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Building a Great Team: Communication

When you've hired a great game development team, how do you get them to work together efficiently? Game HR veteran Mencher has a plethora of pointers in this in-depth Gamasutra article.

[In this article, HR veteran Marc Mencher follows up on his "Nailing the Interview" articles on building the perfect team, and discusses what to watch out for now that you have assembled the group you intend to move forward with, with many common pitfalls -- and their solutions -- outlined. To read the prior two articles, click here for part 1 and here for part 2.]

The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood.
The best way to understand people is to listen to them.
- Ralph Nichols

Pieces of the Pie

A very successful manager at a major entertainment company explains communication this way: "Count the number of people at the table. Now imagine a pie divided into that many pieces and adjust the amount you talk accordingly." It's a smart, simple way to gauge your participation in conversations and could make the difference between being seen as a facilitator instead of a tyrant.

One of your most important jobs as team leader is to keep everyone talking to each other. Good communication is vital to a team's success. (Even the lone programmer in a room needs to share information at some point.) How your team communicates depends on its size, its physical location and the random factor of individual personalities.

Strong positive information links between a team, the rest of the organization and the client are vital. Some of the most effective communication occurs naturally -- for example, in casual conversation -- but teamwork doesn't happen if one person consistently puts out (and shoots down) ideas or doesn't let others speak.

wow1.jpg A good example of team communication is the guild system in World of Warcraft. Online games, and in particular MMORPGs, promote communication.

Using this social dynamic, players need to act communally to achieve their goals and enhance game play. The key to a successful guild is figuring out how to get the most contribution from each individual and encouraging them to be an active and vocal participant.

The only way for a team member to be successful is to learn to relate and adapt to other players within the guild and work effectively as a team. That is not to say that everyone who plays WoW heeds this advice (or needs to if they prefer to play solo).

Some players are successful taking the lone wolf approach, but to experience what high end content the MMO has to offer, a player needs to build and/or participate in building an effective guild (team); that starts with good communication.

You can't stop the internal gossip, or "grapevine" from working, thanks to email; the message often gets cut up and distorted. Be accessible for face-to-face meetings and conversations. Create an intranet and establish "netiquette" rules.

Don't overlook traditional communication like regularly scheduled meetings, status reports and corporate memos but tailor them to meet your team's needs and the environment in which you work. Remember that all communication methods are a supplement rather than a substitute for face-to-face communication.

Ideally, team members should have easy access to each other without encroaching on personal space that the setting provides. If some team members are off-site, establish efficient communication systems (phone, fax, e-mail, video conferencing, etc.). No matter the size of your office area, try to provide an open space for brainstorming with at least one electronic white board.

If your budget doesn't support high-tech equipment, lots of white paper and markers and access to a fax/scanner can work too. The point is having the ability to share ideas (more or less) instantaneously. In a game company, video conferencing is crucial, especially with artists, developers and publishers. This is one of those times where a picture is worth 1,000 words and way more than $1,000!

On Email

Email is the most pervasive mode of communication in the business world. However, as we know all too well, confidentiality is never assured (even when the header says so) and misinterpretation is a very real problem. Email can pave a pretty solid road to factionalism, which is the kiss of death for a team.

If you're going to monitor team emails, be honest about it at the beginning. Make sure everyone knows the rules, whether they are mandated by corporate or by you. The game business is hugely competitive but not everyone honors the NDA. Sadly, some people seem to feel compelled to get around the rules, even on the best teams. If you've got a zero-tolerance policy, don't be afraid to enforce it.

Choosing a Location for Your Team

LOCATION

IMPLICATIONS

EXAMPLE

HEAD OFFICE

Space in company HQ near related activities, with managers in offices (not cubes)

Physically close to decision makers; may be separate from main production source and some internal customers

Group responsible for organizing distribution plans for centralizing warehouses overseas

FACTORY

Team is part of operational unit or attached to regional or local office; managers onsite

Physically close to manufac- turing; distance from HQ and decision makers can cause delays and/or miscommunication

Specialist marketing group for onsite production with managers reporting to company HQ

SKUNK WORKS

Temporary remote premises or "make-do" space at corporate HQ; management may be onsite

Facilitates very high-level focused dedication and team spirit. If work site is too remote, team may feel too isolated or lose touch with corporate "reality"

"Special project," blue sky or new product development teams

IVORY TOWER

Long term project team or "think tank" apart from main organization; temp or perm office space; management may be onsite

Suits professional operation running at very high standards. Distance from internal customers and/or market may promote arrogance

Information systems design team, long-term corporate strategy


Team Meetings

Meetings are pretty much unavoidable. They can be a frustrating waste of time or a productive way of fostering teamwork and team spirit. Making team meetings effective is a major test of your leadership skills. The key to a productive meeting is to involve everyone without letting anyone hijack the agenda. Prepare agendas in advance with input from the team. Regardless of your team structure, someone should always take minutes and distribute them to the team (consider having a rotating secretary).

Team and progress meetings should be held at least once every two weeks to keep everyone current. Ask everyone to come prepared. Start meetings on time and keep them moving; people often lose their focus after a few minutes if they are not engaged. Encourage everyone to have a say, but ask them to keep it relevant and brief. Be sure meetings don't degenerate into arguments with finger pointing, me-too-ing or "off-topic" discussions.

The point of the meeting is to keep to the task at hand. You may need to take a group or a topic off-line, as it were, and get it resolved in a smaller meeting. Ask people to turn their cell phones and instant messaging off. Nothing is more distracting in a meeting than having a cell phone belt out an obnoxious ringtone when the team is deep in conversation about solving a problem. Pulling the team back together after an interruption like that can be difficult and time consuming.

Be sensitive to schedules during crucial production phases. A pizza lunch may be a lot more effective than an entire afternoon off-site if deadlines are looming. Do the big celebrating after the product has shipped!

Match the Meeting to Its Purpose

MEETING TYPE

CHARACTERISTICS

Team: Regular schedule to update the entire team

Gives everyone a chance to hear information at the same time and give feedback. Done right, weekly team meetings strengthen the team.

Subgroup: Regular schedule to update subgroups; should occur after weekly team meeting.

Helps those not at full team meetings. Doesn't require the team leader.

Update: Timed to completion of milestones and other major project events

Helps distribute off-cycle information. Opportunity for team building and recognizing achievements.

One-on-one: Extremely useful for many purposes including establishing and/or reinforcing leader/team member relationships

Can be formal (often negative) or informal. May cover any project or address personal issues including confidential and/or HR matters

Review: Can be used to review projects, processes, proposals and production

Useful for examining and improving work methods and processes. Allow for some "open discussion" time. Notify attendees in advance if you expect them to bring anything to the meeting

Presentation: Can be a subgroup activity, rehearsal for formal team presentation, a company-wide presentation or vendor demo.

Team may be presenting or be asked to review materials or a proposal. Schedule a post-presentation meeting to assess how things went or discuss implementation of new procedures or tools.

Debriefing: Should not devolve into a finger-pointing session! Should be a thorough and open analysis of the project, whether things went wrong or not.

This is a crucial exercise, especially if the team is permanent. Be sure people who bring problems also bring solutions. Keep the meeting civil and as positive as possible.

Kick-off and Wrap Parties: When project starts and finishes. Be sure to allot budget for both.

Be responsive to the team. By the time the project is over, you'll know what they like!

Support Your Supporters

wowpriest.jpg Just like in any MMO, it's important to have a network of people you can rely on for support. In many cases, you need a good mixture of people to make it work. All too often, groups are advertising in open channels in need of a healer, but there are never enough to go around. Building a strong relationship with one or more healers can give you the inside edge to being able to put that team together, and open up the opportunity to tackle more of the in-game encounters. Even if it means making some concessions, it is worth keeping the healers happy, because you will need them.

The same goes for the production department in a large entertainment software company that just moved offices. Everyone has been told to wait until IT hooks the computers back to the network. Your team is on a tight deadline but because you've got a great relationship with IT (and you had the sense to talk to your contact before the move), your team's machines were hooked up first. Good relations with your company's IT group will satisfy both your team's needs and corporate requirements, and make people happy.

Making IT feel welcome in your area instead of treating them like flunkies can mean a big difference in your level of support. People are people, no matter what they do for a living. Sure, a member of your team might be able to hook up everyone's computer in two seconds flat, but if you have to follow procedures, it never hurts to be on the good side of whichever department supports your technical needs.

If time and budget permit, take advantage of IT training sessions. Whatever technical solutions you need for your team, invest in the most appropriate and reliable technology and be sure everyone is trained in its proper use. Sometimes being able to troubleshoot before calling IT can save time and chargebacks (and keep your group from getting a reputation for being helpless and whiny).


Networking

In the MMO world, this is extremely prevalent. People join guilds or clans, which open up a myriad of opportunities to explore game content with like minded individuals. Unfortunately, your group is not always going to be available when you want to do various tasks, quests, or XP grinding. For this reason, it is important to expand your network of in-game friends and allies. It is always a good idea to have a few tanks, minstrels, and crowd control in your friends list, just in case you need them.

In the workplace environment, certain people (senior management and/or your client) have considerable influence over your team. Make full use of formal and informal connections inside and outside your organization to provide valuable support. Teams can always use "friends in high places". Identify these people and seek their support and approval, preferably without sacrificing the integrity of team or the project.

A team sponsor is usually a well-placed, well-disposed individual who works outside your team. Team life is much tougher without these mentors, they offer guidance, help find creative solutions to problems as well as keep you on track so cultivate any relationships that may be useful.

A basic network can include a decision maker (maybe an executive or member of senior management), a liaison who may have the ear of senior managers (this might be you) and an approver, usually an individual whose official consent is required for key decision and milestone completion. Work the network in and out of the organization to find the support your team needs to be successful.

Every team needs to maintain three key relationships: within itself, with upper management and with the client. The lines of communication should be strong and amicable. This becomes even more important if your team is based away from headquarters, for example in a factory or separate office building. In some cases, upper management may also be the client or the sponsor. Be flexible and work within the structure.

Confidentiality

Before you decide what is confidential, ask, "Who else needs to know this?" and "Would openness be damaging?" If the answers are "everybody" and "no," circulate the information. However, if there is a real need for secrecy or if confidentiality is mandated by company policies and NDAs (non-disclosure agreements), be sure that there is no margin for error. Establish a procedure for dealing with information leaks and stick to it.

Teamwork and secrecy can be mutually exclusive, so a leader who isn't open with team members won't get the team's best work. Try to give your team full access (where appropriate) to information relevant to their overall project responsibilities, but remember there will be times when you may have to maintain confidentiality.

By sharing the overall vision with your team, you provide them a sense of individual ownership in their focus and can generate real team synergy by showing how all the pieces fit together in the puzzle. The more direct you are, the more accepting the team will be when you have to withhold information based on the "need to know".

Points to consider before passing along information:

  • Is the information accurate?
  • Who really needs to know?
  • What's the best way to relay it?
  • Who's the best person to relay it?
  • Will there be any negative fallout from disseminating it?
  • What kind of follow-up might be needed, positive or negative?
  • What will be the effect if this information is leaked to the marketplace?

Points to remember

  • Your job as team leader is to keep stakeholders (investors, publishers, senior management) informed of team progress. Avoid the temptation to sugar-coat bad news or promise more than your team can reasonably deliver.
  • You and the team may not agree with senior decision makers but it's wise to treat them with respect.
  • Be sure news (good or bad) is told to the whole team at the same time to ensure that everyone hears the message the same way -- but don't publically embarrass team members with bad news about their performance or employment in front of their peers or colleagues.

Conflict Resolution

The key elements in the art of working together are how to deal with change, how to deal with conflict, and how to reach our potential... the needs of the team are best met when we meet the needs of individual persons. -- Max DePree

Working and Playing Well with Others

On paper, your situation looks perfect -- a great balance of skills and experience, a reasonable schedule and achievable goals. When you add the "human factor" (the actual team members) to the equation, conflict can occur on any level. Barriers to the team's success can come from just about anywhere -- an inflexible corporate tradition, disagreement about project goals and/or processes, or the overall vision for the game. Internal and external forces can cause problems within the team. Work pressure, jealousy, self-protection and inflexibility can all disrupt the team.

Sometimes team members outside the company (possibly consultants) will blatantly disregard company rules and traditions. There are ways to work within even the most rigid system, but the team has to respect and acknowledge that a system exists. No matter how senior or well connected a team member is, be prepared to call them out, preferably in private, if they are not performing, not supporting the team or openly causing dissention.

Whatever the cause, figure out whether problems are localized (one or two people) or a sign of general dissatisfaction. If the team's morale is low, work will suffer and you'll have no choice but to rethink your strategy, the team's structure, and what can be done to get things back on track as quickly as possible.

conflict.jpg

Although many situations can be resolved informally, head-on conflict still occurs. Look for ways to use conflict constructively. Encourage open communication and the free flow of information to help prevent misunderstandings. Make yourself available and approachable. Be sure that the team is fully aware of and respects each other's talents and experience. Help the team find a way to change obstructive group behavior.

  • Be alert to the warning signs of dissention
  • Resolve disputes among team members by replacing emotional responses with rational, open-minded ones
  • Alleviate confusion with dispassionate fact-finding and open dialogue
  • Use team-building activities to check the team's overall mood but be alert for signs that the entire team is in agreement about the problems (like "Sure, they'll spend money on an off-site but we can't get raises")

Even after speaking directly with troublemakers, further action may be needed. Be as positive as you can and search for common ground to start rebuilding team relations. Spend a little time studying whether the intrinsic team structure might be contributing to the problem!

  • Are roles within the team unclear, causing overlap of responsibility?
  • Is the workload fairly distributed, or are certain individuals feeling overburdened and stressed?
  • Identify people who are (a) trying to take control (i.e., who holds the marker during the meeting? Who sits at the head of the table? Who name-drops references to conversations with management?), (b) promoting their own agenda and/or (c) bullying other team members.

If after all of this, the problem still exists, you may need to call for arbitration from HR or remove people for the good of the team and the project. The strength of any team is only as good as its individual characters.

Personal conflict between team members is everyone's problem and needs to be addressed the moment it arises. Provide an opportunity for everyone to talk to you directly about the situation but know that some people may use this as a chance to undermine others. It's your job to figure out who and what is causing the conflict.

It's important for a manager to figure out what triggers the conflict, how each person sees the end result, and what compromises need to be made in order to resolve this dispute. Is it one person? Is it a power struggle between factions? Is it a lack of training or lack of information about company procedures? Is senior management at fault? (Probably not much you can do about that one unless you're in that level yourself, and if that's the case, it's best not to foster an adversarial relationship even if that's how you yourself perceive it).

DO

DON'T

Be honest about how you see the situation

Show favoritism to any person or faction

Try to see the problem from the team's view

Lose your temper with team members

Try to reason with the troublemaker(s)

Continue to support impossible or inflexible team members

Use the problem as a way to strengthen the team

Lose sight of project and team goals

Be positive and pro-active

Take sides

Use all available resources including outside help

Send it to management to be solved without trying to fix it on your level first

Act in a calm but timely manner

Ignore the problem until it breaks the team

Have periodic meetings and one-on-ones with your team

Put off confrontation in hopes that problems will go away by themselves


Use a Problem Log

Work-related problems can actually be opportunities for team improvement. Use a problem log and give all team members access to it to share lessons learned. You may want to appoint a team member to resolve the problem but be careful -- no matter how adult people appear to be, most of them probably have not forgotten the heady power of the hall monitor!

Some relevant questions either you or the designated problem-solver wants to ask include:

  • What event(s) led up to the problem?
  • What is the apparent cause of the problem? Is it internal (within the team) or external (within the company)? Is it personal or professional?
  • Where do things stand?
  • What are potential positive solutions? More training? Better communication?

Talk it Out

Ever burn a boss down to very little health, only for him to do something unexpected and wipe out the whole group? Well, you are not the first, and won't be the last. When this happens, nobody runs back and tries the same strategy again. It is important to take a few minutes, regroup, and recompose.

Talk it out with the group and figure out how to tweak the strategy in order to do the good parts correctly, and prepare for the part that went wrong. Making changes cannot be done by an individual in a group instance, but rather the whole team has to be on the same page. It is important for each person to know what they need to do, and more important for them to know why they do what they need to do. Once everyone is on the same page, and the strategy is reworked, it's time to try again.

Once a problem is identified, discuss it with the people involved. This is basically a listening task -- let them tell you how they see things. Assess attitudes and preconceptions. What they say, what they do, and what they feel may be different. Are there hidden agendas? Are they withholding information and/or holding back deep-seated emotions and grudges? If an individual blames others to justify personal actions, confront and question the defensive reaction. Track all rumors to the source as best you can. People's reactions will show you the strength of their commitment to the team.

DO

DON'T

Try to identify weaknesses in the team

Go on a witch hunt that turns the team on itself

If subgroups are part of the team, be sure they are all working efficiently

Lay blame indiscriminately on the entire team

Analyze all the information

Ignore the evidence and proceed without change

Offer training as a solution

Ignore the possibility that reorganizing the team might solve the problem

Review the team/subgroup leader's abilities

Leave the team or subgroup without a leader

Ensure that everyone on the team agrees to the solution

Forget to follow-up on the team's progress after problem resolution

Other Kinds of Problems

Naturals are few and far between. Very few people can be inserted into a situation and automatically excel. In the game world, people can pick things up rather quickly, but that does not mean you know the ins and outs of the game. Many times, it is easiest to find someone who has been in your shoes, and use them as a model for your own gameplay. Sometimes, you need a guide to walk you through levels, instances, or just general skills that your character has gained.

An experienced hand could have all sorts of tricks, tips, and advice that can help you through some of your difficulties. Use this person as a resource, as they have undoubtedly done the same with someone else when they were in your place. This is a great way to build allies, compare strategies, and continue your character's growth. When you take on a mentor or a guide, be respectful and help them with what they need as well, cause you never know what lessons you may learn from strictly watching, listening or helping.

In real life, sometimes you need to hire consultants. This can be a great way to provide instant training for the team -- or it can create a management nightmare. Whenever possible, make consultants feel like they are part of the team but don't give them responsibilities regular employees can or should handle. Keep a watchful eye on contract or temp employees who are angling to oust a regular employee and take over the job.

Cross-functional multi-disciplinary and/or interdepartmental teams are becoming more common in today's business world. In some cases, there may not appear to be many differences between a team in Los Angeles and a team in London, other than time zones and accents. However, there are some significant cultural differences, especially between American and Asian business practices, so it's a good idea to do your research and brief your team to reduce potential conflict or potentially offensive behaviors.

One of the most difficult situations companies encounter in the workplace is sexual harassment. Most companies have a training program that all employees must complete but that doesn't always prevent inappropriate behavior. Be sensitive to conversational overtones and innuendos.

Points to Remember

  • Handle personal problems between team members constructively
  • Don't react until you have the facts
  • Avoid creating a "blame culture"
  • Treat everyone equally
  • Praise team members publicly whenever you can
  • Don't play favorites -- and don't be forced to by nepotism
  • Be alert for sexual harassment in either direction and be sure every member of your team has completed the company's mandated training in this area.

---

Conflict photo by Kevin Simpson, used under Creative Commons license.

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