Thursday, April 6, 2006

Team culture matters

I just thought I would repost this lovely Slashdot comment that I came across recently. For some reason, it caught my eye.
"Having lived through the Microsoft buyout of a game studio, perhaps I provide some insight into why acquired studios seem to lose their mojo. Disclaimer: This are my opinions only, and come from the individual contributior perspective, not that of the studio management.

First off, Microsoft corporate culture does not map well to a typical successful game studio, and no matter what assurances are given that the studio's culture and operations are going to be left intact, within a couple years the studio becomes fully integrated into the 'Microsoft Way'.

Probably most destructive are the Microsoft one-size fits all HR policies such as stack ranking. Game development is truly a team effort, and successful studios have managed to create teams where most of the performers are above average. Instead of being able to reward people fairly, a pre-determined number of people each year have to be given a "poor" review which includes no compensation increases of any sort, and the warning that if they fail to improve by next year, they will be on the list of people to be 'managed out'. On the other end, a smaller pre-determined number of people will be rewarded handsomly no matter if they have not produced anything to merit such. So a culture of teamwork, focus on the product,and pride in the company will quickly morph into a culture of individual self-promotion, politics and backstabbing, and a disdain for the company.

Additionally, as part of Microsoft, the studio no longer has the urgency to make the next game great and complete it in a timely manner. With Microsoft's billions insuring financial stability if a game is cancelled, and no direct financial upside to
producing a hit game, the pressure of living close to the edge that was present
in the old culture that helped the team focus is supplanted by a devil may care
attitude that creeps into the 'rank and file'.

As a result, many of the developers transform from passionate, competitive people who strive for excellence into someone who just 'does their job' and goes home at 6pm sharp. Others just leave for greener pastures. Management gets their large bonuses in any event.

There are other issues of course, such as loss of control over future projects, headcount restrictions that prevent a studio from hiring desperately needed people, and so on."
-Anonymous Coward
Developing most modern games requires a team oriented culture. That means team focused management, team goals, team rewards, team dashboards, team seating, and team vision. Unless you are talking about very small indie games, one person cannot do it all.

If game development is a communal activity, do we structure it as such? How team members communicate with others, the alliances they form, the expectations they share...these deeply social interactions matter. It turns out that software development is an exercise in social problem solving. Many minds working together produce amazing solutions that no one individual could create on their own. It is a fundamentally human activity performed by people for people.

When managers, analysts, and the man in the trenches forsake their culture in the pursuit of the bottom line, the bottom line suffers. A gelled team of programmers will experience a roughly 10x improvement in productivity compared to a collection of individuals. This isn't about technology. It isn't about process. It is about the subtle psychology of people working together. When you encourage a strong team culture, amazing things are possible. When you discourage it through micromanagement, asinine review processes, and lack of a clear vision, you will always wonder why you failed.

take care

PS: If you believe in the benefits of teams even in the slightest, stack ranking is an abomination.