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.
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.)