Archive for category: Leadership

IGDA Food For Thought

My favorite talk from the  IGDA Leadership Forum I attended back in October was Jesse Schell’s keynote, “Information Flow: The Secret to Studio Structure” (you can watch it here)

He covers ant colonies and acupuncture, email etiquette and lovable fools – (humorously) tying everything to the impact of information and communcation in our offices. It’s an hour long, but it’s a slow holiday week, right? Watch it and charge the time to professional development.

IGDA Recap | Meeting, Hearing, Learning, Talking, Confirming

It took me a moment, but I’ve finally caught up after the IGDA’s Leadership shindig. The conference was amazing! It drew people from across the globe and I walked away with new perspectives and renewed enthusiasm. My personal highlights were:

  • Meeting lots of interesting, friendly people who made me feel very welcome. My lack of video game knowledge meant I talked to anyone and everyone, ignorant of any cool kid status.
  • Hearing from firm and team leaders that are experimenting with how they structure work, manage teams and train their leaders.
  • Learning about video game design and comparing their creative processes with other design industries.
  • Talking with people that place such a high value on developing their ability to manage people. Clearly this industry has found the value in developing leadership skills, in part because project teams are so large and complex.
  • Confirming that creative management ideas translate across creative industries by participating in conversations about team and firm management.

The most valuable part of the conference was certainly how much it expanded my network of creatives. I’m excited about the people I met and am looking forward to bringing their perspective  into this conversation about managing creative work .


Being a Better Boss Series | Communication

When I was kid we had weekly ‘family meetings’ – a product of a psychologist father and having a slew of foster kids. While I hated those meetings back then, they gave me communication skills that I carried into adulthood. Don’t get me wrong, communication is always hard. But the more you practice the easier it gets. Here are a few ways to make it less painful:

Value the relationship

If you value your relationship with someone, you want to continue to like and respect them. Think about communicating as something that does just that; it gives you an opportunity to air grievances respectfully and better understand each other.

Talk about things before you’re mad

Bring things up before they’re a huge deal:  Hey Bob, can you keep me in the loop on schedule changes in the future? It really helps me juggle my other projects better. Thanks! <smile>

By the eighth schedule change you haven’t been told about you’re probably seething. Instead, catch it on the second time when you’ve noticed it’s annoying but you’re not pissed yet.

Use humor to lighten things up a bit

My mom is a pro at this – delivering a message with a smile and a wink, my dad calls it the hit-and-run. The key is she’s always good-natured about it, not saracastic or mean-spirited. Well, maybe a wee bit sarcastic, but never mean.

Present your point of view

The quintessential use ‘I feel’ statements advice. Help them understand how their actions make you feel, so that they can empathize. For example, when feeling micromanaged I’ve said: when you check in on me this frequently it makes me feel like you don’t trust me to do my job. Which, of course, was not her intent.

Make sure it’s a two-way street

Let people know you’re open to feedback, then make sure you’re actually open to feedback – listen to what they’re saying with an open mind, don’t get defensive, and ask clarifying questions. If people know you’re really listening and trying understand, they’ll trust you enough to come back again in the future.

There you have it, some of my best communication tools. Granted there are lots of others. What communication tools do you rely on most? Or what do you struggle with when trying to communicate?

Being a Better Boss Series | Empathy

Ok, here it is kids — your first tool in the ‘be a better boss’ ( or team leader/team member/human being) toolkit: empathy

Empathy is not sympathy, not compassion, not being a push-over. It is merely the ability to understand another person’s feelings or point of view. And why does empathy make you a better boss?

Design comes with lots of interesting personalities and creative friction. When faced with a problem child, it’s easy to cast blame, ignore them or stamp your feet. But it’s more productive (albeit less comfortable) to try to get to the bottom of things.

Working under my favorite assumption — that most people want to do a good job — it’s fair to say that there’s some sort of misunderstanding between you and your problem child. First, take a deep breath and stop pointing fingers. Then, take a minute to try to understand why they’re acting the way they are. Is this a product of:

A situation? Maybe the employee in question feels frustrated, bored, micro-managed, lost, overlooked. Or maybe YOU are frustrated, bored, etc. No one deals with life well when they’re any of those things, so we cope (sometimes horribly).

Different points-of-view? Things like generational  or cultural differences make for huge misunderstandings. For example, what may be seen as needy and attention-seeking by one generation may be the communication level that seems normal when you’ve grown up in a ‘real time’ environment.

Different work styles? we all process information and do work differently. I worked with one designer who always avoided me when deadlines were looming. I thought he was just being difficult and disrespectful. Then a coworker explained that this guy could only focus on one thing at a time, “it’s like he’s eating dinner and he has to finish all the peas on his plate before he can eat his meatloaf. He doesn’t mix his food.”

Understanding the other person’s point of view helps you dial back your frustration and then modify how you’re working. In the case of the ‘all his peas’ guy, my bugging him about deliverables actually stressed him out and made him less likely to get the work done. My projects benefited from starting with a clear discussion with him about schedule expectations and changing the timing and frequency of my check-ins  (starting earlier but less often) .

Being a Better Boss (and other alliterations)

I’ve talked a lot lately about how bad management is chasing creatives from design firms, killing productivity, and keeping us from realizing our dreams. (It is also linked to the death of the last unicorn and grandma being run over by a reindeer.) So, in short, it’s bad; bad management is bad.

Most of what we call ‘bad’ management isn’t usually Bill Lumburgh-style bad though. I’m guessing very few people wake up thinking “I’m going to make so-and-so’s life difficult today”. In fact, most people want to do a good job and try to be good managers. So, how do we end up with bad bosses? How do you make sure YOU aren’t the bad boss? Or, more importantly, how do you make yourself into better boss?

To help you answer those questions, my next couple of posts will focus on ‘good’ manager skill building. We’ll talk about empathy, self-reflection and communication, and how you can use them to manage and motivate your team/staff. I think I’ll do a little something on micromanagement too. The first one will be coming at you shortly, so stay tuned…!

Creative Exodus: A Call to Action

In the last couple of weeks I’ve talked with three designers who already have or are planning to leave their respective design industry. In the last year? Dozens. In fact, this exodus of young designers has been part of my motivation for researching management in creative industries.

Some people just switch creative industries, others leave to become bartenders, Apple Geniuses, sculptors, musicians. But nearly all of these truly talented designers had the same reason for leaving (hint: it’s not the economy) – how they were being managed made them hate their work. It makes me sad, and worries me.

Creative industry leaders, take note!!

The future of design and your firms is quietly fleeing. Their flight may be hard to see in the midst of a recession, but in the long haul it will impact design quality and access to talented designers. Now is the time to take action, to  rethink how your firm is managing design and its people.

Evidence Against ‘Suits vs. Creatives’

My recent chat with Schell Games peaked my curiosity about the video game design industry and led me to some interesting research. Dr. Ethan Mollick, from University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, found that while a game’s designer certainly impacts its success (defined as revenues and critical acclaim), it is the producer who really shines.

His research eludes to the producer’s essential role in facilitating creative teams – providing motivation, helping guide design direction and making sure that great ideas are executed in a meaningful way. It’s not the producer who is the super-star, but rather that they  help the team become a collective super star. The team becomes more than a sum of its parts, it is an entity that exceeds the abilities of any one individual.

How many of you have labored under an amazing designer who is a horrible project manager or creative director? How can a team be better together when their team leader is a poor communicator, creates divisions or demotivates them? Project management should be seen is a responsibility that requires amazing people and team management skills, not a reward for being a great designer.

I believe strongly in changing how we think about and do creative work. Despite the reservations (and adamant arguments) of some, there is now a bit more proof of the benefits of creating truly integrated design experiences.

Chuck Hoover | Schell Games

Earlier this week I chatted with Chuck Hoover, Studio Production Director at Schell Games. Schell is truly a experience creator – building interactive worlds in games, theme parks and toys. Doesn’t sound like a bad gig, huh? A friend of mine who works there has raved about the reasonable hours, great project management and supportive culture — I wanted to see for myself.

Enter Chuck

Chuck studied architecture at Virginia Tech, before being lured into game design and receiving a graduate degree from Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC). There he discovered his natural proclivity for organizing people, a perfect fit for a producer. In game design, producers are more than just logistical pros, they are also responsible for managing the dynamics and culture of their team — an insanely diverse group made up of artists, designers, engineers and programmers all working under one roof. In other words, they deserve a medal.

I was struck immediately by how reflective and thoughtful Chuck (in his own work) and the management of Schell have been in creating and reinforcing their culture. They have established the hierarchy needed to run a mid-sized firm, while also tearing down hierarchy in day-to-day studio life. They are aware of how their actions affect their staff, even down to what time they decide to leave for the day. It was inspiring to see the elements of creative management I advocate for being put to work so well.

Thoughts: game design vs. other creative industries

While I want to certainly give huge kudos to Jesse Schell (CEO) and his management staff for the culture they’ve created, I wonder if the industry itself doesn’t play a part. According to Chuck the team management role of the producer is typical across the industry. Their job is make sure cross-disciplinary work is happening smoothly, that people are working together effectively. Here lies a stark difference between game design and other creative industries, whose factions of workers (creatives/suits, designers/account managers, architects/ engineers) work relatively independently and often with somewhat contentious relationships.

Does game design have a leg up because it is a relatively young industry where older management models don’t define how people think about work? With no one telling them how it ‘should’ be done, have they figured out how to work in ways that other design industries say is impossible?

Creative Firms of the Future | Part 3: Where We’re Heading

In the midst of these changes, the structure and hierarchy of the old organizational models struggle. Our firms and leaders have to evolve, because it will be the organizations that are comfortable with ambiguity and disruption that will survive and thrive. To be competitive creative firms will need to look like this:

Organizations like this, dubbed a network structure, address both the challenge of fewer managers and a less structured work environment. Collaboration is high and people regularly work cross-functionally, integrated across departments, design disciplines or firms with little hierarchy. Some of these grey dots will be employees, others may be flex-time contractors or firms that you partner with regularly.

Leaders in these organizations need a different skill set than those in the more clearly defined functional or matrixed firms. They are masterful orchestrators and communicators, rather than just senior designers and project managers. They will have to maximize their bandwidth and resources by:

  • sharing decision making across the organization
  • integrating the creative and business functions of their firms
  • embracing disruption to drive innovation
  • maximizing and integrating the diverse skills of their staff

As  current or future leaders in creative firms, these ‘soft skills’ will be your biggest asset. If you want to be ready, don’t focus on building just your technical skills; focus too on shaping the way you (and your team will) work, lead and manage.

Creative Firms of the Future | Part 2: Change Is Gonna Come

As much as we dream about change and ‘making things better’, most people avoid it like the plague. We choose comfort over progress, especially when it comes to how we run our businesses because change = risk. But the reality is that our economy, workforce, clients and technology are all hurrying us toward having to change our business models. Here’s how…

Org Structure 101

For you non-business majors out there, some business foundation for you.

Historically, many organizations have looked like this – what an MBA might call a functional structure. Many of your firms may look like this, with the Partners at the top, and senior designers heading up silos that may be defined by project type or location.

Or this – a matrix structure. These are more commonly found in larger corporations and may blend project types and geographical silos.

Both of these structures have clear hierarchy and chain of command. They have silos of professional expertise and norms for how information and resources are distributed. While these structures have served us well in the past, external forces are putting pressure on these models, especially for project-based design firms.

The Forces of Change


As the Baby Boomer generation looks to retirement in the next decade, a demographic shift looms. Gen X, at 40 million, is half the size of the Baby Boomers’ 80 million. This disparity means there are half as many experienced professionals to fill the ranks. With fewer managers available, the role of a manager and the skills required to do the job will have to evolve. In addition to being half the size, the leadership and work styles of Gen X are markedly different from their predecessors.


As I’m sure you’re aware, technology’s rapid development and integration into our work means continuously altering the way we design and manage project teams. Communication and knowledge have become faster, more frequent, and more inclusive. Tech tools are blurring the lines between our professional and personal lives and dismantling the idea of the traditional office environment. For example, firms are increasingly using contract workers to provide flexibility in their services or capabilities. Studio Verde Creative, the firm I mentioned in my last post, is a perfect example.

Where We’re Heading

In my next post I’ll discuss some of the impacts these changes will have on organizations and leaders.