Go back to setting a clear agenda.
  • End early.  In general, meetings lose efficiency around the 50-60 minute mark.  Everyone’s tired by that point.  If you have to go past that, take a break, but it’s much better to end the meeting, give people time to leave that context and digest, and set a follow-up.  Psychologically, meeting time is “lost time” in the calendar.  The shorter the meeting is, the more of that lost time you give back to your team, the more positive they are going to be about the meeting as well as freeing them up to get other work done.
  • Be explicit about action items.  Specify what is going to happen as a result of the meeting, who is responsible for getting that done, and what the timeframe is.  Meetings need to lead to results.  If they don’t, cancel them.  When the attendees leave, each of them should know exactly what is expected of them and when they can see the results of the other people.  Being responsible to the team is a powerful motivator.  Send this information around in a follow-up e-mail to all the attendees so that everyone knows this is being tracked.  Repetition also helps with reinforcement.

The first rule of meetings is to avoid unnecessary ones.  If you’re going to have to have a meeting, though, make sure it is small, focused, short, and results-oriented.