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- How to Resolve Role Conflicts on Leadership Teams
How to Resolve Role Conflicts on Leadership Teams
Read Time: 6 Minutes
Unclear roles & responsibilities on leadership teams are an absolute killer.
We’ve seen these sink entire studios.
Over 90% of the teams we’ve worked with, from junior leadership teams up to executives, have had significant disagreements, misunderstandings, or arguments around essentially “who does what.”
The producer and creative director have differing views on who makes the call regarding meetings.
The art director and development director argue about who determines which artists go where.
The CEO and COO have left performance management for the studio on the floor because neither knows how to do it.
The standard approach to solving the problem involves pulling in people with a lot of experience and legacy titles, putting them in the same room, and hoping you have enough overlap to ensure everything is handled.
It doesn’t work.
As leaders, making mistakes, leaving gaps, or having major unresolved issues creates cascading problems throughout the organization. If the Creative Director and EP can’t get on the same page about our direction, how will the individual members of Feature Team 1?
We solve this differently. And I’ll cover it today in 3 steps.
Work backward from value
Identify all necessary responsibilities.
Negotiate coverage and commit.
Work Backwards From Value
Too often, we start the conversation with what leaders do today.
We must start with what leaders should do to build a great game (and organization) and work backward from that.
Who the leaders are and what they do should be a product of that ideal world!
When you start with your existing titles, roles, and assumptions, you include any gaps that come with them.
“I handle the design.”
“I’ll set up JIRA.”
“I do code reviews.”
What about the ones that aren’t obvious to a specific role but just as crucial for the team?
Who handles conflict resolution on the team or amongst the leads?
Who prioritizes the work?
Who ensures the team understands the goal clearly?
Who decides what the structure of the team is?
Leaders throughout the industry could debate those all day - there isn’t a clear standard.
Talk to someone from Ubisoft vs Riot Games about what a producer does, and you’ll get two very different answers. Ask EA or an indie studio what a creative director does, and you’ll get different answers, too.
Start with the product you’re trying to make, your team goals, and how you want to work at your studio - work backward from that.
How do you do that? Let’s walk through it.
Map the Organization/Team
How are groups interacting?
What are teams responsible for operationally?
What kind of behaviors day-to-day do you want to reinforce?
How are you structured? Cross-functionally? Discipline-centric?
Map the Value Stream (Deliverable from Inception to Completion)
What are the key roles involved, and when?
How do you want different experts to interact during the development process?
Where do things get jammed up, and how do you want leadership to respond?
Remember that this could vary depending on what you’re making or what kind of team you need. The important part is to think through it and be deliberate.
Map the Product Vision:
What kind of game are you trying to make?
What are the core loops involved in that game?
How do you want the org to learn & iterate as understanding changes?
Who is your audience, and how do you want the team to serve them?
How will you spread understanding of the product & goals across the studio?
Remember, you’re not trying to perfectly & comprehensively answer all of these questions. You’re simply trying to use each of these three areas as the frame for a conversation to decide what you want the world to look like.
Identify All Leadership Responsibilities:
So now that you’ve painted a beautiful picture of the world as you want it to be, you’re probably starting to have thoughts about how leaders can create that world and ensure your teams are successful.
One of the beautiful things about working backward from value (or our ideal team) is that we don’t have to get tangled up in the debate & assumptions we have today around who does what.
This approach can even provide flexibility in a world where you don’t have perfect title coverage over the entire studio.
Who does the “producer-y stuff” on a team with no producer?
Can an engineer run the product on team X? What does that even mean?
Designers & producers on team Y are arguing about responsibilities - do we have to resolve that first?
We will build a comprehensive list of ALL leadership responsibilities to sidestep these conversations and move forward. After all, we want full leadership coverage regardless of who does what, right? It’s about the value, NOT what people think they should do!
Using the maps you created above, have a conversation with your leaders and write down the following:
Key areas leaders need to cover to ensure success.
Every single responsibility that needs to be covered by a leader.
All things that “need to happen” to be successful - even if it’s not a specific responsibility.
Your leaders collectively will be responsible for everything on that list. We still haven’t got to the part yet where we decide which leader does which thing, but the beauty is that the leaders themselves can handle much of the burden of figuring that out.
Even better, if you’re a senior leader who wants your organization to hum, you know, have a list of what your teams across the company need to be successful. Y, and you don’t necessarily need to care who does what.
Now that you have a global list of leadership responsibilities, you can do the following.
Use that as a template for leadership conversations across the studio (if it works well for other teams, too)
Set expectations with leadership teams across the company as to what they, as a team, are responsible for covering on a “great game team.”
Use this list to start the conversation about who does what!
One of my favorite things about this approach is that if one of my leadership teams has disagreements about who does what, I don’t have to care about the details as long as everything on the “big list” is covered.
This is a fantastic way to sidestep cross-discipline disagreements while improving leadership coverage.
Negotiate Responsibilities and Commit
This is the part where you have the leadership team sit down and review the list of responsibilities that “all” teams need to cover. I use a template like this:
Here’s the fundamental way it works:
On the left side column, we have all of the responsibilities we came up with earlier. The more, the better. It's better to have too many and cut some than not enough and miss some!
Across the top, we have the individual leaders' names and titles.
In each leader’s “column,” they select who they think “owns” that responsibility AND what they think their personal RACI interaction should be with that thing (i.e., I should be informed about this).
The spreadsheet automatically turns the row red whenever someone disagrees.
Bring all the “red stuff” into a conversation and talk it through. The outcome of that meeting is to get aligned on as many “red bars” as possible until none are left.
As you start this exercise, I guarantee you will quickly surface some misunderstandings or disagreements:
“Wait, I thought that was my call!”
“That’s not what an Art Director does. You just manage the artists!”
“How am I supposed to do what I need to do as a producer if you’re calling all of the shots on the roadmap?!”
“As tech lead, I should decide who’s on the team, not a producer.”
This is a good thing. It’s a necessary crucible for your team to pass through. Don’t view it as a horrible breakdown or failure. The failure already occurred. This is your first step on the path to resolving it.
For each area where a conflict is present on role & responsibility, you need to take whatever time is necessary to work through the issue and come to a commitment about clarifying and resolving it.
Rules of thumb for going into this conversation:
Be sensitive to the fact that this may feel like an identity issue for some.
Clarity & focus needs to be more important than individual egos. Agree on this early.
External stakeholders tell certain leaders they need to do certain things. Focus on this team for now and manage stakeholders later.
Tips for managing the conversation:
Focus on the areas with the most disagreement. If there are a lot of conflicts, focus on the most important ones first.
Making a decision is better than no decision. At times, it will require concessions.
Communicate the roles you agree on to the team. This gives them an idea of what to expect from whom.
Finally, Give your Stakeholders a Heads Up
Once your leadership team is in alignment, you’ll need to manage expectations with your managers, stakeholders, and leaders.
There are a couple of rules of thumb here, too:
Sometimes, external pressure will be intense. Have each other’s backs.
Be careful not to let discipline requirements dictate what you agree on. The team comes first.
When explaining to your boss, help them understand what this clarity does for the team and the relationship with your fellow leaders.
Your leaders will probably value results over the specific things you’re doing. Remind them that’s your objective!
Our experience shows that the local expertise of those leaders on THAT project should dictate how they distribute roles & responsibilities.
The message to our team members should be the same as that to leaders: The team comes first, then individual concerns and job descriptions.
In other words, we’re going for a successful team with adequate coverage. This isn’t the time to get territorial.
Remember the three steps to ensure effective leadership coverage and resolve issues:
Work backward from value.
Identify global responsibilities
Negotiate and Commit within the leadership team.
Use the roles & responsibilities tool to navigate the conversation with your team.
I’d give you an 95% chance that there are at least a couple of things on your leadership team that you’re misaligned on. There is very little more valuable you can do with your time than getting on the same page with your fellow leaders.
Your team will thank you for it.
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].