Darkened Software

Archive for May, 2011

What happened to leaders having values

by on May.02, 2011, under Lessons

I have ran into way too many “Lead Programmers” lately that were not really leading but more like just holding things together.  These are smart enough guys that know what needs to be done and were successful at getting people organized enough to do it.  But they were not really leading the group forward, inspiring excellence or making their work environment a better place.  In fact no one on the team really knew what they stood for, what the future would bring or even why they worked for them vs anyone else.  If people on your team work for you because “It does not suck” you kind of have a big problem (although not the worst possible one) and are not getting the best out of your team.  Which means you have failed…

What gives, 10 years ago it seemed that every 3rd lead in our industry was a serious butt kicking freak of nature that was getting crazy amounts of work done.  Today it is not uncommon to go through 3 different companies before finding on of these guys.  I have a couple theories as to why the leaders in the game industry are not what they use to be just a short decade ago.  First, game companies have been trying to “Grow Up” and might have inadvertently taken this politically correct thing a little to far.  Leaders are now judged more on the results of the “360 degree” reviews held every year and less on their ability to get their team to produce great results.  Thus leads have adapted by becoming the lowest common denominator in terms of their personality so they never get negative remarks in their reviews.  It makes them safe; Safe = Bland; bland does not inspire.

Now this be itself does not have to be a problem if leads could pick the people they work with.  They would just hire or gather people that like their motives, personalities, directions, values and then they could both inspire people and get good 360 degree reviews from everyone.  But the second problem is companies do not like the HR management restrictions this causes, they like the idea of being able to move anyone anywhere at any time and thus vastly overvalue leaders that seem to be able to manage anyone.  Well that is fine if you never want great performance and just lowest common denominator output from your teams.

Maybe I am just getting old and bitter but I do not want to spend the rest of my career trying to please everyone just to end up hating myself more and more each day.  I want to collect a bunch of people that share some common values and charge off into the world of orders of magnitude more productive and happier team than 90% of the other ones out there.  I am more than willing to accept that not everyone will like working with me or in the environments I create for my teams.  They should move on and find a place that better meets their need, companies should recognize that this is a good thing.  Because if they allow a leader to build a team that gets inspired it will make the rest of the teams in the company look like they are standing still.

Likely you can’t get your company to change their review policy’s for leads and they are unwilling to give you more control over who gets assigned to work with you.  One thing you do often control as a lead is the people you hire into the company even if they are not on your team.  So during every interview I try to impart on them what environment I am creating and find out if they are going to respond well to it in case I work with them on the next project.  My top 3 values that directly influence my teams environment.

  1. Accomplishment – My biggest motivator is to succeed at something, thus I now only pick projects that can be made to succeed and then make sure they do.  There is no more fighting the good fight but it was sadly doomed from the start, there is only time spent charging toward the inevitable ship parties.  Its not that I do not like a good challenge, challenges are the times you learn the most and I like to learn.  But I am not longer young enough to believe I can move mountains with my bare hands and old enough to know that if I am asked to I can just move on.
  2. Impact – My second biggest motivator is creating something that will make a difference, thus I now try to only pick project that when we get done there will be a shot heard around the world.  Long ago I lost the ability to make myself happy solely through the learning that came just by working on anything at all.  I am now experienced, somewhat jaded so I need projects that if completed there will be a payoff that satisfies higher psychological goals.  No more crappy clone games or another under powered engine that will be forgotten once the company eventually goes under.
  3. Intelligence – My third biggest motivator is I only want to reach my goals through acquiring and applying knowledge to the problems in my world.  I do not want to solve anything through insane work hours, taking stupid amounts of risk, or anything else that causes enough stress that my non-work life is impacted.  If our only way to meaningfully contribute to a project is by is by dropping our lives and coding 14 hours a day till it is done then I am not going to be signing us up for it.  Every day we are going to learn more so we can do it better and faster than all the rest which leaves us more time to learn and get even smarter.

Now there are 50 or so values that leaders could have selected from as their top 3, and they are all going to sound pretty good if you list them out.  Who is going to say they do not want want a leader that values honesty, family, creativity, caring, dedication or any of the other ones.  What they have to realize is that these are the 3 things that provide the greatest influence on a leaders every decision.  eg.  If I have surplus budget and the option to spend it on training for the team or pizza night at the bowling alley then given my values you know which it is likely going to get spent on.  If you are the kind of person depending on their work life for a good chunk of their social life then your going to be often disappointed and my team might not be the best fit for you.

The important thing is you figure out what your values are, how you are shaping your projects around them and make sure the team knows what it is signing up for and going to get back in return.  The right people will eventually build around it and then you can make the serious butt kicking freak of nature team that gets crazy amounts of work done while making it look easy.

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