How to Build Agency on Your Teams

Read Time: 6 Minutes

Agency isn’t discussed enough.

When it is, it’s typically in the “kumbaya” conversation of “we should treat our people well.”

Most organizations are still using rather draconian management methods. Leaders I talk to feel like their hands are tied. It’s even worse now that budgets are tightening, layoffs are happening en masse, and studios are returning to old methods out of fear.

“You’re right, Aaron, but nobody in my org will go for that.”

“I get it, but I just can’t push that now. Half my team just got let go. This isn’t the time”.

“I’ve been beating this drum for a year, but nobody is listening.”

This is what leaders are saying to me.

These are not junior leaders. These are highly talented senior people.

It’s a scarier time to stick your neck out than it’s probably been in years.

Sadly, this will make bad go to worse.

We already needed help to innovate, hold creative space, come up with fresh & exciting ideas, and foster vulnerable conversations within our team.

It’s five times as hard now.

Being unable to do creative work will NOT work out for game studios.

If you’re one of the leaders who can realize this and get ahead of the problem now, you will have a competitive advantage in our industry over the next couple of years.

Not to mention that the kind of talent you’ll need will love you too.

Agency: “A person or thing through which power is exerted, or an end is achieved.”

That’s Merriam-Webster. So, agency means giving your people power. That means taking power away from someone else (namely you & other leaders).

I do not exaggerate when I tell you that building agency into your team is the most critical thing you can do in this climate. The temptation and pressure all around you will be to strip your teams of what little agency they have, build comprehensive plans, set ambitious targets, and then “make sure it all gets done” (with half the people).

That’s a path to failure.

It will take great courage, but opening up space is your competitive advantage right now, NOT closing it down!

Today, I’ll walk you through a couple of ways you can move your teams toward higher agency.

Teach them how to be responsible

Building a responsible organization takes training and time. Most leaders don’t know how to do this, so they assume their teams aren’t capable. This “fixed mindset” pattern closes many of the most valuable doors to building great teams.

As a kid, I used to go to my Aunt’s house over the summer every couple of years. She was the “fun person” in my family. I was used to many rules & regulations, and rarely did anyone ask me what I thought or wanted to do.

The operating system I was used to was waiting for an adult to tell me what to do or what we would do, then complying. Naturally, when I didn’t have an outstanding order or task, I’d wait around and wait for someone to give me one.

I remember being in the backseat of my aunt's car with my sister next to me, and she asked, “So, where do you guys want to go to dinner tonight?”.

The look of confusion on my face must have been confusing and perhaps even distressing. My mind was racing.

“You can’t ask me that. How the heck am I supposed to make a decision?”

“What are my options even? Where are the places people go? I’M OVERWHELMED.”

“Is there a right answer here? What DO I want? I have no idea. What should I say?”

I had been trained, over the years, to do what I was told. I had no idea how to make a decision.

On this subject, I was incapable of being responsible.

Fast forward 30 years and hearing managers say things like this…

“My team has a ‘learned helplessness, ’ Aaron - they just need to be told what to do.”

“I get that this stuff worked at Riot Aaron, but we don’t have good engineers here. They need someone to keep them in check and focused, or they’ll be useless.”

I always chuckle at the “learned helplessness” quote. Where do you think they learned it from?

You can teach people to hand over their responsibility. In the corporate world, even in the West, we actively strip people of their agency without realizing it.

I worked with an engineering team in the enterprise space who felt so disempowered. I had to go through 5 to 6 planning meetings with them before they’d comfortably engage with me on what they believed were the most valuable features.

Nobody had ever asked them what they thought before.

Once they started speaking openly, we found that many of the assumptions the leaders had made were wrong and there were obvious ways to cut 80% of the scope of this enormous project. But nobody had bothered to ask!

Just as these people did not cede their agency overnight, you can’t expect them to get it back overnight. And you can't expect that just because you introduced some iterative methods on your team that didn’t stick, it means you don’t have “the right people.”

YOU need to teach them what it looks like to have agency, how their operating systems should change, and the new things you expect of them.

This is a step shift for your team. One that you will have to lead.


  1. Write down the expectations you have of your “high-agency team.” Things like:

    1.  “you should understand why you’re building something and how it impacts the customer.”

    2. “you should be able to make a prioritization call to save the sprint.” 

    3. “Don’t wait for a leader to facilitate a conversation or set up a meeting - do it yourself.”

  2. Set these expectations with your team. Invite a conversation, and come prepared to discuss how you’ll support them as they move in this new direction.

Ask Powerful Questions

This might sound like some corny philosophical concept, but it’s a tried and true coaching technique.

Companies have studied what makes great managers for years, and coaching skills have moved to the top. I’d encourage you to read more about it separately because most of what people think when they hear “coaching” isn’t coaching at all.

Coaching is specifically designed to open space, build agency within the person being coached, and encourage a higher-responsibility mindset. All things precious to us in our efforts to build high-agency teams.

“What do YOU think we should do?”

“What would it take for you to remove that blocker?”

“What’s important about this feature?”

These are just a few powerful questions you can ask to reinforce ownership responsibility and remind your team that they can make decisions (and you’re there to support them).

Through powerful questions, you will move your people away from tactical task focus to the “why” areas of clarity, decision-making, focus, and action.

This is a critical transition as we build our high-agency organization. This new organization is designed to consume uncertainty, learn, and quickly iterate.


  1. Instead of giving your opinions or directing your people in your next meeting, ask the team two powerful questions and see how they respond.

  2. During 1:1 time, avoid laundry-list updates and leave half the meeting for asking/answering powerful questions. If it makes sense, follow up with a commitment by the team member to take action.

  3. During 1:1s, follow up with previous micro-commitments from the last list of powerful questions. Create accountability around them.

Infuse everyone with product knowledge

Moving to a high-agency world will involve your team deeply understanding the product and goals. They won’t be able to use that decision-making power for anything if they aren’t equipped to make good decisions.

  • The team needs to play games together

  • The team needs to playtest the product together.

  • The team needs to understand the audience & the game you’re making.

Agency is the engine for getting that value. Product knowledge is the fuel.

The best game developers play games. That’s a highly controversial statement these days, but it’s one I know to be true.

When product knowledge ISN’T present, that causes studios to strip agency from people. Why let anyone make decisions when we have the designer who “knows” and can make all the decisions, especially when no one else really knows anything about the genre?

Still, when many studios try to go towards agency and infusing product knowledge, but their leaders stumble. Why?

Because they’re so used to handing out tasks, distributing work, and creating accountability around tickets getting done. This management approach, by its very nature, decreases agency.

So, how do you lead in a high-agency world?


Infusing product knowledge to the team will change the way you communicate as a leader.

Your job as a leader is to provide a transparent and accessible backdrop for the goals, expectations, and outcomes you want to achieve. You constantly blast that information to the team to increase the quality of their decisions.

Your stance is no longer about making all the decisions yourself.

It’s about equipping others to make the best possible decisions when you’re not around.


  1. If your team isn’t regularly exploring the audience & product together - start doing so immediately. If you have a functioning game, play it together. If you have a testable build, test it daily together. If you’re still on paper, play other games in your genre together and talk about them. Remember, you’re building context!

  2. Shift your leadership approach from distributing tasks to providing context. Take a step back and think about what you want to achieve. What’s the theme of the next major release? Who’s the audience, and what do they want? Which features are the most important and why? Spend your time aligning the team on those things.

Wrapping Up

We need to teach our teams to be autonomous, responsible, high-agency units. Even now, most of our human systems are built from a command and control mentality.

As leaders, we can’t expect people to “figure this out” intuitively and dismiss them when they “don’t get it.” Our job is to teach them how to have agency.

To do that, we must develop the leadership skills to teach them.

Actively teach, use powerful questions, and explore context with them to get to that place. Your team will surprise you and challenge many of your assumptions about what’s possible.

That I can promise you.

Skirt the trend of draconian management during these challenging times.

Build high agency teams, build more competitive products, and have happier teams. 

Until next time!

Whenever you’re ready, there are 3 ways we can help you…

—>Courses built by game devs for game devs - check out “Succeeding in Game Production” HERE.

—>Regular deep dives on critical game development topics on the BBG podcast

—>We’ve helped many high-profile game studios save a ton of money & time through building clear vision and leveling up leadership. If you’d like to work with us, please reach out at [email protected].

“The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be production. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential.”

- Steve Ballmer

“There are two ways to spread the light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

- Edith Wharton