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Lessons on leadership from the world of game development

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Introducing the Autonomy Index

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Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, outlines the three key components of motivation as Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. We have language to describe levels of Mastery, and even to discuss commitment to Purpose, but in my years studying leadership and management I’ve not yet found a good way to speak more precisely about Autonomy. Saying that Autonomy is, to paraphrase Pink, ‘the desire to direct our own work’, doesn’t give a leader or a team any hints about how to actually be autonomous; it’s much more than just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ topic.

Note: in researching for this post I found that some work has been done around articulating kinds of human autonomy, but at too high an abstraction level to be used as a viable tool in the workplace. If any reader knows of other existing sources that cover similar ground as I do below, please let me know.

There was a point during this past year’s program, at the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy, at UT Austin, where I was discussing Autonomy with our then Director. Warren wanted to empower the current Game Director, but didn’t have the confidence to give them full autonomy. I proposed we could think about levels of autonomy, instead of it just being a black or white concept, and Warren found it a useful way to think about the issue. I’ve thought more about the issue since then, and today am introducing my solution, something I’m calling the Autonomy Index.

The Autonomy Index is a framework intended to address the discussion of autonomy, by helping break it apart into a number of specific and separate pieces. This post will introduce the framework itself and its elements, then a later post will discuss examples of how the framework might be used, and why understanding autonomy with more nuance can be an important tool for every leader.

There are six elements of the Autonomy Index: Identification, Research, Options, Decision, Execution and Accountability. These are each discussed in more detail below.

Each element can be scored on a scale from 0 to 1, with 1 being ‘the employee is in complete control’ and 0 being ‘the employee has no control whatsoever’. By adding up the six numbers a final number is determined, which becomes the aggregate Autonomy Index, ranging from 0 (no autonomy over any part) to 6 (complete autonomy over every part). No value is ‘better’ than others, but all parties in a discussion being aligned about the same level of autonomy, using the elements of the index, is critically important.

  1. Identification – Identification is about choosing the focus of an effort. It is often a problem to be solved, a challenge to be addressed, or an opportunity to be exploited. Someone who has complete control of what the focus of their effort is scores a 1 and someone with no control or input scores a 0.
  2. Research – Research is all of the effort to understand the specifics of a problem space, the fact-finding that goes into making sure that whatever has been identified is sufficiently understood. This effort may be very small, if someone already has high awareness of the identified area, or much more involved, if someone has a lot to learn. The Research element is scored based on who is doing the Research for a given focus area, with a 1 being the employee is doing all of the Research and a 0 being all of the Research is being done for them (independent of how much Research is involved).
  3. Options – once the Research has been collected someone must determine the set of possible actions for further consideration (and not every possible option). The Options element is scored based on who is determining the options, with a 1 being the employee completely determines the options and a 0 being the options are being completely proscribed to the employee.
  4. Decision – with the Options made clear a Decision must be made, being the choice of which of the Options to pursue (or which combination of elements from various options, which is essentially an unstated by still valid Option). This element is scored a 1 when the employee makes the final Decision on their own, and is 0 when the Decision is made for the employee without their involvement.
  5. Execution – having made a Decision someone must now do the work to intact the Decision, this is Execution. If the employee executes the work on their own, of their own accord, it is scored with a 1, and if the employee isn’t involved in the work at all this element is scored with a 0.
  6. Accountability – the Accountability element is about who judges the quality and effectiveness of the outcome of the Execution. If the employee alone will judge the outcome this element scores a 1, if the employee is completely uninvolved in judging the outcome this element scores a 0.

A note about the first element, Identification: An important part of Identification is being clear about what level of abstraction is appropriate. Most of us, most of the time, are working within a problem space that has been defined for us by an employer, whether it’s an executive level abstraction like ‘run a profitable business’ or the more operationally defined abstraction level like ‘deliver X number of finished assets in a given period’. Getting agreement about what level of abstraction someone is allowed to operate at is part of Identification.

It is likely that within each option the score will be between 0 and 1, and not just 0 or 1. A manager and a direct report brain storming a set of options might be scored as .5 for Options if they both were equally involved. A manager asking an employee to recommend an Option, and be involved in the Decision, but that Decision is still being made by the manager, might score a .25 for the Decision element, but might be .5 if the manager and the individual contributor are making the decision together. As the Autonomy Index is a new tool there are as yet no best practices around scoring each element, but I do expect some clear patterns to emerge.

The final number isn’t nearly as interesting as the conversation the Autonomy Index provokes. A manager and their direct report, or team members working together, being closely aligned about the kinds and degree of autonomy for any given effort, can only improve the chances of success.

In a future post I will discuss examples of how the Autonomy Index might be used at work, and why understanding autonomy with more nuance can be an important tool for every leader. Until then, I welcome your questions and comments.

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Written by joshuahoward

June 6, 2016 at 2:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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.

Result

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.

Deliverable

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.

Action

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

A Proposed Definition of Management

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In a previous post I introduced my working definition of leadership: Leadership is committing oneself to the success of those around you, and acting on that commitment at every opportunity. If this is how I define leadership, what is management?

Leadership and management go hand in hand. Tracing my thoughts on both over the years reveal that early on in my career I saw management as a step towards leadership. But as I grew to appreciate leadership better I realized it needed to stand on its own, and not as part of a continuum with management. I believe successful business leaders must express great Leadership (as I defined it above) and great Management, but not having a working definition of Management makes this statement hard to further explore.

As excited as I am about being a part of the DSGA, bringing leadership lessons to future video game industry folks, I have to remind myself that our mission is to also instill strong management skills in our participants. It became clear that I needed a working definition of management to give form to what I hope to be teaching.

I wanted to find a way to express what management was that paired nicely with how I defined leadership. As the two are very complementary, the two definitions should themselves be complementary.

Also, note that an important goal of mine when defining Leadership was to attempt to create a meta framework that leads to all of the behaviors traditionally viewed as aspects of Leadership. I want to do the same with Management; instead of the definition being a list of attributes used to describe good management, what definition would necessarily lead to all of the same behaviors?

Which brings me to my working definition of Management: Management is committing oneself to achieving results through others.

I’m still toying with this, but am coming to appreciate its simplicity.

Defining Management this way led to an important personal realization about Leadership. Leaders work with people to help them get better, so people are the means and the ends for Leaders. On its own, my definition of Leadership doesn’t necessarily ship great product or make any profit – shipping product and making profit are not necessarily required for a leader to deliver on ensuring the success of those around them.

On its own my definition of leadership describes Ghandi, or Martin Luther King. These were great humans, but running a commercial enterprise was not core to their mission of helping humans. On its own my definition of Leadership leaves out a bunch of stuff that is critical to running a successful business. But all of the stuff it leaves out is covered when paired with the working definition of Management. Managers know that people are the means to some other end; harnessing groups of people well can unlock incredible results.

Great Managers know how to best work through others to achieve great results. Great Leaders know how to bring out the best in people, and to go beyond what they them selves believed was possible. When the same person is a great Manager and a great Leader the results can be truly impressive – achieving incredible results and growing everyone involved.

I look forward to feedback about this definition and its implications (supportive or not). I will push participants of the DSGA to think deeply about this. Your feedback is welcome as well. If you don’t like the definition tell me why. If the definition resonated with you tell me why. As this is a working definition, I’m open to feedback either way; whether the definition changes much or not, the discourse is invaluable.

Written by joshuahoward

August 6, 2014 at 8:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Why you didn’t get accepted into the DSGA (or get that job offer you wanted)

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Note: this is a DSGA focused post, though the lessons learned apply more broadly.

At the beginning of July we made our final decisions about which of the many applicants to the DSGA we would make offers to. In the end we did phone interviews with about 50 of the applicants, before winnowing it down the 20 positions the program has available for the 2014-2015 academic year.

The entire staff and faculty of the DSGA (all four of us) are very excited at the group we have gathered, but this post will focus on the other direction, those that didn’t get accepted. After so many application and portfolio reviews, and numerous telephone interviews, what can we share about why someone didn’t get accepted into the program, and how might this apply to the real world context of not getting that job you just interviewed for?

In organizing the various reasons why someone was not accepted into the DSGA I found they mostly fell into one of the following groups. I’ll dive into each category a bit more, as well as advise what next steps make sense for someone in the given category. Finally, I’ll conclude by drawing parallels of this to interviewing for a real job, to see what all of us can learn from this.

The categories our rejected candidates fell into were as follows:

  • Excellent candidate, but skill set is no longer needed
  • Strong candidate, but not as diverse as others
  • Solid candidate, but with no outstanding factor to push them over the top
  • Over confident candidate, with an unrealistic understanding of their skill set
  • Unqualified candidate, not self aware enough to even realize it

Excellent Candidate, but Skill set is No Longer Needed
We had a number of candidates, especially late in the process, that clearly demonstrated to us that they would be excellent participants in the program. Not only did they have multiple disciplines they could demonstrate significant skills in (art, game design, programming, etc.) but they could clearly articulate their passion of and experience with taking on leadership roles in various aspects of their lives. Like our accepted candidates, many of these folks could clearly articulate what they wanted from the DSGA, why they were drawn to leadership, and how they could contribute to the program.

But we don’t need 20 3d artists, or 20 C++ programs, or 20 of any single thing. Our goal from the start was for the participants to work on a large project, using the project as the ‘real world’ lab to put the lessons we are teaching into practice. Like a real video game development team, we needed to ensure we had a balance of skillsets. That meant that the 10th great artist we spoke to was in a very tough position, of not just demonstrating why they should join the program, but why we should not make an offer to a candidate we were already impressed with. Ultimately this is a difficult (and unreasonable) task, resulting in us having to tell several candidates that while we were impressed with them the program had no room for them.

Folks in this group might have gotten a different response had they applied to the program earlier. Those that took advantage of our early admission deadline avoided getting put into this group, for example. ‘The early bird gets the worm’ held true. The lesson here is to be always on the look out for that next great opportunity, because the less you stay aware the less likely you will be able to act at just the right time.

Strong Candidate, but Not as Diverse as Others
We had the chance to speak with a number of very strong candidates with clear expertise in an important video game development discipline. These folks articulated themselves as well as many of the accepted candidates. But having only one area of expertise put the candidate at a significant disadvantage. Several weeks ago I mentioned that many of our candidates were multi-discipline, and it turned out that single discipline candidates were overall less successful in getting one of the final spots in the program.

Having a specialty is not a bad thing. But especially on a smaller team, having a diverse skill set means its more likely the candidate will be productive more of the time. No project has everyone doing any one thing 100% of the time.

An important lesson for folks in this group is that even while its okay to specialize, video game development is highly integrated, and the better you understand other disciplines the more valuable you are going to be. Your job isn’t to be a programmer, or an artist, or a game designer; your job is to help ship the best game possible, and overly narrowing your involvement will count against you.

Solid Candidate, but with No Outstanding Factor to Push them Over the Top
If we got off the telephone interview and didn’t immediately decide we had to make you an offer its likely because there was something ‘missing’. There was no single compelling reason to say yes, even while there were no reasons to say no. Many of these folks were articulate, with reasonable answers; no obvious negatives to point to. Except the biggest negative was the lack of a clear compelling reason this person needed to be a part of the DSGA.

Many of these candidates presented themselves as interested in the opportunity to join the DSGA, but the details of their answers demonstrated hesitancy. Often we asked softball questions giving the candidate a chance to shine, sensing that we had yet to get to the gooey center of their passion. Sometimes we weren’t sure the candidate even really wanted to the join the DSGA, or didn’t understand why they wanted it enough to make a compelling case for themselves.

When we didn’t get a clear sense that someone was truly passionate about joining the DSGA we didn’t feel the need to use one of our few spots on them. The lesson from this category is to be authentic enough to admit when an opportunity isn’t really good for you, for whatever reason, no mater how crazy your peers may think you are for passing it up. Just as we sensed hesitancy in a candidate, hiring teams often ferret out those that are really interested from those who say they are interested because they think they are supposed to be interested.

Over confident Candidate, with an Unrealistic Understanding of their Skill Set
Most of these candidates didn’t get to the point of having a call in person at all. The disconnect between the view of themselves presented in their written materials and the portfolio they submitted was too significant to overlook. Being confident and ambitious can be good things. But, when an applicant didn’t have the wherewithal to realize that their portfolio was weak in one or more obvious way, their attempt at confidence and ambition is shown to be just bravado.

Having a weakness in your portfolio is not the problem; some of our accepted applicants had clear areas needing improvement in their portfolio. But those accepted addressed their weaknesses head on, demonstrating a self-awareness and professional maturity we admired. The candidates that showed no willingness to discuss what we perceived as obvious weaknesses, or to even acknowledge them, did not fare well in our application review process.

Though not a new lesson, the folks in this group show the cost of overconfidence. Its fair to do your best to represent your strengths, but it seems many people don’t recognize that owning up to your weaknesses is itself a worthy strength.

Unqualified Candidate, not Self Aware enough to even Realize it
A small number of our applicants seemed to have applied to our program almost accidentally. Their application materials often demonstrated a complete lack of appreciation for what we expected as far as minimum requirements for our candidates. Its one thing to want to explain your way past not meeting a particular requirement, but to present yourself as virtually unaware of the requirements in the first place was a sure sign you would not be accepted into the program.

On numerous occasions we decided to proceed with a candidate despite them not having a clear-cut case for having met all of our requirements. But every time we made this exception it was for a candidate who effectively addressed their shortcomings. Unfortunately there were a number of candidates who not only were not qualified, they presented no evidence that they realized they were not qualified.

Its one thing to shoot for the moon, and go for opportunities that you might not on paper look ideal for. But do so with your eyes wide open. The paradox with this group is that those who think they might be part of it are probably self aware enough as to not be a part of it.

Broader Lessons Learned
Some key takeaways for those that don’t get the job offer they so badly wanted.

  • Be on the watch for opportunities even before you think you are ready to leave your current gig. Timing is important. (I wrote about this before here.)
  • Sometimes it really isn’t anything you did, its just that you don’t fit into the team doing the hiring, for reasons you have no control over.
  • Having just one area of expertise may no longer be enough. Its okay to specialize, but everyone who wants to be in the industry needs to understand all of the roles and responsibilities of those involved, and not just their little corner of the project.
  • Be authentic enough with yourself and your interviewer about your passion for the job – we know when you are trying to fake it. And even if you do fool us, and we make you the offer, why take a job you aren’t really excited for?
  • Owning up to your own weaknesses can itself be a strength. A nuanced approach that admits you are not perfect is better than the bravado of unwarranted overconfidence.

Written by joshuahoward

July 30, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Importance of Having (Job) Options and the Magic of Choices

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Have you spoken to a recruiter in the last couple of months? Or chatted with someone outside your current employer about a new job? For most people in the video games industry your answer should be yes. No matter how well things are going today in your current job, having job options is always better than not having options. In this post I’ll discuss why I’ve always asked those working for me to be open to considering other jobs, especially my top performers.

When you wake up in the morning do you decide to go to work, or do you go to work because you have to? If going to work at your current job is your only option than you are going to work because you have to. And we all know that we come to dread the things we have to do a lot faster than we do the things we decide to do.

To decide to go to your job you need to make a choice, and choices require options. Having only one option is not a choice. But having multiple options can completely change your mindset.

Even if you have no good options, just having options puts you in a much better position than if you had no options.

Choices are powerful magic. Choices are how we take control of our lives. Choices allow us to face the risks life presents proactively. Its harder to take a victim mentality when you know why you chose the option you did.

I want everyone in my organization to decide to come to work, knowing that of all of the options available to him or her this job is the right one for them right now. And if they decide at some point what I can offer is no longer their best option I fully support them in pursuing whatever better option they want.

Imagine two teams doing similar work. One team is full of people who wake up every day and go to work because they have no other choices. Whether they enjoy their work or not they stay, because they think any job is better than no job. Instead of engaging productively when issues arise at work they kowtow, lest they rock the boat and put their job in jeopardy. Its unlikely anyone in this situation is doing their very best work, so inevitably the success of the group suffers. These people might be capable of passion, but have almost no passion for their work, because it’s become ‘just a job’.

The other team is full of people who wake up every day knowing they decide to go to work where they do, because they know that with just a bit of effort they could be working somewhere else. When these people have an issue in their job they address it, because having chosen to work where they do they have a vested interest in its success. These people demonstrate passion, and are more likely to strive to do their best work, precisely because they chose to be where they are.

The people in the first team are no less qualified, skilled, or professional as those in the second team. The difference is in deciding to make a choice. When everyone in a group is making the choice to be a part of the group that group is much more powerful.

As any leader wants what is best for their organization, it follows that leaders should strive to make their organization one that great people will choose. But even great people need a change of pace now and then, so a mature leader knows that saying goodbye a strong performer is better than that person staying because they don’t understand their other options.

Everyone benefits when they understand their other options. Which is why I want everyone in my organization to not be afraid to consider other jobs.  If I’ve done my job right, as a leader, those that are committed will stay, improving our chances of success considerably.

Some consider my willingness to discuss this topic with my staff crazy. But there are those in the industry that take this concept even further. Riot Games recently followed Zappo’s lead in putting a program in place that will pay employees to leave early if they discover Riot isn’t a good fit for them.

Even those organizations not able or willing to go as far as Riot does can have an open dialog with their members about how important it is for them have job choices. If your management considers discussion of other opportunities taboo you should question their motives, and whether that’s the kind of management you want to be working for.

Don’t wait until things at your current job get bad. Leaving a sinking ship isn’t really a choice if you wait too long. Having options while things are good prepare you for if (or when) things do go badly.

Don’t just do your day job because it happens to be the one you have, commit to your day job because you understand the other options available to you, and are unafraid to pursue them. Harness the powerful magic that comes from making a choice.

Written by joshuahoward

July 1, 2014 at 9:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Importance of Small Decisions and Rapid Decision Loops

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Every day each one of us make innumerable micro-decisions about our work. Building software is both technically complex as well as creatively challenging; the tools we use provide so much power there are many many ways to accomplish the same thing. Each micro-decision is an opportunity to make forward progress or to derail the project. With so much at risk, how does leadership ensure that people are making the ‘right’ decision as often as possible?

One could view leadership’s role as coming down to this one issue – providing an environment that maximizes the chance that each micro-decision being made in an organization is the ‘right’ one. While the big decisions leaders tackle may get more notice, it’s these micro-decisions that better reflect the health of an organization. The ‘micro-ness’ of these small decisions lets each individual issue be considered not very important, leading to the false belief that as a whole these micro issues may not be very important.

I believe that an organization that can make decisions quickly will perform better than one that one that makes decisions more slowly, all things considered. Faster decisions means faster reaction loops. Faster learning about the impact of the decision, and a faster ability to adjust based on that learning. Faster learning results in a smarter organization.

What better way to ensure an organization can make decisions quickly than by creating an environment where even micro-decisions are more likely ‘right’? There are many approaches, but a consistent truth is that one must decentralize decision making, while providing everyone in the organization the tools and resources needed to make the best decision they can.

The other extreme is to centralize decision-making in an attempt to exert better control. Not only can one person (or a small group) not make as many decisions as a larger group, but one person (or small group) is rarely the best resource to make the decision, resulting in less of the ‘right’ decisions overall. To believe that one person can make every decision better than the rest of the organization as a whole is to believe that one person is smarter than the collected smarts of the whole organization; something I have never experienced.

Recently I was describing this idea to a long time friend of mine. I was trying to articulate why I thought it so important that leadership understand the importance of these micro-decisions, and how that relates to an organization’s ability to make rapid decisions, that then enables a tight act-react feedback loop. My friend instantly recognized the idea, and introduced me to Colonel John Richard Boyd, a United States Air Force pilot from the 1950s into the 1970s.

What does an air force pilot who flew combat missions over Korea have to do with any of this?

Colonel John Richard Boyd may have initially been an air force pilot, but he had the mind of a military strategist. One of his many contributions to military theory is what he called the OODA Loop. OODA stands for Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action.

Boyd believed that the force that could execute the OODA Loop faster would be more successful on the battlefield. Consider his experience as a pilot; the pilot who could execute the OODA Loop faster was more likely to win in a dogfight. But Boyd realized this concept applied to many other areas as well, at many different scales.

Inherent to a fast OODA Loop was the idea of a decentralized chain of command, because it was clear that the more you tried to centralize decision making the more slowly you executed the OODA Loop. Its easy to see how a pilot needs to decide how to fight in a dog fight without constantly waiting for orders, but the idea of the OODA Loop when applied to more traditional land warfare was potentially radical.

If you dive a bit deeper you find that even Boyd wasn’t the first to articulate the benefits of decentralizing decision-making. After the Prussians were defeated by Napoleon in 1806 they made an intentional effort to rethink their entire approach to warfare. A core realization they had was about the problems inherent to centralizing decision-making. While perhaps not articulating it they way Boyd did, they understood the need for front line troops to have the responsibility to react to the battlefield more quickly than the traditional chain of command allowed. I’m sure that if I kept digging I could find even earlier realizations of the importance of decentralized decision making for complex group endeavors.

This new approach could be thought of this way: previously the responsibility of a given military unit was to carry out its orders, whereas now the responsibility was instead to accomplish a result, with much more freedom about how that result should be achieved.

Why this tangent into military history? Understanding that this concept I was trying to articulate, about the importance of micro-decisions, had been better are articulated in a completely different domain was in many ways a comforting realization. Yes, Boyd’s OODA Loop is not exactly what I was describing, but in many ways it was a better model than what I was coming up with.

Leadership plays a critical part in helping organizations execute rapid OODA Loops. In a future post I’ll discuss a model for giving direction that can help establish a culture that excels at this.

Written by joshuahoward

June 24, 2014 at 8:36 am

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The ‘Ideas = Value’ Delusion

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“I don’t want to share my idea because it’s going to change the industry, and I don’t want it to get stolen.”

This sentiment echoes something I’ve heard over the years, and yet I was not expecting to run into it while speaking to applicants about joining the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy. I realized I was surprised that anyone seeking to join the DSGA, a program focused on leadership and management development in video games, would still be holding onto this belief.

It’s a belief that has many variations.

  • “I had that idea years ago” in response to a new game, movie, book, etc.
  • “I don’t share my best ideas at work because I don’t want them to belong to my employer.”
  • “I have notebooks full of great ideas.”

It’s the belief that the idea alone is of value, that good ideas are scarce, and that ideas should be owned. This belief is itself a delusion, one that people are better off living without. Any but the most novice who suffer from this delusion cannot be taken seriously by other professionals. And the most novice must be taught why this belief is not an outlook that will benefit them in their career.

Ideas are easy, execution is hard. Execution is what brings value to an idea. 

Recently Warren Spector, the Director of the DSGA, responded to an applicant about this very issue, with a response I thought was particularly well crafted. The response could be paraphrased as “If someone steals your idea and executes it poorly, you can still execute it better later on without too much worry. If someone steals your idea and executes it well, before you do, than they deserve the success for having worked harder to get that idea into the world.”

Many modern work places, never mind just video game development, require a level of creative problem solving on many different levels. Individuals who are committed to the success of the group know that by putting all ideas on the table the group has the best chance of deciding on the very best one, regardless of its source. Those that hold onto the delusion that ideas are themselves valuable, and should be hoarded, are not working in the best interest of the group (which impacts their own success over time). 

Over the past several years I’ve responded to this belief in part by sharing a video by ze frank, a video blogger of some notoriety. Check out an edited (and thus safe for work) version here. Find the explicit version for the full effect, including ze frank singing his song “where the f*** do ideas come from”.

I’ll admit to falling prey to this delusion early on in my career. Then I met James Ernest, who instead of having a filing cabinet of ideas had a bunch of actual board games on the market. James showed me that valuing ideas didn’t lead to results, and that the real value was in being able to execute an idea. Thanks you James, for one of the many important lessons you taught me. 

In a future post I’ll dive into the fallacy that leadership has to have all of the ideas or answers, as well as discuss a model for how successful leaders can direct their people and organizations without falling prey to this fallacy. 

Written by joshuahoward

June 19, 2014 at 2:01 pm

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