Strengthening our Teams: applying lessons from the Game Outcomes Project

This post is adapted from an internal newsletter I wrote in January 2015. Please take what you like and leave the rest, as it was tailored to my specific context and may not apply to you and yours. Thanks for reading!

If there is a word we hope to associate with, at least in my organization, it has to be “hit”. With a self-image something like the games equivalent of Motown, we face the question of how we can jell into a high-performing hit factory.

According to the implications of the Game Outcomes Project, the power of teams may be the single most important factor in our formula for success.

I’ll admit that if you love hammers, everything you see begins to look like a nail. All professional bias acknowledged however, I feel excited that this could be a great angle to tackle as we trek the road to Hitsville.

The Top 40 Traits of Successful Games Teams

Part 5 of the Game Outcomes Project names 40 team behaviors, listed in order of highest correlation with project success. For those of us in the field of games, it would obviously be great to use the work of the GOP to assess our own teams, using either the same questions they asked (so that we can easily compare to their outcomes), or a version where we narrowed it down to those questions with highest correlation with project success which are simultaneously those most salient to our own organization.

Without mass data from my company on these specific questions, I will make recommendations and interpretations that are based on my daily experience working with people, managers, and teams face to face. Here is my view on what qualities of great game dev teams need a boost, as I see it:

I. Compelling Vision and Purpose

II. Healthy Team Dynamics: Psychological Safety and Constructive Conflict

I. Compelling Vision and Purpose

Listed as the #1 most important success factor by the GOP, having a “viable, compelling, clear, and well-communicated shared vision” is something I have seen teams struggle with, off and on. Some teams have had clear and well-communicated visions which are not shared, or shared visions which are not clear, or clear shared visions which are not compelling, etc, but having all of those elements at once is exceedingly difficult!

What to do about it

  1. Make it clear

Part of what makes visions clear and compelling is a crystalline articulation of who the game is for, and which emotions, drives and behaviors of that segment are being engaged with through the game mechanics. One way to find out whether or not your vision is clear is to do a quick vision test. The clearer the vision, the easier it will be to answer those questions.

2. Make it compelling

Game visions are compelling when we understand and believe in the existence of the needs that the game claims to meet for players, and when we also believe that the game does in fact meet those needs. We need to feel convinced of the following:

a) many of these players exist
b) these players have a deep, driving need for a certain psychological experience which we have correctly identified
and that c) playing this game gives that experience to them.

3. Make it shared

One way to find out whether or not everyone in the team is on the same page is to do the vision test with the team and compare answers. In case of differing visions, clarifying discussions can be prompted.

However it’s not just about communication or radiation of the vision, which already implies that the vision belongs more to the leadership. It’s also good to shoot for a vision that really arises step by step together with the team. Shared vision happens through shared work — when all are involved in discovering and validating the existence of the players and their needs, as well as the solutions, it is easier for everyone to see why the direction the product lead chooses is the natural one to take.

When a vision is shared and compelling, the whole team can be activated around its vision statement.

4. Make it viable

Assuming the initial vision is persuasive and all are on board, then part of team success with it is clarity about the development plan and how it derives from the vision.

In early stages, a structured plan for validation of the team’s understanding of target players and whether or not the emotional experiences created by the prototype really hit the spot for them in particular is beneficial. Even if the idea of Minimum Viable Game isn’t always a smooth crossover from the world of Lean and new product development, I think the idea of being as clear as possible about what hypotheses should be proven, including those related to design and technical risk, helps enormously.

5. Manage Design Risk

The GOP people show there is strong correlation between projects with significant or ongoing changes to the vision and lower outcomes. It seems, therefore, that while using an iterative approach to build the project makes sense, having an unstable vision is a killer. We should be careful about not mixing up the idea of agile with the idea that anything can change at any time. Late stage pivots and significant changes during production may be reduced in part by better risk assessment.

6. Evangelize

Product Leads sometimes share with me that they struggle with their role of evangelizing the value of the game to stakeholders, for example in gate reviews or when trying to describe the game in a sentence or two to someone in the elevator. I think it doesn’t hurt to have a 1-sentence value proposition derived from the vision which anyone in the team feels clear and confident to express. At any moment, revisiting the elevator pitch and making sure it’s still strong and exciting is a good practice.

7. Create Team Purpose

Slightly different from vision, which is tied to a specific project, is the purpose of a team. Purpose is much more tied to things like Team Identity, Values, and Working Agreements. Attention and explicit exploration of these things help teams have a strong sense of purpose. Purpose enhances employee engagement and strengthens commitment to excellence. People are unlikely to go through the ring of fire for a project if they don’t feel connected to the purpose. If we are relying only on each individual’s extrinsic motivators, we tap into only a fraction of the available team power.

II. Healthy Team Dynamics

Many of the other GOP top ten success factors relate to healthy team dynamics, in particular to whether there is enough psychological safety present for a team to constructively face its conflicts. Without this robustness teams will fail to reach the higher realms of commitment, accountability and quality.

Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is in good condition at my organization in some basic ways that are important to acknowledge. For example, we are not a culture which harbors the stress, unpleasant people, or low-grade psychological abuse which are so common in other work environments and which many employees report having experienced at other places. The leadership have also put a lot of effort into organizational transparency and communicate frequently across many channels.

Nevertheless I see a few things undermining our attempts to create safe psychological containers to incubate teams and create the best environment for developing strong team dynamics. The biggest barriers as I see them are:

Constant changes to team composition
Lack of transparency about staff changes
Lack of role clarity

Changes to team composition

The GOP names turnover as a factor with high negative correlation to project success, and say the 6th highest success correlation is with teams making every effort to avoid unnecessary team changes.

Many teams in my organization have a high degree of instability, experiencing new additions in a near-constant trickle. Every time a new person joins, the team dynamic is reset to forming, and people must go through the psychological process of trust building, boundary testing and norming all over again. For teams where the leadership changes the impact is even higher.

I feel that my particular organization takes changes to team composition too lightly, especially when it comes to changing leadership and adding new people but even when it comes to changing roles, and in some cases, moving people off the team. I see our teams rather frequently beleaguered with such psychological resets.

I thought about why we currently change team composition so much and came up with the following points:

  • We promise some high performers that they can move at a certain point, as a reward for hard work or to boost low morale
  • We use the option of moving off the team as a way to deal with conflicts in team
  • We use it as a way to performance-manage, for example when we are unsure if someone is really underperforming, and we want to “see how they do in a different setting”.

I believe that these practices have multiple payoffs for people and teams, or we wouldn’t be doing them. They shouldn’t be ditched without a plan for how to replace the function they serve. What if we didn’t move so quickly to the option of changing people out? What might we have to do to solve these problems without changes to team composition?

What to do about it

  • Delve deep into which barriers are limiting professional growth, development, satisfaction and happiness in the team right now and see what can be addressed in-team. This talk may surface important information about the condition of the team, and give us a way into improving the team situation for all.
  • Address conflicts the moment they arise and use them as a chance to look into the root causes and conditions breeding conflict in the team. Is there role overlap? Conflicting ideas of the vision? Differing quality standards? What would have to change in the team dynamics for this conflict to resolve itself from inside the team?
  • Instead of moving someone when we have a question involving performance, choose to trust those in the team when they give negative performance feedback. In cases of doubt, these doubts about the people reporting the problem behavior should be addressed with the people rather than glossed over through a team change.

Obviously, mobility between teams will remain a practice in part because of our development approach and its effects on team stability, and because there are always times and places where moving someone off is unavoidable. Some mobility is positive, as well, especially in cases where it happens as a natural next step in someone’s career development. However, if a team repeatedly has to use “moving someone off” as a necessity to save an individual or to address an imbalance in the team dynamic, we should seriously look into what is going on in that team.

Lack of transparency about staff changes

Given that we do not frequently take the impact of team changes into account, it is logical that the extra effort to over-communicate these changes is lacking as well. Many people report finding out the day before or by chance that someone is joining or leaving their team. This is suboptimal for psychological safety, as it puts people in the defensive condition of trying to be “ready for anything”, which is a state of vigilance which isn’t co-resonant with group trust.

What to do about it

In cases where changing staff composition is unavoidable, communicate with the team as soon as we know that it is happening, to give extra time for transition and adjustment in the team.

People handle change in different ways, but early communication of changes helps the psyche reduce the amount of unknowns into a manageable frame. While dramatic decisions shouldn’t be communicated if they are likely to be reversed, that consideration should be balanced with respect for the impact on team dynamics. At least 2 weeks and preferably a month’s notice for a staff change is a reasonable guideline. If we cannot plan that far ahead, I think we should question whether the decision is deeply thought through, or more of a hip-shot.

Role Clarity

I have frequently sounded the horn of “role clarity” over the last months of newsletters. I think it cannot be overstated so I will bring it up again. Psychological insecurity arises when clarity about how to interact is missing. Invisible fences are particularly corrosive to trust and will bring conflicts up where none were necessary. Making roles explicit also encourages communication and feedback inside the team.

What to do about it

  • Think about the mission of your team. What is success, and what kinds of activities are necessary to reach success.
  • Make task roles explicit.
  • Generate a list of all important decisions that will be made in the course of the project and make a delegation board and/or play delegation poker to make decision-making open and clear.
  • Talk about roles and when friction arises, face it rather than avoiding it.
  • Create opportunities to discuss roles. Schedule a meeting to explore how people see their responsibilities, how they see their interactions with others, and so on. Go first and share your confidence or lack of clarity about what you see as your role in the group. Invite others to disclose. This practice improves trust and sets a tone of safety.

Constructive Conflict

When psychological safety is intact, teams can constructively face their conflicts. Facing conflicts is a necessary part of reaching excellence in any team. Without the ability to safely handle friction, teams are doomed to mediocrity, deadened passion, low commitment and group-think.

I see widespread conflict avoidance in my organization (as well as in the larger culture and in myself). This is the shadow side of a trait which is also something we appreciate, namely our rather positive and courteous working climate. Nevertheless conflict avoidance is a killer for collaborative work. Signs of conflict avoidance include:

  • Elephant in the room. In many teams I see minimization of (“it’s not that big of a deal”) and outright denial (“what problem?”) of aggression and tension in team relationships. This is human and understandable when people fear the outcomes of conflict or when psychological safety is insufficient to enter the territory of conflict. However, just because people don’t acknowledge conflict doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting the teamwork. In fact the less a team is able to acknowledge subterranean emotion, the more crippled it will be by its impact.
  • Conflict-avoidant feedback culture. In many teams people wait until the safety and anonymity of a 360 feedback to give their criticisms. This is better than never giving it at all, but creates rude awakenings for the recipient of feedback and allows people to continue to avoid their feelings while eroding trust in the team. In an ideal situation, people know what their colleagues think of their strengths and weaknesses before receiving formal feedback.
  • Conflict-avoidant performance management. This has gotten a lot better but in the past many people were team-switched away, or have been allowed to exist in their position for far longer than was probably good for the team, in part due to a reluctance to address the issue.

What to do about it

  • If you are not convinced of the importance of conflict, and how it is related to team performance, supplement your study of the Game Outcomes Project with the source material they cite, such as Patrick Lencioni.
  • Practice your own conflict skills and be a role model for your people by facing of conflicts as they appear for you.
  • Point out conflicts between the others as you see them arise. Encourage people to talk about what is going on for them, and as appropriate, to get support to address it. Verbalize the value of handling conflict constructively.
  • If your people don’t address their conflicts with prompting, then reconsider what can be done to create sufficient psychological safety that they go there on their own. For example, see if you can reduce or contain the amount of change they are grappling with, improve communication, and work on setting a tone of trust and respect.
  • Get familiar with conflict resolution. When you feel more confident that conflict is navigable, you will be able to hold the space for the people around you. Here are some slides, a handout and some conflict scenarios from my Conflict Class which give you some thinking points.

I have made an effort to give you some food for thought and my best suggestions for actions you could take right now. The topic of how teams can be supercharged for the future is by no means simple and I welcome all input, objections, and any other feedback you may have for me. Otherwise, I generally recommend that you do your own research, follow the thread of your own gut feelings and see where you end up. I am always happy to help if I can, so just let me know if you need anything.

Warmly and best of luck guiding teams to success!