Today, I'm going to talk about managing a team. As you may know, I run a game development studio called Gutter Arcade. I also work full time as an IT manager, with a team of two people under me. Now, given that I can’t do game development full time, I often have to hire contractors to help me finish the games I make. I hire artists, programmers, designers, sound effects artists, and musicians quite often. In this blog, I will share a few tips on how to manage a team of people and how to set that team up for success.
1. Manage expectations
As a leader of a team, whether it be a team of 100 or a team of two, it is important to set the team up for success. Maybe that is a bit of a no brainer, right? I mean, does anyone want to set their team up for failure? A team leader is responsible for setting the expectations for the work that the team will be performing. This can mean setting the standard for the quality of work, how feedback is given, and even the amount of hours the team is expected to work on a given day. By setting guidelines, the work becomes much easier to manage, and in turn, the team becomes easier to manage. If your team doesn’t understand what is expected of them, you can expect a ton of headaches and confusion.
I have a habit of working with people and sort of letting them do whatever they want to do. At least at first. I may hire an artist, and give a rough outline of the work that needs to be performed, such as animating a character. Almost always this leads to a bit of confusion while the artist and I feel out the situation, and figure out what it is we are creating. I don’t always have the proper vocabulary or experience to tell the artist *exactly* what it is I want! However, that is the expectation that I set from the beginning. The artist and I come to an understanding that I don’t always know how to communicate certain things (which is part of the reason why I have hired them).
By setting the expectation that I will need all kinds of help (sorry, artists that work with me), a sort of structure is established and work can proceed at a steady pace. I think this is important to point out because it is a very loose situation that is still easily managed through setting proper expectations for the team.
Teamwork always saves the day.
Ways to manage expectations:
- Set team expectations early.
- Make sure expectations stay consistent.
- If anything changes, communicate the changes in detail and make sure everyone understands the change.
2. Encourage communication
Continuing to use artists as an example, I will often work with multiple artists on any given project, all of which may have different roles. For example, the Knight Club team currently has six artists, all performing different tasks. For the game to stay cohesive, it is absolutely key that all of the artists, regardless of their designated tasks, communicate with one another. The animators need to make sure their characters are readable against the backgrounds. The background artists need to make sure that the background doesn’t hide the details of the UI, and so on.
The easiest way to do this is to set up a chat client, like Slack or Discord, and have everyone join. In my experience, that hasn’t been an issue. Everyone I have ever worked with is familiar with one of these two programs and uses it daily. I also ask all contractors that I work with to post their content as it is being worked on in the chat rather than just sending it to me, so that everyone on the team can see what is going on. Most of the time this naturally leads to discussion, and critique, without much work on my part. Here is a screengrab from the character art discussion in the Knight Club development discord.
And if you are interested in the results of this discussion, here are two portraits created by Ed (@Cubeonsa on Twitter). The first one was before the above exchange, and the second one is after. If you ask me, I think the second one is much more interesting and dynamic than the first. I would never have been able to communicate that sort of idea myself, so it is great that the team was able to work together to improve.
Ways to encourage communication:
- Set up an environment to facilitate communication (Slack, Discord, etc).
- Set the expectation that communication is necessary.
- Be the bridge between the group and members of the group that may need help to start communicating.
- If communication is slow, start a dialogue by asking targeted questions to get people talking (What do you all think of X Y or Z?).
3. Own failure
Being a team leader means not only sharing in the success of the team, but sharing the failures of the team. As the person in charge, any and all failures are yours to own and be accountable for. Deadlines not met? Poor team communication? Team members not getting along? All of these things, and everything else, are the responsibility of the team leader. I firmly believe that you cannot excel as a leader without taking complete and total ownership of the team's shortcomings and making adjustments to fix them.
I’ve made many mistakes in the past by putting too much work on a person's plate, that person not being able to handle the workload, and the project suffering because of it. It is easy to draw a line between myself and the failure in this case. It is easy to own that and make the necessary adjustments to solve that problem. Unfortunately, it will not always be so easy. Often I find that ego gets in the way of taking ownership. You may feel as I have felt before, that the problem was not my fault because I am not the one directly responsible for creating the work. However, you are the one responsible for setting the expectation for the work, making sure the team is communicating so problems can be identified, and pivoting to ensure the work is handled and the team is happy.
Ways to own failure:
- As a leader, everything rests on your shoulders.
- Your ability to manage a team is directly linked to the success and failure of that team.
- You must take action when you identify possible failures.
- Everyone is counting on you to help guide them.
- Do not be afraid of failure.
I hope this blog helps you to better manage your team and projects. One final takeaway I can offer is that you should always be willing to accept failure and criticism. Being open to both of those things will make you a better leader and a better person in general. Always be willing to adjust where necessary! I also believe this information is useful for people who are not team leaders, but simply part of a team. Thanks for reading and as always, you can reach me on Twitter or visit my website.
Nathan Ranney is the founder of game development studio Gutter Arcade. He's best known for the creation and development of Knight Club, an online indie fighting game.