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Is the project manager role outdated?
by Samuel Rantaeskola on 05/27/13 10:38:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

(this post can also be found at http://www.hansoft.com/expertblog/is-the-project-manager-role-outdated/)

Outdated Last week I gave a speech at the Nordic Game Conference. The topic was to tackle how to bring creative and production closer together. Leading up to the speech I did some dry-runs internally. The feedback I received was that I need to be better at framing the topic so the audience gets an idea of the topic. I spent a week thinking about that feedback. The same day as I was giving the speech, it occurred to me that the framing argument is that the traditional project manager role is outdated. So is it?

The project manager, as I was taught in engineering school, makes sure that the requirements are in place by collaborating with customers or internal stakeholders. He then converts the requirements into a plan that the team can execute upon, delivering a product long after the projected end date. This was a monumental task, continuously updating the schedule and re-planning the teams work due to delays and dependencies kept him occupied. It also made him instrumental to the success of the project, remove him and there would be chaos.

The game producer role often looks very similar to the project manager’s. They are typically the link between the creative and the teams, converting designs into tasks and driving the teams forward by tracking and tasking team members. Remove the producer and there will be chaos.

The fact that removing the producer will cause mayhem could be seen as a strong argument for the importance of producers. It could lead to the faulty conclusion that you need to add more people to strengthen a vital function in the team. In reality the best producers are the ones that have made themselves redundant; they have successfully set up a system that works without them. Much like a sports coach, he can sit quietly at the side line, watching his team crush the opposition.

There are a lot of game studios out there that boasts about their ability to work without a producer role in their team. Years of bad practice within project management has tainted an important function.  Every time I hear this I smile to myself, someone is doing the producing, but they are just not calling them producer. No serious sports team would consider playing without a coach.

So what is good producing?

A modern producer does not put himself in the middle of things, he observes and coaches. He looks at things that are about to become problems and cleans them out the way by proactively facilitating process fixes. He helps the teams set up frameworks that make them more efficient and less in need of outside assistance. He helps the creative team organize their work and collaborate with the teams to ensure that they are delivering towards the vision. Essentially he is continuously working on building a team that can run without him being around. A modern producer thinks the best day is the day when he comes into work and has nothing to do. Here are a few statements I think all producers should strive for:

  1. The producer does not build road map of the game, but helps the creative team in structuring it so that it can continuously be kept up to date.
  2. The producer does not create tasks for the team, but helps the team improve their skills in planning their work.
  3. The producer does not track the progress of the teams, but helps them setting up structures and working processes, so that they can detect problems early on.
  4. The producer does not solve the immediate problem, but helps the team solve it themselves and also preventing it from reoccurring.
  5. The producer does not manage the communication between teams, but facilitates it.
  6. The producer does not resolve dependencies in the team, but helps them discover problems and sort them out.
  7. The producer does not only explain how something is done, he also helps the team understand why.

When a producer excels in all above things, he will eventually become redundant, and here lies the problem. Essentially good producing means that you downplay your own skills to help the team grow theirs. Typically the producers are people that have a strong development background, which is result focused and personal gratification comes from delivering. In producing the gratification is more similar to the role of the teacher; it’s from the growth of your teams. 


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Comments


Christian Machmeier
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Sam,

Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts on the subject.
I kinda think the exact same about the topic and always try to keep myself out of the project's work (and advise every other project manager to do the same). I also learned it the hard way, when I put _my_ perspective above the one of my team members. And, in the end, found out that it was me, who was wrong all along, and that I factually hadn't helped the project at all.

I found a quote from Lao Tzu, which sums it up quite well: "A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves." (Source: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/l/laotzu121709.html)

Dex Smither
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Similar to the Lao Tzu quote, I tell associates that the sign of a good producer is that he or she is never at their desk, because it means you are working with your team(s).

Dan Porter
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Sorry, but are you saying that a Producer is the same thing as a Project Manager (PM)?

I've seen teams that have both a producer and a PM, and they have been completely different roles, albeit both related to management -- "coaching" as you put it.

So far as I've seen in the game industry, the producer has more creative input in the sense that a producer can approve new features or decide which features are cut to make a deadline. Conversely, a PM tends to be more task-oriented, figuring out how long each feature takes to implement and creating necessary tasks towards each milestone.

I have also seen a variant where there are two producers on a team-- one that functions as a lead and task master, and another that functions as a whip and organizer by making sure tasks are clearly communicated and followed up.

This topic is also problematic since the definition of "producer" and "project manager" varies wildly between companies.

I think the title of this post is misleading, since you switch very quickly from talking about "project manager" to "producer". Proof of this is your list at the end where you say "The producer does not track the progress of the teams, but helps them setting up structures and working processes, so that they can detect problems early on."
If the producer isn't doing it, who is tracking progress? Probably a project manager, thus they are not the same thing.

Your take-away message about a good leader being light-handed is spot on, though. :)

As "God" said in Futurama: "When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all."

Dan Porter
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Update: Just noticed that the article is titled differently on the gamasutra main page and on the actual article. The link from the main page says "producer" while the article says "project manager." I got linked here by a friend so I didn't see the producer part.

This is exactly the sort of confusion I'm talking about... haha.

Samuel Rantaeskola
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Yes, the title is intentionally misleading to highlight the underlying topic of the discussion. There is a confusion about what a producer is in the games industry, some see them as the traditional project manager and some as a creative lead for the team.

My view is that they are neither. A good producer helps (coaches) the team take on the responsibilities of a traditional task manager and control their own destinies. Adding more producers with different functions is a symptom of a failure to build a system that functions without "middle-men".

So to respond to this question:
"If the producer isn't doing it, who is tracking progress? Probably a project manager, thus they are not the same thing."

The team is responsible for tracking progress towards their current goals, and it's the producer's role to help the teams build structures that allows them to do that.

Dan Porter
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I'm curious about this...

What team sizes are you used to working with?

Saying things like "the team is responsible for tracking progress towards their current goals" sounds like a smaller team size with high individual autonomy.

Samuel Rantaeskola
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In the producer role I've worked in teams ranging from 40 to a 100 people.

Could you please eloborate on your thoughts on why indivdual autonomy can't work in large teams?

Dan Porter
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I'm not suggesting that it can't work -- in fact I can't think of a situation where individual autonomy would be a bad thing, so long as the degree of autonomy isn't effecting group cohesion.

However, loss of autonomy tends to happen more frequently in larger teams than it does in smaller teams, since it is possible to divvy up tasks so thoroughly and with such specialization that some people might become simply "doers" of things that are handed to them, rather than agents towards a shared larger goal.

When you speak of "teams being responsible for their own tasks" as if it were simply the way the world works, it makes me think that you are either uncommonly lucky to have worked in multiple large teams that still gave agency to "the team" (rather than a handful of 'middle men' as you put it), or that you worked on small teams where everyone was a stakeholder.

Sorry if I seemed rude there. I wasn't trying to assume, which is why I asked.

I just see "loss of agency" as a common symptom of large team size.

Samuel Rantaeskola
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No offense taken, it's actually a very valid question. Is producing the same in small and large teams?

In small teams a producer can be quite hands-on and plan, track and work in a more traditional PM role. I'm not saying it's the most effective approach, but it works without the producer becoming a bottleneck. As the team grows the system will crackle, the solution is commonly to add more producers working as traditional PM's. Which in turn will cause even bigger problems. Loss of autonomy happens when the producer tries to manage a large system in detail. It becomes so fragile that in the end everyone has to do exactly what their told, otherwise it will fall apart.

One of the points I want to get through is that the producer should be focused on building systems that scales well. That is not true for the traditional PM approach.

If you break the game down in to logical areas, where different teams have different responsibilities, it allows the teams to own planning there work as well. The teams are probably way better at doing this, due to their superior insight into the problem. The producer's focus can now move from resolving dependencies within a large set of people to trying to help teams collaborate.

I can't say I've been uncommonly lucky in my previous teams, this has been something I've strived for but I have yet to get there. It's definitely not easy.

The most effecient and fast moving teams I've come across in the games industry are the ones where the producers are working in this way and the team is working with a high level of autonomy.

Samuel Rantaeskola
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The title set in the main page is not decided by me, so I'm not responsible for adding to the confusion :)

Scot Lane
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Yep, that sounds like a "Producer" response:)

Samuel Rantaeskola
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Touché :)

Henrik Strandberg
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This is further complicated by the lack of a common nomenclature across the industry - titles like game director, development director, technical producer, etc are used by some organization to dispel the notion anyone is a "Producer" or "Project Manager", when their job descriptions are near identical.

I've always seen the "Producer" role to be more about mentoring, team building, and prioritization of tasks and features - whereas the classical "Project Manager" is someone who owns schedule and process, with no or little input on development priorities, and no or very limited staff management responsibilities. I've met very few individuals who are capable of balancing both these roles simultaneously in larger scale productions; most people naturally gravitate towards either depending on the current demands of the exec or dev team, and neither is given the attention it needs and deserves.

Samuel Rantaeskola
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Couldn't agree more on the naming convention problem.


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