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The keys to a company culture that works
The keys to a company culture that works
August 15, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

In a heartfelt talk at GDC Europe, Harald Riegler, co-founder of Sproing, frankly discussed the challenges and advantages of shaping a company culture that leads to respect and success.

"The right company culture will bring really good things out of people where you didn't expect they existed," says Riegler, who manages a company of 65 that works on free-to-play and console games in Austria.

Unfortunately, he says, forging the right company culture is a challenge -- but it's crucial to shape it, and that every team member understand it.

"That culture will largely decide the success of the studio or team," says Riegler. "A bad company culture can even destroy teams completely."

While "the latest million-selling management style" books offer advice, Riegler was dismissive of trends and tricks. "The really important thing is... that it's entirely about human interaction, the characters of the humans, and their behavior," he says.

"A good company culture is built on some lasting principles -- principles, to me, means more than a set of rules, it's a foundation on how you live and how you act," he says.

"Working at it day by day, week by week, year by year is required to improve your company culture," he says, however, so be prepared to commit fully to change.

Here are his principles:


"To lead any group of people, you need an innate respect for people," says Riegler. If you don't respect everyone you work with, he says, "I feel you're doomed to fail from the outset."

"If you feel superior to people," he says, that comes across. "Body language is most of our communication."

"Such respect leads to an environment of trust, and trust is really important because only in an environment of trust can you address tricky things. You can bring stuff out into the open that nobody wants to talk about," says Riegler.

Lead by Example

"Every [parenting] book says that if you want your children to do something, you do it yourself," says Riegler. This applies to companies, too, he says.

And the reverse is true, too: "If you don't want somebody to do something, don't do it yourself," Riegler says. "Never ask anybody to do something you're not prepared to do yourself."


"This is where it gets really tricky," says Riegler.

"It's often confused for just holding your subordinates accountable," he says. But as a manger, Riegler says, "the only way, in my opinion -- and that's something I absolutely believe in -- you an introduce accountability into organizations by making yourself accountable first."

How do you do it? "You have to tell people what you're setting out to do," he says. "You have to be willing to benchmark yourself." And then finally, "you have to be prepared to stand there and say just how successful you have been, which isn't easy, because rarely do you achieve everything you set out to do."


"Maturity does not mean that you're super-experienced, that you're an elder statesman," Riegler says. "Maturity to me is the ability to self-reflect and have a clear understanding of what your strengths and weaknesses are, and what you should be working on, and where you should grow."

Unfortunately, he says, "a lot of people don't really do well here, because it requires an honest reflection on your personality, and that can be uncomfortable."

However, he says, bear in mind that "the best contributors can understand the challenges your team is up against," and having that self-honesty and self-reflection is key for that -- it's not just about improving oneself and having a better outlook; it has a meaningful effect on the team and the business.

Then again, he says, there are divas, backstabbers, and power players. "Beware of all these kinds of characters; they're very damaging," Riegler says.


"I think fun is really important," he says. People could probably work in other, less interesting industries for more money, he says, so in the game industry, fun is key.

It isn't, however, an environment that isn't professional, or one that's lax, he maintains. "Sometimes it's perceived as laxness -- young people confuse fun with a lack of seriousness or ambition," Riegler says. So have your foosball tournament, but make sure the goals of the company are clear, too.

On the other hand, "maturity does not contradict with being crazy" -- being weird is part and parcel with the culture of the game industry, he argues, so be open to it.


"Freedom to decide how to solve a task," Riegler says, is key -- "not being micromanaged."

"To come and go at flexible hours, to take some time off to deal with family issues and what have you," is very important. "Freedom leads to a lot of autonomy of every person, and an environment of trust supports such an autonomy, and autonomy leads to motivated people," Rigeler points out.


This is one of the most important elements, but also one of the most challenging. "If something went wrong, admit it. Don't be afraid," Riegler says. "You have to a culture where admitting failure is accepted."

What won't work, he says, is "a blame culture." When you have one of those, "a lot of stuff that is important will not come out in the open," Riegler says.

Why don't people want to be honest? "It's all because people are so afraid to deal with failure," he says. But you have to recognize that "we all screw up every once in a while."

If there's a culture of open and honest communication, "people on the team who are smart will spot you are screwing up, and they will point it out and they will stop you from costly mistakes."

But he did have one warning: if people are always brutally honest about what's not working, "you may fall into the trap of becoming hypercritical," which leads to pessimism. "But you can't lose faith."


"The common awareness in every person that the culture is important and the way we interact sets the culture for success is really important," says Riegler. In other words, "Everybody has to understand these principles and live by them."

What you have to recognize is that "everybody has the ability to improve." However, he says, "You can't just go out there and tell people to improve... that's not how it works. It's a really slow process."


"These principles are not worth much if they are not enforced by everyone," says Riegler. This is from the bottom to the top of the organization.

"If you tolerate someone ignoring the principles in the organization, what does that mean, that you can get away with that? Then people will understand they are not really principles, and that will be very harmful," he says.

Final Thoughts

At companies without an open culture, he says, "a lot of times people are impressed by people who speak out in a meeting and say 'This is going wrong,' and you wonder how they do it, and that's because the culture makes this stuff hard to bring out into the open," he says. But if you shape a culture built on mutual respect, accountability, and communication, "more people can do that, and everything improves."

"Your ability to self-reflect on what your strengths and weaknesses are will make you really valuable," he says. "You need to find like-minded people and you can build teams that can survive in our day and age."

Gamasutra is in Cologne, Germany this week covering GDC Europe. For more GDC Europe coverage, visit our official event page. (UBM TechWeb is parent to both Gamasutra and GDC events.)

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Michael Joseph
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This is a fascinating topic.

You're essentially defining the qualities of good leadership right? By definition leadership involves a top down shaping of the culture which is what you're describing.

But I wonder if you can be a good leader if you're lacking certain moral principles? I mean, if you have a personality type and upbringing that has transformed you into an extremely profit driven, bean counter-ish, low integrity, ends justify the means maniac, then how likely are you able to be the type of leader who can create an amazing company culture?

How likely is it that companies with toxic corporate cultures are lead by people who lack a certain level of virtues. Sure some of them prove that despite fostering a toxic company culture, success can be had... at least for a time...


I'm reminded of the Jeff Bezos quote. [src]

“Our culture is friendly and intense, but if push comes to shove we’ll settle for intense.”
Data reigns supreme at Amazon, particularly head-to-head tests of customers’ reactions to different features or site designs. Bezos calls it “a culture of metrics.” With dozens of these gladiator-style showdowns under way each week, there isn’t much time for soothing words or elaborate rituals of social cohesion.

I'm also reminded of the recent and very good Vanity Fair article "Microsoft's Lost Decade"

Christian Nutt
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Though it maybe didn't come across in what I wrote, Riegler argued that you NEED those moral qualities to be a leader, unquestionably.

Aaron Fowler
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These are some great thoughts. I think these could be applied to many other companies outside the industry as well.

Wojtek Kawczynski
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Great summary. I agree with all of it. In my experience there aren't many places that live by these though.

Titi Naburu
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It's so simple to say, and so hard to do. This is one of the pieces to keep and read once every while.

Russell Watson
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*Massive Like* . Great article.

Justin Kwok
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Having lead a number of small teams, I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments in this article. I would also add to the "Honesty" section about blame... it's important to focus on the mistake and not the person who made the mistake (they probably feel bad enough). There's a great story about how Pixar deleted all of Toy Story 2 that taught me this lesson.

Also, I highly recommend a book by Daniel Pink called "Drive." I disagree with some of the stuff that he says near the end of the book but it gives some insight into what people's motivations are and it relates to a company's culture. Here's a taste from his TED talk:

Christian Nutt
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Actually, Riegler recommended Drive in his talk.

Justin Kwok
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Wasn't there, wouldn't know ;)

Christian Nutt
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Yes, I realize ... that's why I mentioned it! So others who weren't (presumably the majority of people reading this article) would find out.

Eric Adams
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A 360 review process (were employees review direct reports/managers/leads) is essential to ensure proper/fair/efficient top -> down management. Yet very few companies implement it.

Johanna Schober
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I'm Harald's business partner and COO of Sproing, and you just touched on a really important topic. One of my favourits, actually.

I second your first point, but I feel that quite some companies do 360° feedback meanwhile.

We have a 360° system at Sproing.
Nothing too fancy or elaborate: We typically have ~ 5 people giving input for anyone's appraisal process, typically in writing first and then in a short talk to clarify open questions.
We go through this feedback in an employee's annual talk. Also, the employees are encouraged to give feedback the other way. We then distill the important goals for the employee and possible follow-up points on management's side.
Afterwards, there's a written protocol.

I feel the trickiest things about getting that right are:
- preparation: The person collecting the feedback and preparing the appraisal must have a true understanding of what the people giving feedback actually meant.
- getting feedback that actually helps the employee: We're doing annual talks, which means that the feedback is sometimes a bit outdated, or not very specific. On the positive side, it's a generalized opinion about a person that is derived from impressions gathered over some time. What helps is asking the feedback-givers for concrete examples where a certain strength or weakness of a person really showed. That usually makes it easier to understand.
- making things measureable: In literature, you should always issue measurable goals. This, I feel, is sometimes purely impossible. If I'm telling someone that he's a great programmer, but I'd wish that he'd be more outspoken with his ideas since he obviously has very good ones in his head, I can hardly make that a prerequisite for his next pay raise. It's too subjective, although it's still a valuable goal to achieve for that person.
- organization: It's a heap of work, obviously.

And: 360° appraisal systems can't substitute direct feedback between people, which again is depending very much on the culture of the company. Although it happens rarely, it's not a good sign if the feedback in the appraisal meeting is new and surprising.

I think you can support an honest and critical feedback culture with a 360° review process, and at the same time, the process requires such a feedback culture underneath.
Harald also mentioned the metaphor of the flywheel in his talk (--> "Good to Great"/Jim Collins): Shaping culture is like turning a gigantic flywheel - first, you put in immense power and nothing happens. Over time, you overcome inertia and the wheel gains speed, up to the point where you just let it run.

Oh dear, it's a topic of it's own, as you see. How did you get me started on that? I have work to do!

Georgina Havelka
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Hi Johanna! I have a love/hate relationship with 360 reviews. Being a manager, I think they are necessary, but also being a manager I dislike the immense amount of work they can become. The best implementation I've been involved in is to supplement the 360 reviews with 1-on-1 meetings throughout the year. I have 30 minute 1-on-1s every 2-3 weeks with each direct report. In those meetings, it gives me a chance to give "as it happens" feedback. For example, I can say "in yesterday's meeting it would have been great for you to speak up about your optimization idea...". Then at the yearly 360 review, the feedback should be a summary of the topics and examples we've discussed throughout the year without too many surprises. Having the 1-on-1 meetings has many benefits, but one impactful one is that the 360 review system can then be more compact since there is constant feedback through the year. -- Georgina

Edmund Ching
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As much as I like this article, I find it a little on the idealistic side.

Johanna Schober
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You need to be a bit on the idealistic side as an entrepreneur, especially in games I think. Where else should we draw power and direction from, if it's not from idealistic ideas? Seriously, that's not ironic - I mean it!

r schumacher
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sproing really was a fantastic place to work,
it's nice of you to give insight into your management magic! :)
consider me a first-hand witness of everything you described really coming across.
there's just so much respect and appreciation there.
all the best to you guys!

Johanna Schober
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Nice to hear of you again! Thanks for the flattery :-)

Adam Learmonth
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^ What's wrong with a little idealism? Valve operate in pretty much this way, and they are a roaring success.

Adam Rebika
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Nah, Valve is a very bad example.
Their "no middle management" policy is what causes their games to be delayed countless times before release. If they did not have Steam pumping insane amount of money in the company, they would have gone bankrupt very fast.