Halo can make you a Better Teammate at Work
Or: A Maturity Model for Halo Teams
I’ve played Halo for a long time: about 15 years, through various versions. For nearly as long, I’ve studied the parallels between teamwork in video games, and teamwork at work.
One of my favorite things about Halo is how a team of less skilled players (e.g. me) with better teamwork can overcome an uncoordinated group of highly skilled players. Over the years, I’ve developed a loose framework to describe that level of coordination, and recognize where to improve it. Several of the tactics we use in-game are also applicable to teams at work.
All other things being equal, it’s still better to work with a team of superstars, but many an all-star team has been hamstrung by poor teamwork. Whether your team is great depends less on the solo skills and more on how you work together.
Here’s how we level up our team:
Level 1: Playing as a partial team with randoms.
This is where we start out.
Everyone who has played team games online has been in this situation at one time or another. You’re playing alone, or with fewer people than the standard team size, so the matchmaking system pairs you up with some other partial team and you try to win together. Except most pick-up groups don’t communicate (or even have headsets for that matter), and when they do, they don’t always have the same goals or commitment to winning that particular match.
It’s hard to win when you don’t have people working together, even if you don’t get stuck with teammates like this:
Companies don’t do this.
Imagine building a house with a group that’s never worked together before, and trying to do it without talking to each other. There’s a reason we almost never see this configuration in business. Multiple organizations that work together have enough trouble coordinating even with copious planning and communication.
Level 2: Get a full pre-form playing together.
When you have those random players, people often have different goals. Some people aren’t even trying to win the game. They would rather pad their stats or finish a particular individual achievement.
Taking the simple step of playing with a fully pre-formed team has a remarkable impact on win percentage, even when the individual skills haven’t improved at all. When you have that pre-form, even the kid soccer approach (everyone run towards the same place; H/T @ryanpmoser for the term) will win you some fights by sheer numbers.
Set and communicate goals.
At work, you see this when you have clear goals and everyone knows what they are. That alignment makes a huge impact because having everyone pulling in the same direction is powerful, even if you’re not particularly coordinated about how you’re pulling.
Level 3: Practice with the same full team.
Once you have some history with a group of players, you start being able to predict each other’s actions and react accordingly. You learn different people’s tendencies and styles, and can make some educated guesses or reflexive moves based on where you expect them to be.
Sometimes that leads to beautiful plays that just come together without any advance planning, like this textbook Warthog/Flag pickup.
The driver knows which route the flag carrier will take, and meets him at the best spot to be out of line-of-sight from enemy fire. The gunner provides enough cover (including placing himself between enemy Spartans and the carrier to block shots) so that the carrier can get into the passenger seat, before jumping into the turret himself, in case they run into more trouble before getting back to base.
When you’ve worked with the same coworkers for years, you see some anticipation of needs, but the more important effect of this consistency is trust.
When team members have history, they don’t just predict actions, they recognize motives. If you have enjoyed working with someone for the better part of a decade, you are much more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt when they do something unusual and fail to adequately communicate their reasons (this is also related to fundamental attribution error). Team building activities often try to accelerate this trust, with varying results (a subject for another time).
Level 4: Know the callouts. Use them.
In Halo, callouts are the names for particular locations on the map that are used to communicate positioning to teammates who have different information, due to their first person view. These used to be completely emergent, as teams struggled to communicate map information like where the next threat was coming from, or where to regroup. In Halo 5 they are mostly standardized, since the game itself labels certain map areas with a name visible in-game.
Teams that practice callouts often develop their own shorthand, with either more specificity or fewer syllables than the defaults. When you listen to a team that knows their callouts, you can instantly see how the information sharing gives them an advantage, even over a team of similarly skilled individuals.
You can hear this team communicating particularly well from about 1:15 to 2:10 (the end of the round).
Define a Common Language
At work, a team communicating with a common language can also move faster once they get on the same page.
When a project manager or developer says “agile”, they can be referring to one of a dozen different flavors and approaches. Until the processes have been defined for a particular team, common terms or phrases aren’t particularly useful; each person could be thinking of a slightly different meaning based on different sets of assumptions. Almost all “agile” teams recognize this pain. The good ones are able to move past it.
Once the team defines their process, terms like “sprint planning”, “retrospectives”, and “backlog grooming” start to become useful and the members of the team are able to execute more quickly than when they had to explicitly describe each process for the first time.
Level 5: Have discipline to wait for teammates and coordinate attacks.
In Halo, it’s so tempting to go straight for that assassination, but if we do, the thrill only lasts until the enemy we didn’t notice pulls off a showstopper.
Disciplined play is exemplified by the clip below of Bubu Dubu at the 2016 Halo World Championships. Watch him skip the easy assassination at 30 seconds and instead reposition, take advantage of arriving teammates, and pull off a double kill. If he had taken the easy route, it would have been a simple 1-for-1 trade.
Doing the right thing, instead of the easy one.
In this case, discipline is doing what we know we should do, instead of taking the tempting short-term win right in front of us.
If you’re working for a software company and you have a new idea for a feature, it can be tempting to go right out and build it. Even lean startup experts sometimes get caught up in the joy of creating without validating first, but we get the best results when we research how customers use and react to new features before investing in building them.
The short-term high of building something new often comes crashing back down when we realize no one is using that new feature and we could have saved the effort of building it if we’d been more disciplined up front.
Go Forth and Level Up your Team
At work, as in Halo, your team can improve in more ways than individual development. Whether you’re a manager or an individual contributor, you can help level up your team. Sometimes, it’s even the teamwork that makes an individual look great.
About the Author
Teague helps teams that work with ambiguity (like startups!) level up their performance. He’s an avid gamer and loves to use games to teach lean startup principles and intentional culture. Connect with him on Twitter, or schedule a time to chat during his free office hours.