So You Think You Can Manage People, Part 2

What’s up, managers?

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I’m back again with the last of a multi-part series on management! This time not as a lecturer in games development, but from the perspective of a yoga instructor.

Yes, I also teach yoga on the side, and growth is also an important aspect I focus immensely on with my yoga students, just like how I dealt with educating young aspiring games industry professionals in school. To be able to witness breakthroughs in my students’ practice is one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching yoga.

Previously, we talked about instilling a culture of creating positive impact. In this article, I want to focus on how to manage team members while keeping their growth in mind. Just like guiding newcomers to yoga in my Beginner Core class (every Tuesday at The Yoga Mandala!) on a journey to nailing their first headstand, being a manager to a young art team requires a lot of patience and dedication to help them grow in their craft. And to do that well, we have to go all the way back to the time they spent in school.

Weed out the poor habits developed from schooling days

In my time getting certified as an instructor, I had coursemates who had practiced for years at their preferred studios. It was interesting to see what level each individual’s practice was at and what sort of habits they had picked up. Fortunately for all of us, the first thing the Lead Trainer did was to evaluate our practice and work on eliminating the poor habits we’ve picked up along the way to help us progress further.

In a similar vein, school’s a great starting point for aspiring professionals to learn the ABCs of game development, but it’s also where it’s easy to develop poor habits that can hinder career progression in the long run. In my experience as an educator and a manager, the biggest poor habits developed in school are:

  • Poor communication — Not sounding out alarms, reaching out for help, responding to feedback
  • Trying to be a perfectionist, resulting in sloppiness with deadlines
  • Not thoroughly checking work before submission

In fact, they are so common that a number of articles have been written by our young bears that mention these points from different perspectives.

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Let’s make things clear, though: I do not expect my team members to get it right the first time. In fact, as a senior member of the team, it is my responsibility to show them the ropes and to uphold the standards that are expected. It is typically also difficult for inexperienced team members to be able to accurately timebox their tasks

I could play real-life Dungeon Keeper to my team members, practising micromanagement (red flag!) or encouraging crunch unnecessarily (another red flag!), but those are huge no-no’s if you want to build a proficient and empowered art team.

Ultimately, it is my responsibility to make sure production runs smoothly, so it can be frustrating when tasks are not completed in a timely manner, with no alarms raised, at a poor quality point that leads to them being rejected during the approval process for being shoddy, the latter resulting from work being rushed after the deadline has passed (oddly specific, yes, but it’s a more common thing than you’d think).

In the fast-paced production environment at Mighty Bear, these poor habits can result in catastrophic outcomes. So here’s how I weed them out.

It is ultimately my team members who are doing the work, so I put it on them to figure out the time needed for their respective tasks. Using my own estimates, I’ll then seek clarification why certain tasks may take more or less time than others. Like everything else in game development, timeboxing is a skill that takes time to finesse, so it’s important to guide them along the process of properly breaking down a task, and to remind them to sound the alarm when they feel they’re in over their heads.

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It will take a bit of patience to ensure your team can ramp up into this work style and reap the benefits from it, so hang in here. Eventually, they will learn how to plan better and prepare for unexpected circumstances, and the kiddy wheels can come off.

For some people, it’s better to let them fall and feel the burn in a controlled environment and with contingency plans to help with recovery. That may sound horrible, but hear me out.

I’m sure many of us have been through similar situations in the past (crunching till 3am on a daily basis and walking home after in the cold Seattle rain is an oddly fond memory of mine) but it was through these mistakes we made along the way that helped us learn and grow.

While I can (and will!) provide advice and insights to guide them along, it’s ultimately down to my team members to start understanding that what they are doing is hindering their work performance and causing burnout. And while it sucks going through the vicious cycle of overworking due to poor practices, they’ll need to learn to kick those nasty habits on their own.

Sometimes you gotta fall to learn how to rise, after all.

Fortune favours the bold

It’s always exciting when it’s time for me to teach inversions in my yoga class, to see my students face their fears head on (the floor). But, it’s also a time where I have to be extra attentive and make sure nobody gets injured under my watch. And at the end of class, I typically spend more time with the students to address any questions they specifically have about their practice, if any. Human nature is very diverse, and there are always some students who have more questions than others.

In a game studio, it’s the same. Some individuals will be more ready to step up than their peers, similar educational backgrounds or industry experiences notwithstanding. Some will be able to do that only with mentorship, and considering the risk-averse nature that some inexperienced artists may possess, it can be on us managers to help guide these young minds forward.

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So if one of your team comes to you with a difficult situation, have them vocalise their concerns, doubts, and uncertainties. Help them deconstruct the matter, break down the pros and cons and weigh them objectively. Be careful not to fall into a monologue here though: the objective is really to assist them in coming to a conclusion or decision, so make sure to have them chip in too. Your insights and opinions are valuable but may differ from theirs. Make sure to hear them out!

One thing that helped immensely is sharing my personal experiences on similar matters: the risks I took, the opportunities missed, the decisions made, the rewards I reaped and the repercussions I had to deal with. I’ve been through my fair share of ups and downs in this industry, and to be able to tap on those experiences and help/inspire/guide the next generation of professionals has been a huge privilege. I consider it one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.

On the flip side, my experiences were solely my own and I’m sure the situations I had been in could have been handled in a completely different way by someone with a different personality, so it’s okay for anyone to disagree with my thought processes. What’s important is for your team members to know the reason why they were chosen to step up and that they have your complete support and guidance, if any is needed.

One question to rule them all

Getting properly aligned in asana (the physical practice of yoga) is one of the biggest aspects of attending a yoga class. However, just like how not every mind and personality is built the same, neither is every body identical, however similar they may look. As an instructor, we have to always check in on our students to better understand and help them in the best way possible. To do that effectively, I ask them questions. “How did that feel?” “Do you feel any tightness anywhere?” As beginners in their practice, it is possible students don’t listen to their bodies, so such questions help them reflect and develop better awareness.

My favourite question to ask my team members is “What do you think?”. It may sound like a simple question, but, as I have learnt, also an empowering one that encourages your team members to speak up and express themselves.

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As Terry Real puts it, “Pay attention, not to the objective truth, but to the subjective experience.” Just because we all stand at the same crossroads doesn’t mean we see the same perspectives.

To ask a team member such a question is to affirm and empathize. Could there have been certain considerations made that aren’t obvious or immediately perceptible? What were some of the obstacles or limitations they had to face to arrive at the end result that you’re presented with?

This tactic works wonders for me, especially since I am now less involved in the hands-on development of the project. “What do you think?” not only helps me understand the situation better, but also helps to validate or realign my initial thoughts on the matter. Whatever the circumstances were, now I know, and with such knowledge at hand, it makes it a lot easier for me to make better-informed decisions in my critique and approval process.

And that concludes the multi-series on management. This is by no means a definitive guide on managing young teams, so if you have any tips of your own, feel free to share them so we can all learn from each other!

So You Think You Can Manage People, Part 2 was originally published in Mighty Bear Games on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.