Almost two years ago I moved on from running Calm Island Sweden as its Studio Manager. Three and a half years of fantastic challenges that started from a slate of dont's. While the studio was clearly not destined to remain forever, the lessons learned have provided me with experiences that felt worth sharing.
Some of them may not be as universal as this makes them sound and some may not apply to your situation as it did to ours. But hopefully they can provide food for thought.
Some people are vocal, whereas others are quiet. Some easily take offense, while others are not bothered. The kicker is: no one person is wrong. The key to remaining professional is to acknowledge and accept that everyone is different and to approach each one in a way that doesn’t turn those differences into difficulties. This is really hard, and it must be a constant process; to accept people’s differences and offer the required space to realise their best work. If you cultivate this respect, you will get the same in return.
Talk About Small Problems
(Before They Become Big Problems)
Stress will cause issues to surface no matter how good you’ve been at accepting differences. People may stop talking to each other. Someone might get unnecessarily snarky or begin dodging responsibilities. Approach this the moment you see it. Never hesitate. Have people sit down and talk about their issues with each other and resolve them; they are usually misunderstandings or differences of opinion. Have the parties in the conflict talk to their closest lead or someone else that they trust. Take each party in every conflict seriously; never trivialise anyone’s problems, no matter how small the problems may seem to you. If you can stop small problems as they crop up, they don’t become big problems later.
Talk About Big Problems
Sometimes a small problem gets bigger, or real issues surface that become much larger than anyone wants to deal with. Talk about them. Deal with them. If person A and B really can’t talk to each other anymore, maybe you have to let one of them go. If someone is getting frustrated over feedback, miscommunication, or a work situation, see if it’s possible to change the situation; sometimes drastically if you have to. Even with big problems, there can sometimes be simple solutions. Listen and learn, but always be prepared to make the really hard decisions if needed. Take charge—it’s your job.
Plan Far Ahead
Calm Island Sweden had the unique position to take two steps back and look at what was really needed in order to create the kind of educational platform we wanted to create. To accommodate this, we devised long term strategies for our technologies and pipeline, and set out to solve long-term issues beyond our first deliveries. We used each delivery to hit one crucial pipeline goal and designed solutions to keep going with our strategies irrespective of what our short term goals were. This helped us build our own scripting tools, our own resource management systems, a framework for cross-platform app development and deployment, as well as testing various technologies that further helped facilitate our work. I’m confident that this is almost always the right way to look ahead, but in the end, we also built considerable technical debt along the way by rushing towards short deadlines. Your work has to be informed by more than just next week’s deadline.
Let Leaders Lead
If you are a Lead, you must take, and have time, to lead. Something that is common in many organisations is that the person who is best at something gets promoted to lead others doing the same thing. This is almost always bad, and not because these employees aren’t fit to lead, although this could be the case, but because they will never quite leave their previous positions. A great programmer will keep programming and ultimately take less time to be a lead than is required. If you keep doing your previous job, you will too often end up in a situation where you have to do other work before you can lead, and that priority is dangerous at best. Leaders must lead and they must accept that leading is not the same job that they used to do. If it’s required, have them actively avoid the work they did previously. It’ll make them better leaders.
Lack of personal professional development can sometimes be a source of great frustration. Let that skilled programmer or designer try to be a lead for a while and see how it works out. He/she may not even want to continue in that role, returning to their previous role after the trial period. That shouldn’t mean the bridge is burned. Have them try again in a year or two, if it feels appropriate. Promoting internally, and promoting on trial, makes people feel empowered, and lets them take risks under safe circumstances. It should never be seen, judged, or punished, as a failure if they choose to go back or if management doesn’t feel that it worked out. Sometimes knowing that you could be promoted is valuable to employee morale and decreases the risk that someone will feel “stuck” in a specific position or career path.
Know Your Methods
At one point in Calm Island Sweden’s history, we hired a really experienced coworker. What was unique was that this coworker had lots of positive experiences from companies where modern work methods like Lean and Agile were used very effectively. This was incredibly inspiring, and it made it abundantly clear that any method can be worth pursuing as long as you know how to use it. Quickly, we started working in a more Agile fashion, and we developed tools to accommodate technical challenges to enhance how Agile we could be.
Know Your Organisation
A friend of mine said that the definition of a waterfall organisation is that everything hinges on accountability; ultimately, whose fault it was that you didn’t hit the milestone on time. This type of structural accountability is very common throughout the world. What is important to understand is that it is completely antithetical to Agile development. Because of this, if you realise that you’re working in a primarily hierarchical organisation—like Calm Island definitely was at the time—trying to convince management, marketing, or even your own employees to work Agile is a Sisyphean task. Know your organisation and understand how it works and what you can change. If there is something you can’t change—accept it and move on. This is something we should have done.
Stay on the Path
It doesn’t matter if it’s related to organisation, to planning, or even to managing employees and delivering product, in the end, you have to stick to your path. Introducing more work into a tighter schedule, or changing the terms of a delivery before it’s actually delivered, will always come at a cost of quality. You can have your team work 80-hour weeks to pick up the slack, but the loss you will experience at the end of such a cycle will never be worth it. Stick to your plan and always plan for the long term; even if it seems to hurt you in the short term.
Work Regular Office Hours
Eight hours per day at most. Maybe even less if someone is really stressed out. Extra hours for the sake of arbitrary deliveries are worth little to nothing. If you require a few extra hours, be polite about it. Offer your employees something in return if you can’t offer to pay them for their time. Offer them compensation time off, overtime food, or something that takes the edge off the hobby or family activities they miss out on. You are taking their time - appreciate that they’re willing to give it to you and make sure that it doesn’t become the norm.
Let Creatives be Creative
Many developers have spare time projects or games they work on because they want to. Depending on where you live, this practice is variously frowned upon and even contractually prohibited. Some companies will claim the rights of everything game-related you ever do the moment you put ink on paper as an employee. Don’t be one of these employers. Creative spare time work—even scheduled “hack days”—is a fantastic way to let people learn new skills, explore other disciplines, and gain new energy that they can then reinvest into your company. It’s also a great way to find new innovative game concepts and explorations of existing projects. Same goes if they decide to leave and do their own thing. What makes you look better: pointing to them and saying “They used to work here. We love those guys!”—or dragging them to court?
I learned more about management from my time at Calm Island Sweden than maybe my whole adult life before it. The most important lesson of all is that it’s impossible to always win. There will be people you can’t get along with or who can’t get along with you. There will be situations where every possible outcome is bad; sometimes entirely your own fault. This is fine. Sometimes it’s someone else’s fault and that’s fine too. Learn from it, move on, and help each other get back on track. It’s not personal and it shouldn’t be. Creative work thrives on trust and responsibility. I’m also equally certain that it thrives on long-term planning and awareness of what the consequences of each little decision will be.
Are there many things I wish we’d done differently? Hell yes! If there hadn’t been, it would be a sure sign that nothing was learned along the way.