Riot Games' lead producer Travis S. George delivered a talk on lessons he learned while shipping League of Legends expansion Dominion, identifying "bad habits" that "will prevent you from being effective."
"In production, and as leaders, we feel that we need to be involved in every aspect of our team's success... but ultimately that can compromise our effectiveness and our team's effectiveness," George said.
He outlined five habits producers and product managers can "get trapped into":
- Write all the tasks and documentation
- Identify and mitigate the risks
- Resolve all the conflicts
- Define all the details of the end result
- Go find all the answers
"These things all sound like good things, but combine them all, they're all bad habits and they will prevent you from being effective," he said.
Nobody sets out to become a micromanager, said George. "Nobody goes into this thinking that." But it happens. This is because as people rise through the production ranks, they are rewarded for solving problems and taking control.
People who are "tactical and detail-oriented and in the trenches" rise up. But "Now you give them more responsibility... How are they going to work? The same way they got there."
"Eventually, you're going to hit your limit and start to fail, and the tricky part is you're not going to notice yourself," warned George.
"I was very quick to hand off the reins of the Dominion team to some other producers I'd been training," he said. "They weren't being as successful as they could have been, and that's my fault. I was trying to do too much, and I wasn't executing on this the way I think about it."
This forced a shift from management to empowerment.
"Create a team which feels ownership and is actually driving results for you," he said. "It all starts with a vision -- you have to know where you're going. You can't empower someone by giving them a rote task list."
When it comes to your ultimate goal, "Tell your team why you're doing it."
"Think about all the decisions they're going to make without you knowing. There's no such thing as overexplaining your vision," he said. "Always make sure to set a goal and explain why."
Over and Under-Explaining
There's a difference between setting a vision and a goal and overexplaining the process, he said. "Google Maps tells me exactly what to do... I'm blindly following the directions Google has laid out for me. I'm really not thinking about it... And I don't learn how I got there, if it's somewhere I've never been before."
Don't be Google Maps. "We know that creating games is full of unknowns, and also shortcuts if you know where to look. If you 'Google Maps' your team, you've removed that ability; you're micromanaging," he said.
At the other extreme, he said, "If I hand you a compass and say 'go to this place,' well, how many people will get there? How will you get there? When will you get there? It's chaotic."
"This is a very common pitfall," he said. "'I'm just gonna give 'em a vision and let 'em go!' You'll have wildly different outcomes all the time."
"Give them a clear context and give them the tools to get there," said George.
Align The Team
Once the goal is set, it's time to get the team on the same page and get ready to accomplish that goal. "Get input, ask for questions, and make them figure out the details for how. Challenge them. Facilitate the thought process for them."
"You shouldn't care about how -- remember, you've hired smart people," said George.
"Do this collectively; don't do this individually. It's extremely inefficient." Doing it in a group "allows the collaborative power of the group to achieve better results," he said.
"Be willing and open to admit that you might be wrong. Stand up in the front of the room and ask. Be open to admit that you may not have the best idea," said George. "If you can't trust them and they can't trust you, you don't have any of this foundation" that you need to succeed.
"Make it clear," what goals you expect from the team, he said, "and make it clear you're going to hold up your end of the bargain."
"My part of the bargain is that I am not going to come derail you guys," he said.
An important distinction, he said, is "the difference between accountability and responsibility. Accountability is being the person who is assuring success. I'm accountable to the players, the business, and my boss. The team's responsible for writing the code, the design work, and the art." As a leader, you are accountable for the delivery of those, but not responsible for their creation.
And when you try to make your team accountable, they may resist. "There are always a million reasons not to do something. Don't let your team give you a million reasons. Force the accountability back on them and make them give you ways that you can get there."
Bad Times Will Come
"In times when things are not peachy, your instinct is going to jump back in and take control," George said. "That's not good."
If you steal control from the team, they'll lose their accountability. But just as bad -- "Who's going to be looking ahead? If you're engrossed in the minutia of running your team, who's actually saying, 'Well what are we going to do next? What are the threats, and how are we going to mitigate them?'"
"If the executive producer is doing my job, who's doing his job?" he asked.
Moreover, "Teams are going to learn from making mistakes."
The problem is not mistakes. "Failure and disaster are actually making the same mistakes again and again, your team isn't learning. Your job is to allow for mistakes and for your team to learn, but to prevent disaster."