What Good Looks Like

The 3 keys to success at Mighty Bear

Over the past couple of years at Mighty Bear we’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what we value as a company, which traits our best and most successful employees display, and which behaviours lead to success in game development.

We talk about these constantly. We’ve even built a self-assessment model our staff can use — in lieu of a predetermined vertical hierarchy — to chart where they are personally against different criteria and work out their relative seniority within the company.

This list takes a high-level look at the top 3 attributes we believe form the foundations for success, not just at Mighty Bear but at any creative organisation.

Doing the Boring Stuff Well

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

It’s natural to want to focus on the high-profile parts of the development process: the things that look great in your portfolio, get you kudos from your peers, and lead to giving talks at big-name events. This may come as a surprise, but at Mighty Bear this stuff is only about 10% of what really matters to us — the other 90% is about how you approach your work and collaborate with others.

The core practice that anchors all successful teams is collaboration. All things being equal, teams that cooperate and communicate more effectively than the competition always win. These are the units that strive to be greater than the sum of their parts; teams made up of individuals can never hope to aim higher than their potential on paper.

It follows, then, that great team members take the fundamentals of collaboration extremely seriously. In practice, that means doing the boring and unsexy stuff really, really well. Seth Godin writes about this in his famous blog post “Professionals, Hacks and Amateurs”.

We show up on time (even when we don’t feel like it), take direct feedback, don’t miss deadlines, and build products always with our intended audience at the forefront of our thinking*.

*You’d be amazed at how many game studios build games primarily for themselves and then try to retrofit some vague notion of who the audience is later.

For example, at Mighty Bear we show up before the meeting starts (meetings start on time so that people’s time isn’t wasted — if you arrive when the meeting starts you’re already late); everyone is expected to be taking notes in meetings; we ask questions; everyone has to read all relevant materials before discussing (and if it becomes apparent someone hasn’t prepared for a meeting, they are asked to leave); we update our JIRA tickets, and so on. We do all of these because we’re professionals. The sum of these many boring tasks is the bedrock of a successful team, and if we want to achieve our best possible work as a group we cannot compromise on doing the basics to the highest possible standard.

We have had people join us and experience a degree of culture shock at how we operate, their initial assumption being that as a small studio we’d be a lot more loose and “relaxed” with the boring parts of the job. We’re OK with people having to adapt to a more exacting way of working than they might have initially expected. While we aim for a free-spirited approach to all things creative and community-focused, this is supported by a hardline attitude to how we work, collaborate, and treat one another.

Being brilliant at the technical parts of what you do is a requirement to get through the door at Mighty Bear — it’s a given. The best team members in any organisation are technically brilliant, have rock-solid fundamental skills, and ruthless attention to detail for the boring and unsexy parts of the job.

Active Ownership

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There are three distinct levels of ownership for anyone at work. At Mighty Bear we refer to these as Passive, Engaged, and Active.

Passive owners:

  • Perform tasks as and when they’re told to
  • Will complete a task then will wait until the next task is handed to them
  • Will wait for others to ask before surfacing a problem they’ve encountered or observed
  • Are not proactive in taking on new work, finding better ways to do things, or speaking up in discussions (this last one is especially important at Mighty Bear).
  • Are not always reliable and need to be monitored
  • Feel threatened if others challenge their way of working

Generally, very junior team members tend to behave this way out of fear or a general lack of confidence in the workplace. This is something we help juniors and interns overcome as quickly as possible. If a more senior team member behaves this way, their manager has to identify the root cause and provide the necessary support to resolve the issue as soon as possible.

Engaged owners:

  • Can be left in total charge of their particular area and will move from task to task without needing to be told.
  • Will proactively communicate with others on how things are going and if they need anything.
  • Look for better ways to do things, speak up in discussions, and challenge decisions if they disagree.
  • Are unafraid to openly disagree with their peers and managers.
  • Listen and don’t act defensively when challenged by their peers or managers.
  • Commit to the course of action once a decision has been taken, regardless of whether or not they initially agreed.

Active owners exhibit all the of the same traits as an Engaged team members, plus:

  • Understand the strategic importance of their role within the scope of the project — they don’t just view their work as a series of tasks. Their suggestions and thinking are at Project and Studio level rather than Task or Discipline level.
  • Can be trusted to answer complex questions and challenges without needing the task outlined for them. It’s enough to hand these people the problem and let them figure it out.
  • Speak up if they see any incoming potential risks for the team or interesting developments in the market.
  • Confront uncomfortable discussions head-on, embracing difficult situations rather than avoiding them.
  • Are always learning and trying to improve themselves.

They set a fantastic example and help lift the standard of those around them.

At Mighty Bear every team member is expected to show at least Engaged Ownership. We’re constantly striving to empower and encourage those who are Engaged to make the step up and we reward those who show Active Ownership.

Our most successful team members take full ownership of their work, engage in productive disagreement, and look for ways to make everything better.

Intellectual Curiosity (And Reading!)

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When I was studying for my degree I was lucky enough to have many top songwriters and producers as lecturers. Over time, many shared with us their formulas for creative excellence. The part which made a big impression on me was that although each had a different perspective and methodology, there were 4 consistent themes which repeatedly came up time and time again.

Every week, a creative person (be they musician, developer, artist, etc.) should do the following if they want to be at the top of their field:

  • Take at least one day off
  • Do at least one cultural activity (visit a museum, go to a gallery, see an interesting movie, etc.)
  • Get enough sleep
  • Read

I am yet to meet someone who is truly world-class at what they do who isn’t a reader. I have met many people who were great at their jobs who are not readers, but none who have since made the step up to an elite level.

This is down to a number of reasons (readers get exposed to new ideas; expand their creativity by being immersed in unfamiliar narratives; develop self-discipline and concentration, etc.), but the simplest is the power of marginal gains x compounding over time.*

*James Clear has written a book on this, Atomic Habits, which I recommend.

Here’s a high-level example:

There are two team members who are at roughly the same level of expertise in their jobs.

  • One is constantly learning new things which make them a tiny bit better every week (say 0.5%), in addition to any normal improvement they would make over time in their role.
  • After a year of regular learning, the reader will have improved by ~30% (29.33% to be precise) vs. the non-reader. Over time the gap between the two will get bigger and bigger.*
  • In this hypothetical scenario, at the three-year mark the reader will have improved by an extra 216% vs. the non-reader thanks to the power of compounding.

*This also assumes the non-reader is stagnant and not declining relative to the wider market. A decline is definitely possible for the non-reader in technical and design fields if they are not making an effort to stay current.

All the top creatives and business leaders I know are voracious readers: if you don’t read and you want to compete with people at that level it’s borderline impossible. This is why we look for readers when hiring and why it’s a pre-requisite for the most senior positions at Mighty Bear.

A final point to make here: the benefits of reading do not accrue to your employer; they directly benefit you.

What you derive from reading are learnings and skills that you get to keep for life: they will serve you in your private life and they will help you achieve your professional dreams, wherever you are. Don’t think you’re doing your employer a favour by learning — view it as making the best possible investment you can. You’re investing in yourself and your future, and that makes it the single best investment I can think of.

Please feel free to leave lots of claps and comments below, and if you have any suggestions or requests for future posts then feel free to share!

What Good Looks Like was originally published in Mighty Bear Games on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.