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Of Champions and Cowards

By on May 24, 2011
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Through 15 years in games, mobile and web development, Kevin Hassall has worked as a producer, project manager, executive producer and publishing director. He now works as a freelance producer and outsourcing consultant, through his consultancy Beriah Games Ltd. www.beriah.net

When times are tough, we tighten our belts. No pay-rise means you postpone your summer holiday. Job insecurity means you hang on to your car for another year. No bonus means you go to Tesco instead of Waitrose. If things get really bad you sell your house and buy somewhere smaller, or you rent. We all do this. Each person reading this will do this. But as companies, as collectives, as groups of people, we don’t.

Comfort

First, doing something cheaper (without sacrificing quality) means doing something different. Doing something different is uncomfortable, even scary. For people who have made a career by doing certain types of tasks in a certain way with certain sorts of colleagues, different is at least unfamiliar, and may feel the same as wrong. Maybe this is why real innovation often comes from young people and young companies – they have no idea how scared they should be by what they’re trying to do.

Let me give you a concrete example. Several years ago I was responsible for a studio which was using an external technical team. The externals were Eastern European, and the studio itself was in London. The Technical Director, who had made a career by managing coders just like himself (laid-back, geek types, with native British language and attitudes), found it uncomfortable managing coders who seemed cold-bloodedly business-like, whose English language communication was often abrupt, and whose eyes he could not look into to tell if they were lying to him. He suggested that we stop using them, and hire more UK guys. So, we went through the numbers, and found that the externals were more reliable, cheaper per output, and required less management time than his UK guys. Overall, the Eastern Europeans were nearly twice as effective, per pound invested, as the UK guys. Was he convinced? No. He still wanted to replace them, because he still felt uncomfortable.

This gets especially difficult when salesmen get involved. As soon as scared managers hear that they can buy a “solution”, they jump for the chance to allay their fears with a quick fix. A sale has been described as “an emotional decision, justified by logic,” and that’s why an outsourcing company or developer sells, above all, trust. If the business development (sales) guy can get a prospect to trust him, to feel happy with the decision that he’s about to make, then that moves towards a deal being done, and distracts from the cold, hard realities of the deal (like, say, cost). In reality, how ever rational people think they are, most people are happy to buy an easy, plausible lie that makes them feel safe.

Bluntly, most people would rather take the cowardly option, of feeling warm and secure in what they know, than pushing themselves to innovate.

Don’t Fire Me

The owner, the CEO, the CTO, these people care very much about the bottom line. But the middle-rank manager doesn’t. If the CEO can turn a loss-making company into a profitable one, then that helps his career. If the company becomes more profitable, that increases the value of the owner’s investment. But the middle-rank manager doesn’t get any direct benefit from saving money. All that he (or she) knows is that if things go wrong, bad consequences follow (negative performance review at best, or being fired at worst). From a distance we can say that if the company loses money the middle-rank manager could end up jobless anyway, but that’s not how it looks from where he is sitting.

Imagine this: you are responsible for managing a stable of outsourcers; everyone is happy with their work, you get a pat on the back every time something goes right, and you’re hoping that these pats on the back will turn into a pay rise in a few months. What incentive do you have to try someone new? If you find someone cheaper then even if they do well you could be in trouble (your boss might ask why you’ve been wasting money on the expensive guys all these years), and if they screw up you will get the blame for recommending a change; the best case is that the CEO and owner benefit from increased profitability, while things stay the same for you. In this situation, trying to save money is a risk for you and a benefit for your bosses, so why would you want to try this?

This thinking is, of course, short-sighted, selfish and cowardly. And by contrast there are good, responsible employees out there – people who will do what’s right for the company, not what serves them in the short term – but they are depressingly rare, and in times of economic uncertainty it takes extra courage to do the right thing. That’s why most people will often make the “Don’t Fire Me” decision, rather than the right decision.

Multiple Gatekeepers

As organisations get larger, this often means that more and more people can say “no” to something. These are gatekeepers. They can’t force a decision on their own, but they can block any real change or unusual initiative. These are also, often, people with a limited understanding of all the things that they could block: anyone who has sat in a management meeting or project green-light meeting has probably had to sum up in two minutes something that took them two weeks to understand, and will appreciate how grossly issues become simplified before decisions are made. And every gatekeeper is subject to the pressures above – they don’t want to go outside their comfort zones, they want to buy easy answers from people they can trust, they don’t want to damage their careers – and every single one has to agree.

For example, I recently recommended a fairly aggressive plan of work to a client. Five people had to agree to it (producer, project director, development director, CEO, Chairman). If we assume that each one had only a 50% chance of agreeing to the plan, then in reality (0.5 to the power of 5) there was only ever a 3% chance that they were going to go with it. From a risk and reward perspective, I guess I was worth hiring: my fee was about £5,000, and they could have saved a couple of million pounds, and I guess a 3% chance of a million pound plus payout is worth a £5k gamble; but it’s still pretty depressing when you calculate the chances of getting any real change (for cost saving, or any other reason) when the numbers stack up like that.

By contrast, I’ve had three clients who have less than half a dozen employees. In each, I have one point of contact, who is the company owner and decision maker, and who needs no-one else’s permission to act. I’ve worked on projects between fifty thousand and a million dollars for them; their decision-making has been intelligent and swift, and the results are consistently excellent.

The Moral of the Story

Maybe the moral of the story is that everyone should slim their companies down to a handful of employees, and cut out all the politics and selfishness? After all, however uncomfortable conventional development managers might be with this idea, it clearly is possible to develop million dollar projects with a two person company, so maybe everyone should try that? But obviously that isn’t an option for most companies. You can’t imagine Ubisoft or Zynga or Jagex suddenly cutting back to be just the CEO and an assistant.

But what is vital is that, if a company wants real results (real cost savings, or anything else) one person needs to drive that change. We can call this a “sponsor” – someone senior in the company who will take a direct interest in making sure that a good plan is agreed and followed through. But Sponsor is a weak word. Sponsoring your friend to run a marathon means he does all the running and you just sign a bit of paper. In this case, the Sponsor is going to have to put in a lot of effort – to accept discomfort, take responsibility, and invest their time and reputation in the organisation. A better word is “champion”: one person needs to lead the initiative, to really drive it in. Because people won’t want to save money.

Saving money means changing the way you work; that’s scary, and people are, by and large, Cowards. To drive the organisation through all that fear, it takes a Champion.

About Kevin Hassall

Kevin Hassall is Director at Beriah. Beriah builds better developments for a variety of video game companies: simply, Beriah frees developers from their resource constraints.