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.

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