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IGDA Forum: Gamelab's Herdlick On Managing A Happy Team

IGDA Forum: Gamelab's Herdlick On Managing A Happy Team

November 20, 2007 | By Christian Nutt

November 20, 2007 | By Christian Nutt
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Catherine Herdlick, director of production at Gamelab, developers of the massively successful Diner Dash, among others, delivered a presentation entitled "Caught in the Middle: Managing Staff, Teams and Executives" at the IGDA Leadership Forum.

Her central tenet? "The idea is that happy people make better products... I say 'products' instead of 'better performers' because we're the game industry, and it's important to keep that product focus. We make games." She followed with, "Keeping your staff happy, your executives happy too... it's not quite as hard as people think. It's just a little bit of the golden rule... as we get older it gets harder because we get bogged down by our responsibilities." After polling the attendees and discovering that, like her, a number of them were middle managers, she remarked, "We're lucky to be caught in the middle, actually."

Communication Skills: The Key

Herdlick focused on improving communication skills, offering up what she termed a "black box" of communication skills, with four main requirements: listen closely, be open, establish and manage boundaries, and establish and manage expectations.

According to Herdlick, "The need to improve communication skills is essential to improving dynamics at a workplace ... because everybody wants the same thing. We all want to feel that we've contributed meaningfully to a game." Whether it's coding the game or signing a distribution deal, everyone involved with a project wants to contribute and see it perform well. Speaking of anyone from junior artists to executives, "We want to have a good time along the way... at the end of the day you want similar things."

Noting that "we're only halfway through the first day [of the conference] and it's already been a theme -- more positive feedback," Herdlick launched into her suggestions. "Give people feedback about what they're doing. You can create a positive workflow so people are going to be engaged... you want to have a better understanding of the company's goals... it's important that you understand what the goals and values are for your company because you are the mouthpiece for your junior staff. And by working with your executives you will have more meaningful communication" to relay.

"You also have to believe [executives] have something to offer to you -- what they have to offer to you in terms of expertise might be different than what they think they have to offer to you, but the important thing is that hey can use their expertise in meaningful ways." Herdlick suggested a secondary benefit, too: "Keeping them more informed lets them know they can trust your team and they get more hands-off."

When listening to people, Herdlick said, "99% of what you're going to hear is not going to be useful to you. But you're looking for that one percent. You cannot possibly hear everything. Certain things are [related to] personalities, and you can do your best, but some things are out of your control and you are going to have to accept that. Personal and professional -- you need to be willing to have both kinds of relationships at work. Don't just listen with your ears" but observe their emotional state and body language. When bridging towards the personal, "You can say in a neutral way -- 'You look very low energy, is everything OK?'"

Key to listening is repeating what you heard. "This is very, very important. Once you hear an answer or a question, repeat it. Chances are you did not hear what they were saying. And this goes for everyone -- staff, executives, everybody." Listen for clues. "Stuff like, 'Oh, so-and-so never tells me what I'm supposed to be doing.' 'Or how come this company keeps everything quiet?' 'I'm tired of working on these casual titles.'" Then respond -- though you can't always give people what they want, do it when you can. This has the added benefit of "help[ing] you delegate and unburden somebody else" if a staffer wants to try something new that needs to be done. "You need to listen for anything that they say that sounds unsure about how they're doing, or how their work is valued, and remedy those."

"I create policies at work. It's not like I just thought out these policies, but I sat and listened to people complain. If you hear a lot of different people complain about the same thing chances are you need this policy." When people ask you questions, you don't have to have an answer, said Herdlick. "An answer is a closed door... so if they have a question you can answer with another question, or ask, 'I don't know. What do you think?' many times you want to have that answer and be strong, but it's better sometimes not to have an answer... people forget to tell each other stuff... sometimes you'll over hear people talking about something... so ask about it. It's up for them to decide if you don't need to know this information. It's up to them to set their boundaries for information not to share."

Roadblocks To Communication

"As long as you sincerely have the best interests of the team, the product, the department and the company in mind, you should be OK. You need to be confident and believe in what you're doing. You want to remind people... that you've done you research and you're genuinely trying to make decisions to make the product as best as possible. A lot of times when we're working on a publisher project they don't want to do certain tasks, but I say 'It can come from me now, or from the publisher later,' so I let them know I'm not just breathing down their neck. You need to let them know that you're giving them pushback because you're in the trenches with the team and the executives trust you."

Citing a fear of building up egos, Herdlick said, "A lot of people are afraid to praise people." Conversely, "A lot of people are afraid to challenge executives, but just remember they're people too with the same goals. You're not going to get fired. And if you are you probably don't want to work there."

Herdlick also sincerely plugged the IGDA. "Talk to anybody who's not here, let them know -- attend IGDA events, local chapter meetings, read articles, let them know common frictions in game development. It makes them feel a lot less alone."

Continuing in the theme of honesty and loyalty, Herdlick said, "If you ever need support talking about difficult topics find an ally in your company. And pay attention to when someone else needs an ally." Also, "You don't need to be totally transparent about everything. Obviously legally you can't tell certain people about things. You can sort of let them know what's going on and what the outcomes might be... you don't want to keep a lot of secrets. It lets people know that you've got their back." When it comes to assigning tasks, "You should never let a chart replace human interaction."

She also suggests using what you know about people's personal lives to make interdisciplinary connections at your company. "Maybe two people that you know both have iguanas and they don't know it ... 'Hey, this person does geocaching,' whatever. You should make these connections for people. You'll find yourself crossing departments more and hierarchies a lot more... ask people what they did on weekends. This also helps you uncover untapped talent... turns out this person is really brilliant at some obscure skill we needed."

Citing her ability to communicate, Herdlick notes, "I have a lot of people come to me when they're unsatisfied with their job... I can't promise I'll fix it, but I do thank them for being open, because otherwise if they're silent and if I don't reward them with praise, then ultimately they're going to become dissatisfied and disgruntled and quit, and it's going to catch on around the company."

Establish and Maintain Boundaries

That said, Herdlick does believe you must maintain personal and professional boundaries. "It's a delicate balance, but you need to make sure that you're aware that you do have a personal relationship with the people you work with. But it shouldn't be too personal or otherwise work becomes your personal life, and then it becomes unhealthy."

When it comes to making decisions, "Involve management to make sure there is no fallout later... it can be as simple as just letting them know you made a decision. But if you're beating your head against the wall trying to make a decision... involve as many people as possible in making decisions."

When it comes to reviewing performance, "It's your responsibility to create the framework for how feedback can be offered." Set guidelines so you can interpret feedback in a useful way. "You should be very clear about what kind of feedback and then hold to it and be firm."

You should also promote participation in meetings. "Whenever I pose a question I will just wait. Sometimes it's a really uncomfortable silence. Usually a leader in a group who's pretty chatty will speak up... and you can sort of gradually get into it... say 'someone we haven't heard from, speak up.' Call on somebody. Let them know ahead that you will be asking them to say something in the meeting... it lets them publicly display what they've been working on." But meetings, as we all know, can drag on. "When you sense that it's time for a meeting to end, just say 'Are we all set? Is there anything else?' When things are going in circles, just say 'This seems like we're going in circles. Are we all set?'"

Establish And Maintain Expectations

When discussing "expectations", Herdlick said, "We're talking about your expectations of others as well as your expectations of yourself." Also be mindful of others' expectations of you.

"Everybody has good intentions," commented Herdlick. "I think people are generally good, especially if you've hired them. Only tell people you're going to do something if you're actually going to do it. Don't do it just to show them you're a good guy. Otherwise next time you say you're going to do something they're just going to roll their eyes." Create next steps, "And then follow through. If you create a next step like a meeting, ask them if they followed through."

At the close, she recommended the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick M. Lencioni, and that attendees join The Project Management Institute at "I don't think there are nearly enough game developers joining this."

At this point a brief Q&A session began. When asked how she encourages feedback besides just generally being an open person, Herdlick answered, "We do do a lot of reviews, we do a lot of activities within a department so your relationship with your department is a trusting one. We make sure surveys are not mentally connected to salary or performance appraisal."

When it comes to managing up (to the executives) or down (to the team), how does Herdlick spend her time? "[The executive team and I] meet twice a week for half an hour a day, all four of us. I think I probably spend about 20% of my time communicating in one way or another with them, either writing something up to show them... a lot of times I'll do research for them. We did a set of reviews to get a sense of employee satisfaction. They didn't have the time to read through everything so I found a way to collate and distill it."

Circling back to "happy people make good games," a point Herdlick returned to on several slides, an audience member asked "How do you measure their happiness and get that feedback loop going?" Herdlick replied, "There's a couple of indicators. Probably the best if is they're just clocking in and clocking out -- if they seem to be less productive and less into their work. Measuring it in terms of numerically, when we've done reviews we've asked them" to rate things 1-10. "Taking long lunches, surfing the internet instead of their work, if they're staying late it indicates that they're not really into it." And finally, "Gossip and talk to their buddies."

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