Laura Fryer, VP and general manager of WB Games Seattle, cautions team leaders to watch for what she calls, "pirates on a burning ship," during her IGDA Leadership Forum keynote in San Francisco on Friday.
She offered the analogy: You have Black Beard and Red Beard on a pirating expedition together. Things are going well, and at a certain point they have a piratey team building exercise -- drinking rum. Everyone's happy until someone knocks over an oil lamp.
Now the ship is on fire. Black Beard blames Red Beard for knocking over the lamp itself. Red Beard blames Black Beard for putting the rum right next to an open flame in the first place. Now you've got swashbuckling while the ship is burning down around their ears.
Does it really matter who's right and who's wrong, when there's a fire to fight? In this type of situation, which Fryer says has happened at least once on almost every project she's been on, she advises the team to "save it for the postmortem."
There's usually no time to get a jury of peers together to figure out the dispute, or the origin of the problem -- you have to focus on the fire first. "If proving [that] red beard caused the fire will solve it, I'll get on that," Fryer says, but if not, people need to focus back on the goals.
Leaders need to be able to identify these sorts of problems, and also figure out how to solve them without ruining relationships. "When you're really put to the test, what are you going to do?" Fryer asks.
"What if being honest about something costs you your job? What if you find a million dollars by the road? What if your friend shows up and asks you to help bury the body?" You can't know anyone, not even yourself, until you've been tested, she says.
Under The Bus
So many leaders will throw their team under a bus in order to save themselves. They hide information because they're afraid of telling their team the truth. But former Microsoft exec and game industry veteran Fryer provided another analogy here -- imagine you're walking down a road, and it seems fine for a while, but eventually you wind up in a valley if you're just going straight.
By the time you're in the valley, you can go all the way back to where things were still okay, totally backtracking. Or you can climb up the side, getting scratched up with brambles, facing a tough journey. Then there's the third, and most common option -- just keep powering through and "hope everything will be okay."
By way of example, Fryer discussed when she was working on the Xbox 360 while in her former position at Microsoft Game Studios. Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney came up and said "you have to add more memory to the box." It was a labyrinthine structure at Microsoft, so it was hard to know who actually makes the choices. At Microsoft, they call it "walking the dog" -- you walk around, try to figure out who can help, and find out who knows about the problem you're having.
People weren't happy to talk about it, and it was definitely a case of the messenger repeatedly being "killed," Fryer says. "I had one executive say this was a big CLM (career limiting move) and I should just stow it. I said I didn't think I was going to have a career if the Xbox 360 failed, and I thought it was going to [fail] if we didn't get more RAM!" Sometimes you have to take that brambly path up the mountain before you wind up wandering into the grand canyon.
In order to not get into those valleys to begin with, you have to have a process in place to figure out what people in the team are actually thinking, especially when you get to a team size of 100-400 people. Fryer has found that a lot of the time when a big problem happens, it turns out everybody knew about it for months, but nobody stepped up.
As a leader, you have to try to stop this problem before it starts, but you can't know everyone in your company, when it's that large. It turns out there's an actual scientific limit to the number of people you can know, while also knowing how they relate to each other. The number's somewhere around 150.
"If you can't talk to everyone, you need to get as few hops between you and everyone else as you can," she says. Like the elementary school game of telephone, the more hops your message takes, the more your message gets changed.
So Fryer does something called skip levels -- she and her other managers try to talk to her bosses, and the people below the leads. "We all like to believe that the people who report to us will always be awesome, but people change," she cautions. And if you don't talk to the people below them, you'll never know about it, and find yourself in a Potemkin Village situation, in which everything seems fine on the surface because everyone's working, but if you just stepped off the path, you may see that it's just a facade.
Fryer also cautions that this needs to happen to you as a manager, as well. Your boss needs to talk to your people, in order to make sure you're doing a good job.
Producers have a lot of responsibility too, and should perform a "walk and talk." "If you're a producer, you need to be getting up out of your cube every day, and walking the floor," says Fryer, because there are things you're just not going to hear if you're at your desk.
"Not only are you giving information, you're hearing about how awesome some people in your group are," she adds. If you comment on it, they're thrilled. If your boss' boss knows about the awesome animation you did, that's validating. But sometimes you're giving hard messages. "One of the things about giving hard messages is they don't get better with time," she says. "Pain deferred is pain multiplied, always."
A Noble Cause
But ultimately people have to be happy, and focused on the major goals, and then doing postmortems to get all the kinks out of the system from those "pirates on a burning ship" times. "You need to do [postmortems] every time," she says. "Everyone makes mistakes, but let's make all new ones next time, let's not make the same ones."
Ultimately, it comes down to the old cliche that people are an organization's best commodity. "Are we taking care of each other? Are we respecting one another? Do we trust each other?," she posed.
"Nobody lays on their death bed saying 'god, I wish I'd spent more time in the office!'" she joked. But at the same time nobody regrets doing what they love. "Being a leader can be a noble cause. You can be honest, you don't have to compromise your principles," says Fryer. "So please, go out and be the best leader you can be. Do the right things for your team, and do the right things for yourself."