Work Systems: How to Build Process for the Right People
Read Time: 5 Minutes
Have you ever asked questions like, “Why do we have all these meetings? Who are they even for?”, “Does anyone get value out of this process?”, or “Do these documents I make even matter?” These questions are symptoms of a much bigger problem: When we build process (work systems), more often than not, we do not know who they are for. Perhaps sometimes we do know who they are for (upper management), and that’s uncomfortable to admit.
Process, meetings, documents, tickets, etc., are often frustrating for leaders and our developers because, deep down, we know they’re not really for us. How often have you seen a process that slowed down a team, but you had to keep executing it anyway because somebody else wanted the data? When confronted with these challenges, most of us will default to working within the system and not rocking the boat. After all, we’re managers reporting to managers at the end of the day, right?
In our last newsletter, we discussed the idea of the “architect’s mindset” and why deliberately approaching the process is vital to getting the best results from your teams. Today, we will explain how to design your work systems for the right people. As leaders who “show up” for our teams and drive results, we must step up and put this hat on. Let’s walk through how to do that.
What’s a Work System Again?
A work system is composed of:
Content (The thing you’re trying to build - what’s written on your JIRA tickets)
Groups (i.e., teams)
Interaction points (i.e., meetings)
Artifacts (The JIRA tickets themselves - or your JIRA dashboard)
Remember that our primary purpose in building work systems is to align our teams with our game's goals (or vision). We would not need a process if everyone knew the most impactful thing to work on 100% of the time. The work system is about getting most people there most of the time. Alignment also decays over time, so our work system will help fight against that entropy.
Companies all have a purpose. It often involves a customer or audience need (Make an awesome battle royale shooter) or a particular exploratory goal (See if players will play a casual MMORPG farm-sim). Everything your organization does should add towards that goal/vision/mission. This includes the process! As a reminder, “stuff getting done” is NOT the same as making progress toward your vision!
A work system’s link to that goal is usually indirect. It is one of many systems that enable people to do the right things (like building a key feature!). Other indirect examples are facilities, security systems, and time off policies.
Who’s the Work System for? (i.e., where things break down)
Understanding the ‘audience’ for a work system is one of the biggest obstacles in creating one. Most organizations encourage work systems that serve people from the top down. This means that most of the tradeoffs will be carried by the people doing the work. This is why teams are so often frustrated about the process. Deep down, they know the truth: “This is not for me.”
Indirectly, your work system serves the goal and the player via solving a problem or unlocking an opportunity. But who should it serve directly? Simple: The people doing the work. The teams and support people making sure the product gets made are the primary audience of the work system in the same way that your players are the primary audience for your game. That doesn’t mean that stakeholders, leaders, etc., can’t be “customers” of the system - i.e., get certain things out of it so they can do their jobs effectively, too! It does mean, though, that their needs are subordinate to the primary audience - the team!
Practical Application: Take 10 minutes to write down, stream of consciousness, all of the things your team has to do, the places they need to be, the documents they fill out, the tools they use, etc., and write down next to each one who the primary beneficiary of each component is. Is the team the primary one who benefits? Your manager? You?
Who Work Systems Typically Serve
Most work systems are designed for the benefit of the wrong people. Why is that? Most of the time, the people building the work system aren’t the same people doing the work. They may also not be incentivized to serve the people doing the work (sound familiar?). Typically, the people most concerned about process/work systems are the ones who want something out of them (i.e., management). We’ve spent most of our careers as managers: you’d better believe we were thinking about whether the work system would make our bosses happy.
This problem of building the work system for the wrong PRIMARY audience causes a cascade of issues. Instead of trying to figure out how we get the right (and not too much) of the necessary information to the people doing the actual work, we try to figure out how to get some higher organizational level of knowledge about ‘what’s happening at the layers ‘below them so they can make decisions (or worse, just feel good having a bunch of information and not making ANY decisions).
We’re not saying work systems shouldn’t be transparent or shouldn’t provide information up the chain. We’re saying this is a secondary concern to enabling the team. Senior leaders should be low-tier customers of work systems. Customers still, just not the most important ones.
This may mean your job as a leader or senior leader becomes different and perhaps more challenging (honestly, it could also make it easier). Either way, it’s a good thing because we’re trying to build incredible products for players and achieve the goal. Our experience with designing work systems for the right audience is that the overhead becomes more manageable, people become more comfortable with less (but more valuable) information, and teams become much more efficient. Sounds like a huge win, right?
Practical Application: Take that list you wrote down from the previous section. Now, for each line you wrote, add who you think should be the primary beneficiary. Then, for each line where a change would be required, write down one suggestion as to how you as a leader could modify it to make it more valuable for the right audience (your team).
The systems we use inside our game studios are just like our products: Who they are for has a significant impact on how we approach things. As with so many other areas (culture, etc.), approaching things deliberately will prevent a non-deliberate system from emerging in its place. And that’s the kind of system that will likely not work well or create frustration for your teams. As leaders, we must think critically, use the architect’s frame, and set up our teams for success in this way.
We’ll finish up with part 3 next time!
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