CTD: FORGING GREAT TEAMS
Connecting the Dots is a series of in-depth articles from the team at Vela Games, highlighting a variety of game development subjects that are important for our project, but often easy to get wrong. Mark Franz is Director of Production for Vela Games.
Great games start with building great teams. That’s why I was so excited to join Vela Games—to help lay the foundation for a great team from the start. I’m working directly with the Vela team to ensure we’re driving towards the right objectives and that we’re working together in the best possible way as we journey to make an incredible game. I’d like to share a little about myself, my beliefs about what makes high-performing and successful teams, and how we think about teamwork at Vela Games.
THE “BAD TEAM” EPIPHANY
There was a moment in my career, many years ago, that reset my understanding of how to build great teams and the relationship between teams and their leaders. I had just joined a group of developers and very quickly realized that this team, in a word, was “broken”. They were far behind in their delivery and creating something that was just awful.
The individual developers were talented and passionate, but when they showed up as a team they were bored, cynical, and disengaged. At standups, some of the team members would literally sit on the ground and stare at the ceiling. They deliberately didn’t collaborate with their peers, and instead only worked off of documentation.
My old instincts told me this was a “Bad Team,” but I was seeing something different this time and decided to try a new approach—I asked them a question: “How do you feel about failure?” There were a few moments of silence. No one in the room, myself included, had expected this. Finally, one of the engineers said, “It sucks. This sucks.” Heads starting nodding around the room. I asked if they wanted to do something about it. They did. I asked what they wanted to do, and then I listened to them.
Teams I work with don’t have to earn my respect, they already have it and it’s very hard to lose it.
What happened next took a lot of work from the team and involved me relearning much of what I thought I knew about leadership, but the results were undeniable. Within a few months, that team was knocking everything out of the park and challenging each other to make a better game and be a better team. That transition taught me powerful lessons, including: leading from a place of respect, creating a space in which a team can be heard, and the power of true alignment. Let’s take a closer look at each of these techniques, and how I’ve used them effectively in my work.
Now, by default, I have a deep respect for developers. Teams I work with don’t have to earn my respect, they already have it and it’s very hard to lose it. I believe, genuinely, that every team is capable of creating something awesome, and every team is wonderful, even when they don’t realize it themselves.
In the past I’ve been judgmental of team members who struggled to complete their work or collaborate with others. This was poor leadership. Once I learned to approach every developer with respect, my ability to get the best out of teams reached a whole new level. I became skilled at helping turn around dysfunctional teams and getting them to work together in a successful and collaborative fashion. I absolutely love helping teams that are stuck—this is my superpower and passion! There’s nothing like seeing a team that’s frustrated and confused turn into a high-performance machine.
So how do we achieve that kind of transformation? I’ll detail some of the methods I’ve used below, but from a high-level I always ensure that a team is fully aligned on the why of a thing before we all jump into the how of the thing.
LEADERS CREATE THE SPACE
One of my first jobs on any team is to create a space for everyone to speak and be heard. It’s the responsibility of a leader to make it as easy as possible for everyone to share their thoughts. I’ve encountered other leaders who believe the opposite, that it is the team members’ responsibility to make themselves heard. To me, that way of thinking is broken—it results in only hearing from strong personalities. Haven’t we all been in a meeting where it felt like the direction was being set by the loudest voice in the room? For me, there is no correlation between having a strong personality and having a “better” opinion or idea.
There are several methods a leader can use to create adequate space for their team’s opinions. Some that I’ve had the most success with include:
Assume that everyone wants to feel excited in their work and have a sense of purpose
Use active listening skills
Actively give space to everyone’s opinion. Make sure no one is talked over. Ask simple questions to team members who aren’t speaking up to ease them into the discourse
Support healthy conflict. Teams need to be able to disagree in a healthy way on their path to alignment. When there’s disagreement, support the team by asking clarifying questions and checking to make sure everyone’s viewpoint is understood
Be honest and admit mistakes to the team when they happen
When speaking to the team, try to ask questions more than make statements
Read the room and feel out where there’s unspoken confusion, disagreement, or excitement. When in doubt, ask the team
TRUE GOAL ALIGNMENT
At Vela careful consideration went into each hire to ensure we were working with skilled developers who align well with Vela’s values. They’re inspired to develop at every stage with players in mind, and they are very comfortable giving and receiving honest and constructive feedback. The team is as excited as I am to continue to refine our methods and discover the best ways to work together.
To achieve true alignment requires time, but the investment is more than worth it when the team feels ownership over the direction of their work. …teams will support what they help to create.
Of course, not everyone gets the opportunity to build their team from scratch, and even the best teams will suffer from misalignment. Most of the friction I’ve encountered on teams comes from both major and minor misalignment. A major misalignment is when the developer has a very different idea about the feature they’re working on, and they wind up building something no one asked for. In a minor misalignment the developer might have a perfect sense of what they’re building and who it’s for, but they aren’t aligned on some nuance of the experience such as a specific part of the user interface. While minor misalignments are harder to catch, they can be just as insidious and can cause many of the same issues.
Whatever the alignment issues are, my job is to surface them so they can be discussed with the team. That discussion continues until every person in the room has crystal clarity on the team’s goals. Again, this is why I put the effort into creating a space for open communication—I need to dig deep and work with the team until they completely own their objectives. The team should be clear on both immediate and long term goals—the why and the how. To achieve true alignment requires time, but the investment is more than worth it when the team feels ownership over the direction of their work. This is how I set teams up for success, because teams will support what they help to create.
…everyone can articulate what success looks like at the end of the milestone, and they know how they will each contribute to that success.
Once the team is aligned towards their goal, I focus on how the team wants to operate. This is often called team chartering, but at Vela we call it “Voltron-ing.” How do we take the incredible individual components of our team and combine them into an amazing, shiny Voltron? Essentially, this is setting the ground rules for how the team works together; what’s important, and what do we value? It can cover anything from what time we start working, to our coding style, our definition of “done,” or how artists want to get feedback on their work. This helps us surface any issues or differences of opinion, which is important because if we can surface it, we can address it.
PRACTICING WHAT I PREACH
None of these approaches in leadership will help if you can’t lead yourself first. It’s easy to believe in something and then throw those beliefs out the door when the stakes are high and stress is rising. I’ve found practices that help me be more aware of myself and help me compose myself for the needs of the team. I’ve personally found meditation immensely helpful in this regard, but I would recommend anything that helps you to be more aware of your own feelings and to respond appropriately to the challenges you’ll face.
I hope I’ve provided you with a better sense of my approach to building great teams and enabling them to create their best work. At Vela Games, our team has embraced these methods, and the results have been very exciting. We invest whatever time it takes to get alignment on each milestone and how it fits into the bigger picture of the game we’re developing. The payoff is having a team that’s working on the right thing and in a way that makes them highly effective. They know what’s most important, they helped shape our objectives, everyone can articulate what success looks like at the end of the milestone, and they know how they will each contribute to that success. They also have a better understanding of what’s valuable to each team member and how we all want to work together. All of this has brought Team Vela to a moment early in development where we are ahead of our expectations. It’s an exciting time, and as we calibrate and refine our processes we will continue to build on this momentum!
If you’re interested in learning more about how we work as we develop our first game, check out some of the previous Connecting the Dots articles and stay tuned as we release more. Thanks for following along on our journey so far!