There is No Them

Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

Leading through Results: How to Direct Your Teams

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Previous management approaches that involve telling your team what to do are no longer in style. Today it’s all about empowering employees, not ordering them around. In many different disciplines humans have learned that its often more effective to lead people by articulating a result than it is to lead by proscribing a specific action (see this previous post). But it turns out that precisely how one ‘leads through results’ is not self-evident. A number of years ago I developed a framework to help managers working for me put this concept into action, which I call the ADR Equation.

The ADR Equation

Action -> Deliverable -> Result
Action leads to a Deliverable, which leads to a Result

The ADR Equation challenges leadership to articulate a Result in such a way that the team discovers the appropriate Action and Deliverable.

The ADR Equation scales from the smallest of results to the very largest. Anything leadership needs the organization to accomplish can be understood via the ADR Equation, and in doing so leaders create a culture of ‘leading through results’.

Lets dive in a bit deeper and look at some of the particular challenges the ADR Equation presents, as a way of ensuring leadership is most successfully leading through results. Each part of the equation asks something of leadership, as discussed below, working from the back of the equation forward.


The art of leading through results comes from scaling the Result appropriately. The best Results are often ‘just out of reach’ of the given team. Too grand a Result and the team feels lost, not knowing how to proceed. Too tactical a Result and you might as well be telling the team precisely what to do, leaving the team feeling disempowered.

Done well the Result is a powerful motivator for the team, as they come together to rise the challenge. There is no exact science to getting this right, but having a deep understanding of the team’s capabilities and desires is very important.

The right Result will stretch the team’s capabilities, but not so much as to lead to frustration. The Right result helps your team achieve flow, causing the team to be ‘fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment … ’

Note that just knowing what your team is capable of isn’t enough. It’s necessary to also understand what the team wants. The business goals of the team may begin to express the team’s wants, but a much deeper appreciation of what each person wants for themselves will go a long way in helping leadership craft a Result that resonates much more profoundly.

Leadership often has to break a large Result into smaller results. Sometimes these smaller pieces are distributed to various parts of the organization and done in parallel. Sometimes these smaller results are tackled one after the other by the same team. Breaking your BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) into smaller results isn’t a problem; it’s a fundamental leadership skill. Don’t confuse ordering your team to do something with appropriately scoping the Result. Results motivate and empower, even if the given Result is just a piece of a much more ambitious Result.


Deliverables are tangible evidence of an action. While too much focus on the Deliverable can be bad for an organization, as it often comes at the expense of focus on Results, Deliverables are still an important part of the equation.

Over the past several years the video games industry seems to have downplayed the importance of many traditional Deliverables. Its in vogue to talk about how outdated a Game Design Doc is, or why a schedule isn’t necessary in an agile world. While the move to focus more on the results of productivity, and not just the Deliverables it outputs, is a positive trend, we seem to have forgotten how a Deliverable can be an important tool.

I believe Deliverables are very important for many reasons, and two most critically.

  1. Like drilling a skill in a sport, getting better at a Deliverable builds the skills and discipline needed to be successful in the long run. We write Game Design Docs so that the designer gets better and better at articulating the specifics of a design. Knowing how to write a good Game Design Doc means the designer is skilled at structuring his design in such a way that someone else can implement it, whether or not the Game Design Doc is ever seen by them. The same holds true for many other kinds of Deliverables; Deliverables provide opportunity to demonstrate and gain particular skills.
  2. Often there are many factors that influence a Result, many of which are outside a team’s control. Holding a team accountable for a Result is sometimes unfair as a result, and can be counter productive. If a team did everything in their control right, and the Result was still not met due to outside influences, the team needs to learn the appropriate lesson (and not that they did something wrong). When the Result is not a fair way to hold a team accountable the Deliverable is the next best thing.

The ADR Equation means leadership can’t dictate what Deliverable a team commits to. For example, telling a team you need a Game Design doc is actually lazy shorthand for asking the team to document the design specifics such that the rest of the team can implement the design correctly. As long as the goal is met what does it matter that it’s written as a Game Design Doc, or as verse in iambic pentameter, or as a picture on a whiteboard? Leadership articulates a Result and lets the team decide what Deliverable is needed.


The Action is at the other end of the equation from the Result, and is the part that leadership should be the least involved in. Though sometimes difficult, leaders should avoid deciding on an Action secretly, then constructing a Result they think will cause the team to come up with that same Action.

Ono of the things you learn in film school (as told to me by my fellow DSGA faculty member, David DS Cohen) is that a director should never tell an actor what to do. The Director’s job is to instruct the actor about the feeling their performance should evoke, given the context of the character and story, etc. A director that tells an actor what to do is in essence telling the actor they don’t have confidence in them. This is yet another great example of how humans have learned the importance of directing through results and not proscribing action.

Secretly knowing what Action you want makes impossible the chance that your team will find a better way to get something done. It implies that you, as the leader, are smarter than the entirety of the team, something I have never found true. Someone who believes they are smarter than the rest of the team isn’t someone ready to be a true leader.

When Things Aren’t Working

The ADR Equation isn’t only to be used when things are going well. Leading through results isn’t a fad that leaders should abandon when business gets difficult. Its common that leaders under stress start to micro-manage their teams, believing they and they alone know how to pull the organization out of its troubles. Instead, in times of difficulty, the leader needs to double down on leading through results. An organization needs the lead through results approach most when they are at their lowest, given the positive outcomes leading through results engenders.

ADR Equation and the Four Roles Leaders Need to Master

In a previous post I introduced the idea that leaders need to take on different roles at different times, given that teams need different things from leadership at different times. I introduced the Teacher/Coach/Mentor/Peer model describing these four key roles. When I first introduced the ADR Equation more than one of the managers in my organization believed that the ADR Equation contradicted the Four Roles model. Both ideas co-exist well, if understood correctly. Here is how:

The Four Roles model includes the Teacher role. Leaders need to take on the Teacher role when their team needs to acquire a fundamental skill for the first time. Whether the Leader is herself the teacher, or the leader finds someone to do the teaching, its important to realize that at some point every one of us will need to be taught something for the first time (as opposed to just being told to figure it out because we are good at some unrelated thing, a common but terrible approach).

But being a Teacher doesn’t mean the leader doesn’t stay focused on leading through results. If you study teaching (as I’m doing as part of trying to make the DSGA the best it can be) you’ll find that articulating the result of a lesson up front can improve the utility of a lesson to your students. Even when learning something brand new, it helps students learn when they know why they are learning, or in what context that learning is taking place. While you may teach someone how to tie their show by demonstrating a set of actions, you first explain that they are about to learn how to tie their shoe (the Result). Even the demonstration of those actions can be communicated such that each step is itself a result. Instead of ‘do this, then do this’, the lesson becomes ‘get to this point, then get to this point’. The difference is more than semantic; it’s about reinforcing a larger philosophy about how people should be treated.

Results Come from the Top, Action from Below

‘Leading through results’ is easier said than done. Understanding the power of the idea doesn’t automatically help someone put it into action. The ADR Equation is my attempt at putting some structure to the concept, to serve as a tool to help growing leaders adopt the leading through results approach. Knowing what the elements of the ADR Equation are, what role each plays, and how to articulate the ideal Result, can go a long way in helping anyone in implementing a ‘leading through results’ approach.


Written by joshuahoward

August 12, 2014 at 8:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. […] It turns out this is more nuanced that some first expect, as it often requires the next item (Read the Room) to get right. To read more about the power of communicating through results, the key to mastering the art of it, and what ADR stands for, check out a previous entry at […]

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