Tuesday, October 1, 2013

PAX Dev 2013: Art Leadership Forum (Part 2)

Thank you for continuing to read Part 2!

How do you avoid a culture of perceived micromanagement?

One attendee openly expressed their dissatisfaction at feeling micromanaged by their art lead.  Unsurprisingly, this is also a common topic.  A handful of key elements were called out as being instrumental in managing expectations and perceptions.

As mentioned before, it's important to set up scheduled review time.  Surprise inspections (or "seagull management") is a recipe for creating anxiety on the team.  By contrast, having dedicated critique time that is known well in advance is far preferable  Establishing known check-points provides the level of autonomy artists desire while also giving the AD a window for providing input.

Related to autonomy, we also discussed the topic of "task assignment."  If tasks are simply doled out without soliciting input or interest, then artists may feel micromanaged.  Multiple attendees responded with comments that establishing a set of goals and then allowing the team to self-organize their tasks around those goals was far preferable.  This is a form of agile development that encourages more individual responsibility for the tasks as well as the problems that need to be solved within a clear time frame.

One comment that was also given is that junior artists likely require more time and attention than senior developers.  As they are still developing confidence and experience, it is important that the AD spend time giving them individualized feedback on what is successful, what is not and, in both cases, why.  To be clear, it should not just be an endless stream of positive reinforcement and ego boosting.  Rather, a junior artist may simply be in need of more frequent feedback.

In order to provide opportunities for creative freedom, one artist encouraged ADs to have more people involved in the development of the "look & feel" of a project.  Obviously, this can't happen at every stage of a project, but there is merit to the idea that having a broad pool of contributors during the ideation/design stage of a project is worthwhile.  The counterpoint is that the AD still needs to make it clear how the decision will be made (up front) and who will be involved in those final decisions.

The last point shared on avoiding a culture of micromanagement was that the AD needs to ensure that communication is traveling in both directions.  The AD should not simply be issuing orders.  Rather, the AD needs to be open to critique and feedback from team members.  Once open to the feedback, it's even more important that there is a response.  This is yet another example of the leader providing transparency and context behind their decisions.  The ultimate goal is to provide the team with enough information that each person can act on their own with confidence that the choices they make are the correct ones.  This is the most critical component for delegation and for the AD to be able to manager their own time effectively.

Key Takeaway

In order for artists to have autonomy or creative authority, the AD must provide clarity.  After clarity, the artist then needs space in which to work, opportunities to fail and then learn and also an understanding of why something failed or why it succeeded.  Artists need (and expect) feedback, but it needs to happen at a pace that suits their comfort and their seniority, not at some erratic and undetermined pace.  Giving an artist ownership does not mean sacrificing your responsibility as a leader.  It means the opposite.  Your responsibility as a leader does not mean getting others to do what you want.  That's micromanagement.  Your responsibility as a leader is to get others to understand what you want, and giving them the professional freedom to achieve that goal.

How do you train artists to give and take constructive critique?

Professional growth is challenging in the absence of feedback.  However, many artists are not properly trained how to engage in critique.  Therefore, this was the day's final topic: how do artists learn how to take critique and how do you get them engaged in the activity of critiquing towards improvement.

One attendee brought up the concept of the "compliment sandwich" in that a critique is best delivered when framed by positive comments.  This, in turn, was countered by the point that artists deserve honest and direct feedback, not sugar-coated.  Regardless of the approach, there is a fair amount of research which indicates that the critical to positive feedback ratio should be between 1:3 and 1:5.  That is not to say that you need to find more positive things to say when you have critical feedback.  Critical feedback needs to be direct and honest and be delivered promptly.  What the research has shown is that building a long-term relationship with an employee where they understand their positive impact as well as critical development areas does require a higher ratio of meaningful positive feedback in order to prevent a feeling that they aren't valued by their leaders.

A critical component of every critique is context.  What is required?  Why is it required?  What aspect of that-which-is-being-reviewed should be the focus of the critique?  Artists require parameters for a critique, otherwise the critique may target aspects that aren't ready or which perhaps cannot be addressed (due to workflow or technical reasons).

As an aside, if your studio/project uses scrum or other agile update meetings, do NOT use these for critiques.   Scrum meetings should be kept short and focused.  Talk about blockers and provide updates.  If a critique is required, make that the focus of a separate discussion.

Related to the above point, artists need to know what success looks like.  Anyone (artist or not) can look at something and tell you whether they like it or not.  That's purely subjective and is not the point of a critique.  A critique should tell you whether or not something is successful.  Does it look like a concept?  Does it match the mood or the feeling we want the player to have?  Does it communicate the intended purpose?  Does it meet the technical / design requirements?  These are the types of questions to ask.  "Do I like it?" is not the right question to ask.  Feedback should always be actionable and focused on solving a particular problem.

The reason to get artists involved in the critique/feedback loop is to reinforce team cohesion and a sense of shared purpose.  Critique can be a form of positive reinforcement, even if the critique itself is critical.  As a result, a mature and well-managed process can enhance the culture of the team.  However, this still requires that both the art director and the senior staff serve as proper role models during the critique.  This does not mean that critiques must be overly formal or structured.  Rather, this means that the critique consistently focuses on the work and not the creator.

Critiques are good developmental tools for new artists.  They bring artists together and break artists away from their current work, giving them insight into the bigger picture.  Critiques help newer artists to develop a thick skin and encourages a culture of honesty.  It's easy to say something looks cool.  It's easy to give a pat on the back.  By contrast, you really have to think to give an effective critique.

As someone pointed out, there is an equal amount of responsibility on the receiver's end.  Beyond developing the "thick skin," the receiver has to be willing to ask questions.  If they don't understand the critique, the onus is on them to solicit more detailed feedback or to do so more frequently.

That last part of the roundtable focused on the responsibilities of the art director or art lead to ensure that critiques are effective.  For one, there needs to be clear reference points.  Mood boards, key imagery or successful examples are all critical in order for artists to effectively compare and contrast.  These help the artist to understand what success looks like.  Furthermore, clear technical specifications are also a requirement in order for artists to understand what won't function properly.  In addition, it was also noted that sometimes a paintover can communicate the requested change faster than a conversation.  When this is the case, it is the art directors responsibility to identify the need.

A few final comments.  Even with the most effective group critiques, these should not wholly replace dedicated 1-on-1 time with your staff.  Good leaders are always the ones who take the time to learn the team.  Critique time is simply one other avenue in which to familiarize yourself with each artist on your team and by which you can have a positive impact on the culture of your team.

Key Takeaway

Effective critiques can be one of the most influential factors on the culture of your team, so make sure you're doing them right.  Teach artists how to have "an eye for critique" and ensure that they are consistently commenting on the work -- not the artist.  The ultimate goal should be to teach artists to seek out critique from others and know how to filter appropriately.  Your senior staff must be role models for this behavior, or it simply won't become ingrained.

Thanks once more to those who attended the Art Leadership Forum.  Thanks also to those of you who took the time to read this post.  I know it was long, but I hope you found some information that is both worth consideration and can be applied to your team.

PAX Dev 2013: Art Leadership Forum (Part 1)

First of all, I want to say thanks to all of those who attended the forum.  The session was described in my original submission as the "Art Leadership Forum."  However, you can see by the picture from the banner outside the room (below) that it was printed as the "Art Lecture Forum."

This obviously triggered an unusual beginning to the session.  For one, having the word "lecture" in the title was cause for having the room arranged as pictured below:

A very nice room, to be sure.  However, not designed to motivate a roundtable discussion.  Great thanks are owed to the PAX Dev enforcers who were able to quickly rearrange the room by moving tables to the exterior walls and pulling chairs to the center.  Of course, I apologize for the delay this caused to the start of the discussion, but I did appreciate everyone's patience.

This was also a "teachable moment" insofar as leadership requires flexibility and the willingness to adapt the environment in a moment's notice.  Reaction time is critical.

Without further delay, let's move on to the discussion itself.  During the session, I took notes as best as I could.  What follows is my own recollections of what was discussed and the key takeaways that were relevant for attendees.  Also, due to the number of key points, I've also broken this event into two separate blog posts for easier readability (and so you can take a break and come back if you so choose).

I started the session with an open call for Art Directors to share what is one of the current frustrations or one that they have faced in recent months.  The first response centered on:

How does the Art Director manage their own time and limit distractions?  

We refined the question by focusing on specific distractions:
  • Asset Management
While no specific solutions were voiced for this topic, after action reports were that asset management is one those components best delegated to others.  While the AD cannot completely disconnect from asset awareness and structure, the implementation of a dedicated art manager or art producer can greatly alleviate the core burden of this responsibility.
  • Business Cards
In this specific instance, the AD was responsible for the design of the business cards as well as ensuring quality delivery.  Again, delegation of this responsibility was called out as the key solution.  At one studio, the design was managed by the AD, but the delivery and ordering was coordinated by producers.  A unique comment that was thrown out is that one studio turned their business cards into a CCG.  By turning a business component into a game component, they were able to get the whole team involved in the design and encourage interaction through collecting the business cards of others.  Although I'm sure it was a lot of work, this sounded like an effective "silo breaker."

Key Takeaway
The AD is responsible for managing his or her own schedule and implementing or advocating for a structure that allows them to do so.  Structure was called out as a specific tool, wherein the AD clearly carves out parts of their day or their week for each primary duty:
- art direction (critiques with artists and review of content)
- individual engagement (meeting one-on-one with individual artists or department leads depending on size of studio)
- meetings

By preserving time slots for each of these responsibilities, the AD can better find a balance and keep one responsibility from choking-out the others.  Related to the delegation point above, it was also strongly suggested that the ADs "clone themselves."  By that, it was meant that ADs need partners -- individuals they can trust to take on certain responsibilities and with whom they can build a genuine collaborative partnership.

    How do you inspire artists?

    This is a recurring topic at these types of roundtables.

    One attendee expressed that artists need to be involved in the business decisions of their employer.  While, I'm sure they didn't mean that artists should (or would want to) be involved in finance discussions, it does raise the concern that some developers genuinely want insight into areas outside of their department or job description.  Within the realm of a project cycle, certainly artists (and designers and engineers) should be involved in functional game problems or creative challenges.  This boils down to encouraging participation at the project level and providing reasonable transparency at the level of business operations and strategy.

    Another attendee suggested leadership training as an opportunity for engagement.  Certainly, there will be artists who are interested in developing their leadership skill, but you need to figure out who amongst your staff is interested.  For some artists, being sent to leadership development courses would be seen as punishment, not enrichment.

    The topic of constructive critique also came up.  Constructive and functional critique is a prerequisite for an engaged and participatory art staff.  At the same time, delivering constructive critique is a learned skill.  Affecting change at this level is more than simply arranging a time and place, the AD will need to take responsibility for setting the tone of critiques, the context as well as teaching the staff how to effectively critique.  Critique was a popular topic and so I've dedicated a fair portion of the second blog post to this topic.

    Another interesting idea for inspiration was to send non-artists to art classes.  While this may sound a little unintuitive, the idea here is that artists are provided an opportunity to teach others.  In a healthy art culture, artists should be regularly teaching -- sharing ideas, inspiration, tips 'n tricks or discussing new trends.  However, by teaching non-artists, artists create an opportunity for others to learn their vocabulary, understand their values and observe their problem-solving process.

    Related to the previous comment, it was also noted that young artists, who are still evaluating the career paths that are open to them, should be constantly learning.  They should be encouraged to interact with as many artists in as many groups as possible to foster their creativity as well as their understanding of the breadth and depth of the art discipline.  While their immediate work (tasks) may focus on a single need, it's important for them to see that there are options available to them as they mature and develop greater skill.  If possible, help the artist to find a mentor -- someone within the team or company with more experience and who is willing to provide guidance and be a resource for others.

    Ultimately, the most significant factor called out as having impact on the inspiration of artists was clarity.  ADs (and other leaders) need to be explicitly clear with vision, goals and deadlines.  That doesn't mean that some room shouldn't be left for individual creative freedom.  Rather, artists need to understand the outside parameters of that freedom.  Furthermore, it is equally important that when goals/vision/deadlines change, that the artists are made aware and understand why this change has occurred.

    Key Takeaway

    In order to engage artists, the AD must make every reasonable effort to provide transparency and clarity at an individual, project and studio level.  Moreover, the AD should encourage artists to find opportunities to engage and contribute (within reason) in areas outside of their immediate job responsibilities.  Artists must learn how to effectively critique, but also how to teach and how to communicate their ideas in a way which generates interest and response.  Also, help artists to find mentors or peers who can guide them and show them how to improve and how to think about the future of their careers.

    The final two topics can be reviewed in Part 2