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Team Meltdown

December 10, 2008

(This article is a modified version of something I give to student teams that will be working together for an extended period of time.)

Games are intensely personal processes, even if they involve a hundred people. You can’t spend 8 hours a day with a work of art and not get connected to it. That connection is born of intensity and that intensity can lead to people getting upset with one thing or another. Sometimes, it can lead to team meltdown. Here’s a couple moments from my memory:

  • An art team mutiny – they didn’t show up for work for a few days (it may have been longer, but it definitely wasn’t shorter).
  • A team walk out – the whole team left the office and refused to work until the crunch hours were addressed.
  • A lead who dished all his issues with the company to those on his team effectively creating a group of angry programmers.
  • Two executive producers who worked to sac an incompetent VP.

These are extreme examples, of course. Usually, it’s pockets of discontent, but these pockets can completely wreck productivity and make unhappy people out of otherwise content developers. It makes people hate a project, hate their part in the project or, at best, feel indifferent.

For those involved in the trash talking, and maybe unbeknownst to them, it follows them throughout their career in several potential ways:

  • Teams suffering meltdown don’t make great projects. If they somehow manage to get a good one out, the project is not as good as it would have been if the team had been working well. That game stays on your resume. It lives with you through mobygames.com. Eternity is gamerankings.com and a bad game.
  • Bad relationships are built, and bad relationships have a long, long shelf life in the game industry. They stop you from getting jobs. They keep closed doors.
  • Patterns are made and history tends to repeat itself.

Clearly, everyone’s not always going to be happy, though. So, you have to figure out a way to deal with it. I was a lead for a long time, and this is the kind of situational training you never get. You pick it up on the job. If you’re a “bridge builder” now, if you get along with everyone, if you can genuinely see a way forward in even difficult situations, be grateful. You will use it dozens of times in your career.

In these issues, a couple things have worked for me.

Do not “disbelieve.”

Acknowledge that problems will exist in the future, and  develop a plan to deal with these things before they strike. Encourage people to talk with their leads, and encourage leads to listen and not criticize or immediately fix it to death. Sometimes people need to vent.

Talk up, and tell people on your team to do it.

If you have an issue with something, take it to your lead. Don’t trash the waters around you. Give people a chance to adjust things, including your perspective. I recently talked with someone who thought he was getting the run around because his boss wouldn’t level with him about an upcoming contract. “I just want to know if we’re going to make the game or not.” My feeling was that his boss genuinely didn’t know. No deal is done until the money’s in your bank account.

If you have a problem with someone, their work or the way they work, talk to them directly, if that seems at all possible to do. Sometimes, it’s a matter of misunderstanding or needing to clear the air. If that’s not possible or if there’s a company issue that’s driving you insane, talk to the the person immediately above you (unless it is the person immediately above you). Also, remember that it’s probably about 50% less dramatic than you feel it might be, but only time will give you that perspective. At the time, though, just accept that some part of how you’re feeling is reaction, not reality. If you are the person above another person, remember the “drama modifier,” but listen and let them vent it all out without interruption. Venting is a valid and important part of the development process, and a good lead learns how to receive it and handle it well.

So why this emphasis on talking up? If you have a problem with someone and talk laterally or down, you are literally trash talking your own team and killing your own project. I’ve seen it happen one too many times as noted above. The team quickly loses respect for the chain of command and nothing ever gets fixed since no one in a position to fix it was ever actually contacted. People continue to complain about the lead above them, but the lead – blissfully unaware of anything – keeps right on going. Meanwhile, the team falls apart, morale plummets, productivity drops and the quality of work suffers dramatically. Ultimately, your project sucks, and if it’s a professional project, it’ll follow you around for years.

So, don’t trash your lead to the people below you. Don’t trash fellow leads to other leads. If you have an issue with someone, take it to them directly or take it to the person above you, and do it professionally and without drama.

Ultimately, this is about principles, not personalities. When irritated by someone, ask yourself if it’s their work or them. This is game development, not a reality television show. You don’t have to like everyone. You don’t need to play Rock Band on the weekends. You merely need to work with them well and for the betterment of the project. Develop professional discipline to do this now, and it will go a long way for you.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2008 10:48 am

    That’s golden advice Brenda, especially the part about talking up.
    I wish everyone would follow it.

  2. December 10, 2008 12:30 pm

    The difficulty with student projects in particular is that for any given class, some students will have never worked on a true team project before (even so-called “group” or “team” projects in other classes might just be “divide this large set of tasks into four individual assignments” which is not the same). So, students are unlikely to anticipate issues unless you educate them in advance.

    One interesting technique I saw last summer was to have each group fill out a “team charter” as their first assignment. In this charter it details the common things that tend to go wrong: personality clashes, lack of buy-in, communication misunderstandings, key team members suddenly disappearing for days at a time, and so on (as an experienced team lead / professor, you would provide this).

    Then, the teams must give contingency plans for each item. What are you going to do if there’s a personality clash — who does a team member approach first, and then second, and so on up the chain of command? How do you avoid the situation where one team member suddenly goes missing the day before the project is due, and they’re the only one with a copy of the entire project — do you make sure everyone has a copy at all times, or keep everything in an online SVN repository, or something else? And so on.

    By explicitly naming the likely issues ahead of time and asking student teams to form plans to deal with them, a lot of student projects can go a bit more smoothly.

  3. December 11, 2008 1:39 pm

    In Applied, we had a team where one person did not necessarily know everyone else or their work ethics. We made sure, then, that we would have a team meeting a week devoted simply to being social with one another – dinners, gaming, what-have-you – and also made sure we always kept our cards on the table, face up. That way, when we had a problem, either personal or work related, we would work together to solve it. Luckily there were never any drastic personal problems. Good team vibe all around, and I have to attribute that to developing personal as well as professional relationships with everyone involved in the project.

  4. STiX permalink
    December 11, 2008 11:34 pm

    I completely agree with that, soo many problems could be avoided if people just talk with each other =)

    i really believe on that =)

    and not just for the work, but for life =)

    Abraço

  5. Jessica permalink
    December 15, 2008 3:54 pm

    This assumes a lot about leads. What can you do if you talk up – up to the CEO – and nothing is done?

    Assume that in my scenario the person absolutely loves their job and their work and the only thing preventing them from accomplishing successful projects are a small group of people who can’t work with anyone who isn’t in their little club.

  6. December 16, 2008 12:08 pm

    @Jessica – that’s a fair criticism of the piece. It’s an intentional omission, too. I believe at some point that talking up is roughly as good as talking to the ceiling. Talking down doesn’t necessarily do anything but create a larger group of dissatisfied people who at least feel better for having vented. In this scenario, I think there are a few possibilities:

    * Re-evaluate the group – it’s possible that little club is really working for the company. So, as long as it’s not doing damage (you note you love your job and work), the CEO is content to leave it alone. If you see no damage, is it missed opportunity?
    * Talk frankly to them, if at all possible. I addressed that in the article, and since you talked with the CEO, I suppose that this is not a possibility.
    * Try attraction rather than promotion

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