Sunday, April 30, 2017

GDC 2017 - Art Leadership Roundtable - Day 1

Once again, I was shocked and humbled to see a room full of people interested in this topic of conversation.  I also think this was the first time the room had reached maximum capacity TEN MINUTES before it was scheduled to start.  Humbly, I think we must be doing good things.  More importantly, I think we're adding value and giving back to the community.

Anyway, I started the first day with an opening topic.  In past years, we've discussed what a successful leader does.  This year, I wanted to discuss traits.  Rather than what the person DOES, but instead who the person IS and how they operate.  What attributes does the leader embody?

The opening brainstorm generated a lot of "familiar topics."
  • Take initiative
  • Maturity
  • Problem Solving / Decisiveness
  • Time and Experience
  • Resourcefulness
  • Effective Critique
  • React to Change
  • Adapt Communication Style
  • Reliability / Consistency
  • Helping Others
  • Passion for Work
  • Inspirational / Motivating
This was a good starting list.  I pointed out that we talk about these topics a lot.  However, when prompted by show of hands, most of the attendees identified that they have (personally or through others) experienced situations where artists did not know how to translate these values into actions.  They simply didn't know how to manifest these attributes.

I then asked the attendees to share a bit more about themselves.  Tell the group about what you did (specifically) that caught the attention of others.  How did you demonstrate leadership
  • One animator shared their experience.  They started by approaching their Lead and asking for additional work.  This person helped to develop a pool of assignments/improvements that would make the game better.  They showed initiative in driving this forward and, through direct action, yielded visible improvements tot he game.
  • One concept artist shared that they worked in an environment with no official Lead.  As a result, they worked directly side-by-side with the Art Director.  This visibility, enabled the concept artist to produce solutions for a variety of different departments.
  • A principal artist said that their career moved forward as they started mentoring others.  Mentorship is likely a whole other topic for a future roundtable.  However, through mentorship, this artist was able to improve not just themselves but the quality of the group.
  • An art director expressed their history of picking up work from a variety of different disciplines as needed.  This experience translated into the ability to create "high level solutions" that resolved problems across multiple departments.
  • A lead artist shared their experience in becoming an active problem solver and assembling diverse groups that could propose alternate solutions.  In addition, they talked about being fun and approachable and trying to embrace the "opposite of the 'no' attitude."  In short, this person worked to build a community to tackle problems as they arose.
In order to have a complete discussion about success, we also needed to talk about failure.  Unfortunately, sometimes people misunderstand how to apply the attributes or commit missteps on their path to leadership.  I asked the attendees to share experiences (no names, please) to help foster greater understanding of what not to do.

  • A lead artist shared a story of another artist within his group.  This individual was frustrated and felt that, given their experience, they were ready to be a lead.  As such, the artist began a campaign to "prove himself" ready for the lead role on a new project.  However, the campaign became more important than the work itself.  As the artist didn't get the lead role (in a time frame that he wanted) he became embittered and performance dropped dramatically.  The lesson here being that the work should always take priority over the campaign (or self-promotion) and that impatience is a clear indicator that someone is not yet ready for a leadership role.
  • Another story that was shared involved the departure of a lead character artist.  The studio had two senior character artists, both of whom wanted to vacant role.  These two artists were close friends, but the pursuit of the open position generated animosity and hostility that was visible to the other members of the team.  Ultimately, the studio didn't select either artist for the lead role and ended up hiring from outside the organization.   The lesson here being that if you're willing to sacrifice relationships for roles, you are also not ready for leadership.  Leadership is relationships.
  • One attendee shared a story about a talented technical artist.  They were being groomed by a manager for the lead role.  As such, this individual was tasked with leading the development of a demo and was scheduled to present the demo for the client.  When the time came to demo, the artist had left on vacation and the demo was incomplete.  The lesson has to be inferred, but it is clear that the artist knew the demo was in a poor state and failed to communicate this reality to superiors or to work to resolve the problems that caused the demo to be incomplete.
  • Lastly, the story was shared of a tech artist who wanted to transition to engineering/programming.  Rather than working directly with his lead or manager, the tech artist approached the CTO directly.  While the company has an "open door" policy, the CTO's first question was if he had spoken to his leads.  The CTO became concerned when they learned the artist hadn't discussed it with others.  While this wasn't a gross failure, the tech artists had "tarnished their brand" by giving the impression of being overly political.
Given all of this, we have a gap.  We have attributes that are valued in leadership.  We have examples of success, but also individuals who don't know how to translate those values into actions.  Finally, we have examples of individuals failing in their attempt to demonstrate these values.

How do organizations "close the gap."
  • Unfortunately, sometimes people can't advance because they are already in a critical role.  In those cases, individuals need to be taught how to train their replacement.  Likewise, the studio should be investing in new talent -- if someone can't advance their career because they are in a critical role, the studio is failing to pass the "bus test."
  • Don't automatically put great artists in lead roles.  Great leads need to be in lead roles.  Poor leads, regardless of art quality, can motivate others to leave.
  • Celebrate individuals progressing their career.  When someone gets promoted, do more than simply give a name and a new title.  Call attention to the specifics in their work so that others can see clear examples of what they did.  This provides two benefits:  a clear example of career progression and a bulwark against peers who may not know what was done and, as such, feel the promotion was unwarranted.
  • If this fits your organizational culture, develop a lead interview process.  Make it clear to the organization how the lead is going to be selected and solicit "applicants."  Though this will likely require careful messaging, the transparency may prove beneficial once a lead is selected.
  • The idea of a flat structure was also expressed -- removing the need to pursue official leadership roles.  This was a contested topic, but a few key ideas were expressed:
    • Even in a flat structure, someone still needs to own the product vision.
    • Flattening the structure should be about flattening the communication layers.  Invest in tools (or processes) which encourage transparency and facilitate regular communication.
    • Organizations need a lot of time to acclimate to new structures - so be careful implementing this in a pre-existing culture.
    • Responsibility and accountability are still required.
In the final moment, I asked attending leaders to share with us their strategies for balancing the leadership role:
  • Understand your strengths.  Focus on the things at which you excel.  Mentor and delegate the rest.
  • Schedule "lead time."  Hold office hours or dedicate specific time on your calendar for yourself alone.
  • Preserve elements of complexity or which will require frequent iteration.
  • Find time to create content.  Don't lose perspective.  Understand the pipeline and the limitations.
  • Hire for your needs and hire those who can follow the type of direction you provide (strict or flexible)
  • Provide clarity of the role (too frequently leads can get sucked into doing work outside of their areas of direct responsibility) and evolve the role over time if necessary.
  • Invest in an outsourcing manager.  Don't insist the lead focus on both the internal team and external developers.

Speaker Evaluation

Once again, here is the unedited report from the day's roundtable

Art Leadership Roundtable: Day 1

Wednesday, March 1 at 3:30 pm

Room 120, North Hall
Total Headcount: 81

Roundtable Session Ranking within Visual Arts Track: your session is ranked 9 of 12

Roundtable Session Ranking within GDC 2017: your session ranked 123 of 421

Session Totals (This Session)
Percentage of Responses

(Note: The following comments are aggregated across all 3 days)
'This was the second year in a row that I have attended his art lead discussions and I am always blown away with all of the useful information. It has significantly helped me and how I do my leadership role.
The moderator is a very talented communicator who was able to distill information and keep the talk on track.
Awesome stuff.
It was great to hear others' POV's and experiences. Lots of valuable information on these talks.
Would be great if the elaboration time was cut in half for each question though, because it sometimes felt like we were going in loops and would have been nice to address more issues with the time we had.
I was really motivated to get to this talk, and got a lot of useful feedback out of it. However, I noticed a shift in focus for the attendees: experience or personal background divided a focus, which meant a lot of discussing our focus as a group in itself.
I loved hearing about the different experiences (nosedives) or how others organize their teams or work.
Personal stories/time work better than problemsolving for me!
Great experience to speak with so many other varied artists from studios all over the world.
This session could have been longer and we all would still be talking.
One of the most useful talks I attended.
The round table discussions are proving to be one of my favorite, most useful and most importantly of all, applicable of all GDC sessions. Thank you!
Loved this roundtable, a lot of topics where brought up and I realized I was having these feelings before without realizing it. Thank you!
It was ok but there weren't as many solutions offered to some of the issues the leads were facing.
Always good fun! Thank you Keith!

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