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Becoming a Stellar Games Industry Manager, Part 2: Growing the Team

In the second part of this Gamasutra original series on being a stellar game development manager, author Marc Mencher teaches us how to grow a team, including tips on delegating work, motivating employees, career building, and training.

Coming together is a beginning.
Keeping together is progress.
Working together is success.
-- Henry Ford

As a leader, you’re going to encounter potential team members with a variety of backgrounds. An ambitious applicant who has tested a couple of games may have impressed you in the interview by dressing upscale and dropping all the right names but you had to ask the tough questions to see how much genuine desire was under the bravado. An applicant with a ton of experience who couldn’t look you in the eye during the interview probably wasn’t the right person for the producer slot but might be a brilliant artist who is happy doing his thing 24/7 without complaining. The veteran female producer who said she’d like a chance to mentor others might turn out to be a great asset when newcomers are shell-shocked by crunch time. It’s all about learning to read a resume and conduct an interview where you, not the applicant, were in control. So you finally hired your team, had an awesome kick-off party and established who’s the best Halo player in the office. Now it’s time to work!

Define Your Management Style

There are lots of management styles but no matter which one(s) you use, success ultimately depends on your ability to adapt your style to the team’s changing needs. While you don’t need to be a tyrant about every single thing the team does, firm leadership is the foundation of collaborative, cooperative and efficient teamwork. The team needs to understand that no matter how much fun they thought making games would be, it’s hard work because it’s a business. Your team management tactics may vary form autocratic to liberal but even the most tolerant and sharing of leaders needs to be able to guide the team effectively.

Be Flexible

Working on even the best team under the most ideal circumstances can be very demanding. While each member of the team has an individual own role and responsibility, they should remain flexible and willing to adapt to change. Show flexibility by sharing aspects of your leadership role, and help team members by providing an assistant to share or take over some of their duties. As a team develops and progresses, look at individual roles, and modify them as and when the task requires it.

Delegate

Even the best leader can’t do it alone. Delegation is an important tool for conserving team resources, including yours. Unfortunately, those who volunteer aren’t always the right people for the task. A wise leader knows how to spot the best candidates for delegated tasks and avoid those whose work will impair the team’s progress. A good rule of thumb is never ask someone to do a job that you haven’t done or wouldn’t do.

Delegation has its pitfalls, so you need to be able to identify the best (and worst) people for a job:

HELIUM HAND

LADDER CLIMBER

The team member is always volunteering to help, regardless of workload. Some people can handle multiple tasks very well; others continue to volunteer eagerly but have time management issues that will negatively affect the schedule.

The team member volunteers but it’s apparent that the purpose is self-serving rather than team supporting. In cases where problems occur, this person is the one doing the finger pointing to insure promotion.

EAGER BUT UNABLE

RESISTANT

The team member can’t do the job but volunteers anyhow and then refuses all offers of assistance. The job either won’t get done or will be done so poorly that it requires re-assignment and results in conflict and a schedule hit.

The team member is happy to accept as much responsibility for a specific task as you will assign, will accept input from others and will follow through on all commitments.

UNTRAINED BUT WILLING

IDEAL

The team member doesn’t have the knowledge to do the task but is willing to try, and happy to be trained or mentored to succeed. While not your first choice, this person is better than one who refuses to try or has a bad track record.

The team member is happy to accept as much responsibility for a specific task as you will assign, will accept input from others and will follow through on all commitments.

Sometimes people are assigned to teams for “political” reasons. If you’re lucky, the person becomes a valuable member of the team; if not, you may have to monitor activity to be sure that the person doesn’t impede the group’s progress. As a rule, never assign “busy work” to a team member unless you have no other recourse; most of the time, that task doesn’t really need to be done anyhow and should be junked.

An important part of being on a team is learning to share (even the leader) – which means that you shouldn’t save the plum assignments for yourself!


Grow the Team

As a project proceeds, the need for various skills may change. For example, some specialist skills that were vital at the beginning of the project may become superfluous as the project develops. To maintain the right balance of complementary skills, you’ll need to manage change and act accordingly (hopefully in advance) to insure no disruption in the schedule.) This is as important as the ability to evaluate the technical and analytical skills of potential team members. Growing the team may mean letting someone go; then again, it might mean arranging a weekend training session. Sometimes you can’t determine this in advance, so be prepared for as many eventualities as possible.

Motivate the Team

There’s no limit to the personal and group potential of a great team. Given an “impossible” task, team members can (and should) reinforce each other’s confidence as they turn the impossible into reality. The collective ability to innovate is stronger than that of the individual (it’s that synergy thing) because of the team’s combined abilities (it’s that synergy thing…)

Different people respond to different types of goals; some prefer ambitious, challenging ones while others do better with smaller bites. If possible, set both general and specific goals that aim high but remain realistic. Encourage everyone to participate in setting personal as well as team goals. Look for the optimal combination of strong teamwork and technical capabilities so you don’t compromise the needs of the team or the project.

Most people respond best to constructive, positive leadership. Try not to voice your doubts about your team’s abilities to anyone who will run back to the group with this information. You’ll undoubtedly be misquoted and end up needing to do a huge amount of damage control. Without being annoyingly rah-rah, show confidence in the team’s ability to reach its targets and make each team member feel appreciated. Believe it or not, this doesn’t have to cost you a dime; the words “Thank you” have a great deal of positive power when said sincerely and at the right moment.

  • I know I’m asking for the impossible, but I also know that this team can do it.
  • If we can work together through this minor setback, reaching the next milestone/goal will be smooth sailing.
  • Do you think we need to revise our original plan?
  • Thanks for a terrific job! I think you’re ready for something even bigger now!

Whatever you do, don’t promise the world and expect your team to deliver every time you feel pressure from management. It’s great if you can pull it off once but you don’t want management or the client to assume that they’ll get everything they want whenever they want it. Protecting your team is as important as helping them advance. (And it should go without saying that you should never use the team as a scapegoat for your failure as a manager!)

Provide Training

Training helps to improve the team’s technical skills and develop managerial and interpersonal relations within a team. Review and upgrade the skills of a team constantly to meet current and future challenges successfully.

When trying to optimize the various skills in a team, involve the whole team in planning its own development. The aim is to reinforce the strengths and eliminate the weakness of all the team members, and develop those skills necessary to seize future opportunities and face any threats. Discuss these aims with the whole team, draw up a training plan, and work out with each individual what his or her own needs are now and what will benefit projects and the team as a whole in the future.

As a team leader, you should exemplify the qualities necessary to manage a team successfully. Be sure that you have the requisite training to prioritize, supervise, delegate, motivate and manage your time. Make these an integral part of your personal development plan, and ensure that team members – specially your deputies – also develop their own leadership skills. Listen carefully, suggest constructively, be tolerant of error while correcting mistakes and retain your objectivity – and don’t be afraid to join your team in a training session. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I didn’t know that” once in a while.

The formative stage of any project is always slightly experimental, and a team can be an excellent testing ground for new ideas. Although experiments should be worked out with care to give them a fair chance of success, a major part of teamwork is recognizing mistakes early and correcting them without anger or recrimination. Dealing with failed experiments is part of the learning process. Remember that different solutions are required at varying stages of the team’s development. At each stage of your team’s development, you will set challenging goals, review its working methods and evaluate its achievements to improve overall performance.

Despite the expense involved in training, it is sometimes more cost effective than trying to go further without it. Calculate training costs, including course fees (which can be actual or charge backs), materials, room rental, meals, travel and loss of work hours. Weigh these costs against the expected financial gains and improvements evident in team performance following trainings. (And be sure that everyone you’re sending to training really needs the class for their work on the project. You’re not there to pay for a team member’s education so that they can abandon the project once they have the new skill set.)

Consider using consultants as “guest speakers” at brown bag lunches. It will make them feel more like a part of the team, save you some money and provide another bonding opportunity for the team.


Build Careers

A team’s main objective is to work together to succeed at a given task, and this is a lot easier when individual members are willing to augment their own skills. Good team leaders understand that a team’s future success depends in part on how individuals develop. Be ready to act as both coach and career counselor for your team. Help them advance their careers by encouraging them to develop their natural talents and provide training and support to make that happen.

The larger the team and the wider its mandate, the greater the chance for individuals to develop their careers by changing roles or being promoted based on their work. While promotion is usually vertical, team careers tend to progress laterally as people move to larger teams handling higher-profile projects. Do not discourage this. Help promising colleagues find suitable positions is good for the company. Even in organizations where vertical promotion is harder, individuals can still progress as they move from team to team.

However helpful you and other senior colleagues are, individual team members should accept responsibility for their own careers. Encourage each member to regard working on the team as part of a learning process, in which all lessons can open up new opportunities and help them build a body of qualifications to take to their next position – whether in another team, different department or outside the organization. Career building, like good teamwork, will always be more effective if it is targeted.

Build Team Spirit

That indefinable quality known as team spirit can be encouraged in a number of ways.

  • Let team members know why they were chosen for their particular task
  • Establish a common team purpose and specific goals to challenge their individual and team strengths
  • Encourage the team to communicate
  • Give praise when it’s due but don’t play favorites
  • Ask your team for advice and act on it whenever you can
  • Respond in detail both inside and outside the team
  • Create and maintain a comfortable and friendly atmosphere in a team regardless of its structure, even when company procedures may sometimes seem at odds with the casual, occasionally even disorderly tone of an unofficial or informal work site or situation.
  • Help team members relate to each other as unique individuals

Building team spirit will be determined by time constraints, budget and your team’s various personalities. Talking to team members outside office hours or in an informal environment may help everyone bond but family or other commitments may restrict some members from hanging out at the local pub after work. You may think that going to a baseball game is a great idea, but your team prefers an afternoon of video games and junk food. It’s always a good idea to check the “social pulse” of the team before you make plans for gatherings. Choose the right time and venue; know when your team needs lunch brought in, when it’s actually time for an off-site gathering or when an afternoon off from work will do the trick.

The Self-Managed Team

Self-managed teams (SMTs) are more independent than regular teams. They are found increasingly in organizations that have flattened their structures and cut out layers of middle and/or supervisory management as a way to streamline their work and cut costs.

Self-managed teams take total responsibility for a specific project from cradle to grave. Characteristics of these teams include the sharing leadership roles, enjoying a high rate of autonomy, democratic decision-making, group control over activities -- and total self-accountability based on individual and team results. As the leader of an SMT, you will usually give guidance only when it’s requested, leaving the team free to gain experience more or less on its own. While there may be a temptation to blame the team if something goes wrong, you will probably still be accountable directly to management.

When functioning properly, a self-managed team can be very productive. It can save on management costs, raise levels of quality and customer service, cut out process steps, reduce waste, and introduce more flexibility in the workplace. In addition to the economic benefits, such a team can provide a daily training ground for its members, who may need to develop their shills to take on the responsibilities of self-management. It the system works, expect to a rise in team morale and retention, and, with experience, more ability to react swiftly to changes in the marketplace.


Supporting SMTs

To work effectively, self-managed teams need full backing and support from a management that appreciates their need for autonomy. This mean allowing team members a full say in ay decision that affects them, including pay, performance measures, and personnel matters. Although senior management may install a nominal team leader, that leader’s position may require consent of the team. One of the more difficult aspects of working with SMTs is psychological; managers are required to surrender a major part of their right to manage the SMT while still monitoring its progress. Be flexible enough to accept that good decisions may be made without your specific direction.

Seize the Day: How to Turn Change into Opportunity

Technological advances, new competitors or simply new tastes in the market may pose a threat to teams but even unwelcome changes can be a springboard for improved progress and renewed motivation. Try to analyze the proposed changes objectively. How can the drawbacks be offset or eliminated? How can the positive aspects be exploited? Follow this analysis by brainstorming alternative courses of action to deal with the change – and look for the plan that seems to offer the least disadvantage and the greatest opportunity for progress to everybody within the team.

To be successful, teams must be prepared to adapt quickly to new circumstances. External pressures (upper management, consumer preferences, economic fluctuations, sunspots…) may force changes within a team, and personnel may come and go. Make sure your team members recognize the need for change and are flexible enough to accept it, whatever from it may take. Look for team members who can handle change of any kind: deadlines, tasks, management and/or team members. Avoid using people whose favorite line is “But we’ve ALWAYS done it that way.”

Although there’s a good chance that some team members there at the beginning might not be there at the end, start with the goal that everyone will be able to contribute throughout the project. Things happen. After the game has been green-lit, the guys who built prototypes on the fly for the big marketing pitch need to be swapped out for more “traditional” programmers. Your lead writer’s screenplay has been optioned and she’s off to Hollywood (stranger things have happened!) The movie your game is based on tanks at the box office. The developer loses the lease on the office space. Stay flexible and be prepared for all eventualities!

The ability to manage change is a critical skill that can make or break a team. As markets become more international and technological innovation increases exponentially, the rate of change is staggering so you need to be sure that your team can adapt, whether the change is external or internal. You need to be flexible especially if senior management is more than usually susceptible to market fluctuations. Help your team maintain commitment to the project without becoming overly attached to particular procedures or aspects of the project plan.

Be sure that someone on the team (who may or may not be you) monitors external changes that could affect the success of your efforts and your product. Whether that person comes from your company’s marketing department or has intimate knowledge of the industry from outside experience, the information has to be fresh and accurate, and delivered in such a way that it doesn’t create an atmosphere of paranoia in this highly competitive industry.

Change affects every member of a team and people need a chance to react. Announcing changes with enthusiasm increases your team’s positive attitude toward them. Tell people about changes as soon as you have enough detail to answer questions, and if you can’t provide the information, offer report to the team as quickly as you can. Listen carefully to your team’s reactions – the more committed they are to the project, the better able they are to handle change, even if it’s negative.

TYPES OF CHANGE

EFFECTS OF CHANGE

Staffing: Team members come and go (planned or precipitous) resulting in task re-assignments

Might be a change in procedures and/or a different set of objectives, which might provide an opportunity for the team to make a fresh start. Watch out for cliques who try to shut out the new team member.

Management: Employee changes on a senior level.

The team may be reporting to a new department or may come under closer scrutiny; may be forced to compete with extant teams on the project.

Project Plan: Revisions dictated by changes in management, funding and/or client demands.

Team must be flexible and pick their battles. It’s your job as manager to maintain reality and morale. Worst-case scenario: the project is cancelled.

Corporate Procedures: Determined by senior management and/or government regulations.

Don’t let the team waste time complaining. Figure out how to implement the changes, document your process and move ahead.

Points to Remember

  • Be flexible and fair
  • Delegate whenever possible
  • Treat your team with respect and encourage their personal development
  • Promote team spirit
  • Do what you can to help team members progress in their careers
  • Remember to say “thank you”!

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