How to Build Work Systems That Last

Read Time: 6 Minutes

In the previous two newsletters, we discussed work systems and who to build them for.  We will wrap this series up today by examining the fundamental reasons managers misunderstand the value of process.  Even when we start to move toward “value” or “servant leadership,” we are still rarely taught how to build these things into our work systems in ways that last. Without realizing it, we set up the process the old way (with its old incentives) and then get frustrated when things fall apart.

Building great work systems is more than just setting up processes, tools, and projects.  It requires a fundamental attitude shift from the leaders that are involved. 

This is the section where we will get into the meat of “Why do most SCRUM implementations fail & why do teams so often feel resentment toward the process?”

Let’s walk through the three fundamental shifts you need to make in your thinking to build better work systems in the future.

Quick Review

Remember that great work systems are about aligning teams toward the goal and developing valuable relationships for collaboration. There is no such thing as perfect alignment, so we want to get most people marching toward the goal most of the time. Keep in mind the 80/20 rule here. Also, recall that alignment decays over time, so if we don’t have an active approach for our teams, we will eventually lose focus.

Finally, work systems should be built for the people doing the work primarily, secondarily for those who need information or are wielding authority (managers, leaders, stakeholders, etc.).

As leaders who build work systems, we must be extra careful. We are probably not the audience for the work systems we create.  We need to be vigilant here to make sure the systems we build serve our teams in their effort to accomplish the company’s goals.  We must avoid building systems prioritizing serving management or the hierarchy over reducing friction for those doing the work. 

Transition from Control to Collaboration

In many organizations, the work system is about control. Predictability, certainty, estimations, projections, accountability, reports, and generally “making sure” people are doing what they should be (compliance).

Don’t get the wrong idea; none of those things are bad.  They are useful tools to manage projects. How we use them and who they’re meant to serve is everything. The danger comes when we attempt to use these tools to force compliance or maintain control as leaders.

This is rooted in some traditional (and misguided) thinking.  It comes from the factory floor of the mid-20th century.  The idea is that when humans do things we don’t expect, managers don’t know what’s going on, or people aren’t complying with the process the way they should - something is broken.

Or worse, we haven’t been able to achieve results because of a lack of compliance & control.

One of the core tenets of the U.S. military planning process is the idea of the commander’s intent. Each Soldier operating in the U.S. Army should know not just their mission but their commander's intent. This is incredibly practical because warfare requires collaboration AND also has an unpredictable enemy trying to ruin your plans. When things inevitably go haywire, soldiers and squads can use their " alignment " with their commander to make quick decisions on the battlefield. This army trumps the one that needs to sit around and wait for their next order. The most effective militaries in the world have distributed decision-making, and a lot of power (and training) is invested in the leaders at the lowest levels.

We're on the same page if this sounds like how you want to set up your work systems and teams!

The work system harnesses the team’s creative energy to drive us toward our goals. Train the horse, but don’t break it’s spirit. That spirit is the secret sauce to get you where you want to go.

We do this not because control is inherently wrong but because it is not practical in an environment where we need to adapt, learn, and deal with massive amounts of uncertainty, Like game development!

Practical Application

  1. Identify any processes that seem in place to ensure people do what they’re supposed to. Are they accomplishing your goals?  If not, discuss this with your leadership partners tomorrow and get their thoughts.

  2. If your team spends a lot of time producing information, artifacts, etc., so leaders can feel more in control, try to refocus leadership toward clarifying goals and the team toward collaborating.

Lean Into Self-Organization

The second transition we must make as leaders is understanding that effective work systems lean into self-organization in game development. Self-organization is the power in our engine, the secret sauce that allows our teams to deal with uncertainty and accomplish goals in ways we cannot anticipate.

Harrison Owen is a renowned consultant and author. In a large seminar, he discussed some fundamental truths of human organizations by walking through several “if→then” statements.

  • His first statement is that human systems are open systems. In other words, what is ‘inside’ a human system doesn’t stay the same. Ideas occur spontaneously, people bring in new information, and your teammates will go home, have thoughts, read books, and become inspired by random things.

  • Whenever there is movement, there is flow.  Because we are constantly moving, we are always in a flow state.  This means our teams and process must also operate in a flow state. 

  • If human systems are open and in a state of flow, then human systems are self-organizing. This results from humans being intelligent, independent agents within the system. As they see the flow in the system, they react and respond according to what’s happening.

Harrison Owen’s eventual conclusion was this:  In human systems, controls are emergent rather than designed. The system is open, in a constant flow state, and self-organizing. Controls you as the external leader attempt to push into the system or plan into it naturally conflict with that self-organization.

We’re the ants.

No matter how much effort you take trying to create a perfect system that will generate exactly what you want, as soon as you hand it to humans, they will self-organize in ways you did not expect! This leads to a difficult conclusion for many leaders: when you attempt to create a work system to give yourself control, even if you achieve it, it won’t provide you with the results you want.

OK, OK. That’s quite lofty.  But it’s the real meat of the issue. We want you to use this to your advantage.  This is why we direct people in these open systems toward the goal and focus on alignment and clarity around our product & vision. Since the ants will self-organize in emergent ways regardless of what we do, we need to harness that energy toward the goal.

This allows some companies to become wildly successful unexpectedly.

Use Emergence to Battle Uncertainty

We are constantly asked how to deal with uncertainty in game development. It’s a stressful industry we’re in.  Things are changing all the time, products are failing left and right, and it never seems clear how things will go.  On top of that, we’re trying as managers to put proper controls on all these things without knowing what will work or how players will respond.

Your developers' ingenuity, creativity, and enthusiasm are way more likely to solve important problems for you than you realize.  Additionally, the “letting go” of controls and compliance will free you up to focus on more exciting & essential things:

  • How to design the system that best harnesses that energy toward the goal.

  • Clarifying and focusing everyone on the goal itself.

Not least, it makes their jobs much more fulfilling as they also get to focus on the fun part: Making great games.

To be 100% clear, not only is it easier to lean into the self-organizing/emergent nature of your teams, but you will only succeed with it unless you’re one of the lucky few companies where someone has a genius idea just waiting to be realized. From experience, those companies are 1 in 100 generously.

Practical Application:

  1. Sit down with your team and ask them if they understand the goals. Hear them out.

  2. Ask them if they have any thoughts on solving some of the problems you’re facing right now.

  3. Ask them which parts of your process are in the way of them being more self-organizing or creative. See which answers keep coming up and make changes to your work system.


The three shifts we need to make to be able to realize effective & lasting work systems in game development:

  1. We need to move away from control and focus more on collaboration.

  2. We need to encourage and create space for self-organization

  3. We must leverage self-organizing teams to solve complex problems and remove uncertainty by experimenting with ideas. The process should be harnessed around this to make it efficient!

Check out “Succeeding in Game Production”

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Interested? For more details, go HERE.

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“Management problems are not respecters of the company organization, nor of the talents of the people appointed to solve them.”

 - Anthony Stafford Beer

“Open some space, and Spirit will certainly show up. Allow the magic of self-organization to work for you, and the complex adaptive system that we are will find its own power.”

- Harrison Owen