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Scrap the titles
by Samuel Rantaeskola on 09/30/13 05:53:00 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.

 

Man in box

In Swedish culture, hierarchy is not as important as in many other places. Having grown up here, my view of organizational structures is of course heavily influenced by that perception. I would like to think that I value opinions equally, no matter title of the person. Or do I?

In a series of posts I would like to discuss some of the problems with mimicking your project structure in your organization chart. This one is going to focus on my view of job titles.

When talking to people outside of your company, it does make sense to have a title that describes what your role is. It makes it a lot easier for people you are talking with to understand who you are, and what kind of decisions you can make. However, that title should disappear as soon as you step inside the doors of the studio. In internal discussions it is not a benefit that a title may add value to your opinions, the only thing that should matter is your skill set.

To understand the problem with titles we need to go back a number of years in game development, to when all game teams were recruiting experts within a single area. And organizations were typically divided into departments according to discipline. Labor within a discipline was funneled through the lead into the departments. In those structures, single area expertise works very well.

With the movement towards cross-functional teams, where team responsibilities are bigger, the single area expertise no longer works well. I am not saying that you do not need the experts, but if everyone is a single area expert it is very difficult to build successful teams. The number of dependencies between the teams will be very high, and one of the goals when building cross functional organizations is to set up groups that have all the tools they need to solve the problems at hand. Each dependency on another team will slow the group down.

Instead of only experts there need to be a lot of people with broader profiles; that are skilled in more than one area. You want people that can model, light scenes, rig characters and so forth. The funny thing is that any small indie developer consists of people like this by nature; they just do not have enough people to cover all the areas of expertise that is needed to build a game. However, when the organization grows this tends to get lost along the way. Why is that?

I think it all starts in the recruitment process. When an imminent need of a skill set is discovered in the team it will be described as a title, and recruitment starts to look for a person that has that specific skill set. When a person is hired he will be given the title in the job ad. Even though the recruiter was clever and actually looked for a person with multiple skills, the title he is given essentially boxes him in into one skill set. This title will now affect how he is perceived in conversations, assigned to teams and also personally affect what kind of work he feels is within his domain.

Projects change over time, so does the responsibilities within them. Do you want to recruit a new person every time a new responsibility is discovered? Perhaps you realize that there is a person within the team that can take on the responsibility. Should you change the title then? Should he be assigned under a new boss?

We once counted the number of titles we had at my previous employer of about 100 people, it was more than 30. There were a lot of people that had multiple talents, but they were all described with one skill set. This caused two major problems for us:

  1. It was virtually impossible to build cross-functional teams as the titles cemented the old departmentalized structure.
  2. People could say: “That is not within my job description.” which is a valid, but it does not add to the greater good of the team.

For me, solving these problems was very important for the team to become better. Unfortunately, we never got anywhere with it. With some perspective on the problem, these are the steps I would have liked to take to attack the problem.

  • Reduce the amount of titles to as few as possible. Can you even take it as far as Game Developer is the only title you have?
  • For people that are working in outward facing roles, titles can still be there, but that’s just for the business card.
  • In large teams, it's good if people have an awareness of the available skill sets. One way of solving that is if everyone on the team list and grade their skills at an internal wiki or similar.
  • When recruiting people, prefer people with multiple skills over single skilled.
  • Job ad titles should describe the main responsibility for the person you are looking for. However, it should be made clear in the recruitment discussion that it’s not the title the person will have in the team.

Doing all the above things might be a step in the right direction, but the single most important thing to do is to explain to everyone why titles should be simplified. What the assumed benefits are and how it will affect everyone. Without the buy-in from the team, it might just be perceived as another management fad, like this one:

Dilbert strip

(this post is also post at http://www.hansoft.com/expertblog/how-to-improve-communication-by-removing-titles/)


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Comments


marshall womack
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Great points on job titles. However one aspect that wasn't mentioned is the value of job titles to the individual employee and how the lack of a proper title can lead to "abuse" or taking advantage of a key employee. For many employers, the title is what separates employee salary requirements and expectations. As an employee you may carry the burden of a "lead" role even though you are not titled as a lead. Or you may be responsible for team management, scheduling, training, support, and task assignments even though you are not considered a manager. So what ends up happening is that employee who is going above and beyond their defined role is only being paid as a "junior" or " senior" titled employee. Sadly it seems to be an advantage for employers to continue this way for many months and often years without ever truly promoting or declaring an appropriate title for the true work efforts and responsibilities performed.

Samuel Rantaeskola
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Thanks for your input, and I fully agree with your points. I intentionally left out the topic of salary and promotions, as the topic would swell immensely.

First, this is absolutely not an idea that can protect people from abusive management. It can only work well in organizations where management fully understands the value of people. Without that, it would be a moot point.

My main gripe is with specific titles, for example Environment Lighting Artist, as they gives people a very narrow focus and likely discards a large part of their skill sets.

I'm not totally opposed to having a seniority description in the title, such as senior. You could have several layers of that to provide career paths within leadership and expertise. But one should be careful in how this ranking effects the internal discussions as well. The key thing is that the the prefix should not denote a positional advantage to other people but rather be a signal of excellent performance and skill levels. If used and defined properly it is a non-destructive way of a given people career paths.

Joseph Fernald
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You have made some good points about potential abuse. I'd also like to add that job titles are very important to an employee for other reasons such as job satisfaction and career development and advancement.

For an employee Job Titles help to visualize their career's progress over the term of employment which otherwise would just be done via comparing your starting salary vs your current salary to see how far you've come and how valuable the employer thinks you are.


Titles also help to define an employees career advancement path. For example if a job title changed from "Texture Artist" to "Animator" it signifies a change in their careers direction, which has new expectations.

Additionally it also helps the employee express to others what they are passionate about doing... If you walked up to a texture artist and asked them to animate a 3d model....they might be able to do the job...but would they enjoy it? Is animating what they are truly passionate about? If not by assigning them this task, and then holding them accountable for it you are essentially asking the employee to swallow their pride for the good of the company/product and do what is needed rather than what they enjoy.

Samuel Rantaeskola
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Thanks for your input. I can definitely understand the problems with completely removing titles. But given that titles are a "cheap" motivator it's easy to instate title after title to the keep people seemingly happy. However, without considering the drawbacks with this approach one could end up with a scattered organization with loads of small boxes (narrow set of responsibilities). This gets in the way of the greater good, which to produce as good games as possible as a team.

My assumption is that the greatest motivator of all is being part of a team that creates kick-ass games. If you are in that kind of environment, titles don't matter that much anymore.

As I stated in the start, my views are heavily influenced by Swedish culture. Sweden and the US are on opposite ends if you rate Individualism vs Collectivism as several studies have shown.

What I wanted to bring up for discussion is that one need to find a sweet spot between promoting individualistic versus collective behavior. Using titles recklessly is IMHO the same as disregarding the collective aspect of team work.

Sean Nufer
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I'm new to this forum but I have followed the articles for a couple of years. Anyway, I just wanted to give my thoughts to this post. I think the article articulates some very relevant insights. However, coming from a psychology background (specifically, business psychology), there is a component to job titles that has a lot of value to an organization - specifically personnel. People are motivated by various things within a workforce. To an extent, money may be a motivator. Often people are motivated by autonomy or a sense of purpose.

Interestingly, job titles are actually incredible motivators to many employees. They may work extra hard for a promotion that involves a title change. Even if there is no pay increase, it may be worth it for a person to strive for the title of senior designer from associate designer. It helps to gauge how your workforce is motivated. In terms of organizational development, you are looking for those workplace elements that have positive valence.

So yea, I wouldn't completely discount job titles, but I would encourage organizations to be incredibly flexible with their titles. Use them sparingly and use them to motivate (instead of define) your workforce. I mean, what really is the difference between an AVP, EVP, SVP, VP, etc.? Whatever the difference, it's not universal and doesn't span industries or organizations.

Samuel Rantaeskola
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Thank you very much for your opinions. I agree that titles are strong individualistic motivators.

If you compare motivators, which of these do you think would be the most desired?
Good Title at No name company vs No name title at Good Company

My guess is that for a lot of people the latter is preferable. With that assumption I also think that even though titles might seem like what you're after, in reality your main goal is to part of a great team. That raises the questions, Are titles adding value or are they a destructive force in team work? Where is the sweet spot between no-titles and title-mania?

Eric McConnell
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In my experience, job titles are not as much of a gate as what "department" you fall in. Example: People in business do not respect people in programming's opinions. Why? Because we are in programming and not in business. People treat departments like end all gates to invalidate any influence from the outside. Things like this cause much more frustration and power grabbing than job titles within a specific discipline.


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