The pitfalls of building a team

Ella Romanos on how to keep your studio employees happy
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As a small studio or start-up looking to make headway in a competitive and ever changing market, you have two choices; expand at the right time and with the right people or die.

Judging these things correctly is certainly not easy and in my experience building a team is the hardest thing you will ever have to do when running a business, no matter what field you work in.

I found three main reasons why this is such a daunting task. Firstly the team is the company and who you employ directly affects the mood and culture of your business. Secondly, the people you choose to employ not only need to be good at their jobs, but also all need to have complementary skills, the right attitude and work well together. Lastly you need to accept that a team is an ever-evolving bubble that never stays the same, something is always changing.

In time, the assortment of people you have chosen to employ all become valuable team members and often know their job better than you do. Respecting them, listening to them and allowing them ownership of their work does entail a fairly flat management structure but the benefits are being able to talk honestly with them and communicate your plans effectively. However as a business owner there will be things you can't or shouldn't share with your team, and figuring out where the line is can be difficult.

Finding the right balance of communication between the team and management is extremely hard. If you do have to make decisions that the team don't understand you just have to hope they trust and respect you enough to retain their support. Getting this wrong can have serious implications on morale, trust and company culture.

Great team – Great projects

When you start-up, particularly if you are doing work for hire, you often take whatever projects are available to make ends meet. We certainly did; when it was mainly us (the business owners) doing the work, we did whatever it took to stay afloat, as we could see it as a longer-term benefit that would help move us towards our goals. We had a few team members early on, but we were a start-up and at that stage your team tends to be more understanding about the fact you have to take what you can get.

You have to make the decisions that are right for the business and sometimes that will conflict with decisions that are best (or that they perceive as best) for them.

However, as you get beyond start-up, and you have more people and your business no longer feels like a start-up internally, the team will want to be working on projects they enjoy.

Whilst no one expects to love everything they do, there is a desire (and rightly so) to create games that they are proud of, and that will help build their experience, skills and ultimately their career. This means you can’t only worry about longer-term goals, the project itself becomes a decision factor, not just in terms of what motivates you as the business owner, but also in terms of what motivates your team.

At this point, when a project is presented to you that would help you achieve your longer-term goals, but would be not be something the team would enjoy, you have two choices. You can take it, and focus on the long-term advantages, like being able to invest in your own IP, thus trading the short-term downside for the long-term upside. Or you can choose to not take it, keeping the team happy in the short-term but potentially hurting your long-term goals (and cash flow), which may not be the best thing for the team in the long run.

Whichever option you choose, I strongly suggest being honest with the team about the decision from the beginning, so that they can understand and hopefully support that decision, and with that in mind and no matter how close you are with your team, you have to make the decisions that are right for the business and sometimes that will conflict with decisions that are best (or that they perceive as best) for them.

The magic number

Probably one of the biggest team related things I’ve learned is about how many projects a creative team can manage running side by side. For us that number was three, irrelevant of project size, budget, complexity or team size. Any more than that and we found stress appearing in the team and a small problem on any projects would snowball and affect everything we were currently working on, because it’s about cross-managing the projects in terms of resource and schedules. In particular with creative businesses such as games, which requires iteration throughout, this becomes a major issue. The result was that anymore than three projects and we couldn’t be efficient enough to make a profit.

Our magic number allowed us to make money, keep on schedule and keep the team happy resulting in our studio being at its best possible efficiency. The number of projects you’re able to run at any one time is specific to your studio and of course some studios do not run multiple projects at all, which is great if you can manage it, but the reality is that most studios need to have more than one project running to ensure continued cash flow and diversified risk.

Employing the wrong people is a problem. It impacts projects, impacts revenue and gives you much more work to do trying to resolve the problem.

What this does mean though is that as your team grows in a creative business, your projects have to get bigger. It’s just not possible to keep doing small projects, even though on a spreadsheet it works in theory, the efficiency (and profit) just goes out of the window.

Employing the wrong people

It’s fairly obvious that employing the wrong people is a problem. It impacts projects, impacts revenue and gives you much more work to do trying to resolve the problem – either by training the person or letting them go.

What wasn’t obvious to me until it happened was how much damage employing the wrong person does to the morale of the team, their trust in you and the company culture. Remembering that your company is your team, anything that affects the team can threaten your entire business.

There are two ways this can occur. The first is taking on someone who isn’t good at his or her job. This is fairly easy to spot and quickly puts pressure on other team members. In this instance the team might resent the person involved, but will almost certainly resent the management more for putting them in this position.

So whilst you’re worrying about how to resolve the immediate problem, under the surface the rest of the team are getting understandably resentful about the situation. Even when you resolve the immediate issue, the damage that's been done to rest of the team remains, causing longer-term damage to team morale and potentially the culture of the studio.

Secondly, the more complex, and more potentially damaging problem is taking on someone who has a bad attitude. Just one person who has a negative attitude, or has an ego, or something to prove can sew discontent through the entire company in an astoundingly short period of time, especially if that person is in a perceived or instated position of power.

This can change the entire vibe of a studio and once you realise it, it’s so ingrained it’s hard to deal with, and very often difficult to prove. And even when you deal with it, the damage to the rest of the team can be extremely severe.

Looking back, building a team and choosing the right people was harder than I had ever imagined. The lesson I learned is that not only do you have to make sure you take on people with the right skills, but you have to be willing to make tough decisions if it doesn’t work out.

Huge companies have spent millions developing psychometric and aptitude tests to unravel the true personality and character of any potential employee, just to try to ensure that new team members do not disrupt their existing team. Although a small company probably doesn’t have those resources, it shows just how important and complex hiring the right people can be. You have to find a way to figure out their attitude and their fit within the existing team, because that’s at least as important (if not more) than skills.

Ella Romanos is a consultant on commercial development, design and production for games, and commercial director of Strike Gamelabs.
www.ellaromanos.com/@ella_romanos, www.strikegamelabs.com/@strikegamelabs

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