Improving team communication

by | Dec 13, 2023 | Blog | 0 comments

This article about team communication is a collaboration with Rubén Calles, he began his journey in game development in 2014, and since then, he has collaborated with various studios. He published “A Place for the Unwilling” with his first company, Alpixel Games. Later, he directed the art for “The Fabulous Fear Machine” at Fictiorama Studios. Currently, he is working on “Wrestling Story” and another project, yet to be announced, at his new studio: Ao Norte, where he serves as a producer and art director.

When someone takes the initiative to form a team, whether it’s for a video game studio, a neighborhood association, or a basketball team, they do so with the ultimate goal of achieving something that would not be possible for them as an individual. I have gone through this process a few times now, and have been on the other side as an employee, so I have found out some crucial things that are necessary not only to achieve desirable outcomes but also to maintain good health as an individual and as a team.

Keeping this in mind, there are three crucial elements that are necessary for the survival and successful growth of any project: communication, team, and results. If any of these three components fail, the stability of the project will be compromised, leading to potential risks that could surface in the future.

Finding a balance between three crucial aspects is a complex task for any project leader (or synonyms, use the terminology that best applies to you). Here are three typical scenarios with which many of you will sadly identify:

  • Maybe the results are positive and the way you structure the team seems solid and you think they both endorse your way of doing things, but poor communication can just be like a silent woodworm that will gradually destroy the team from the inside and end up becoming evident when it’s probably too late.

  • Good communication and an effective team structure are certainly the building blocks of any project, but without results, the days of that project – in this case, a business project – are numbered. It’s important to identify the reasons for not achieving the results and not blame external factors for the failure. Doing so may lead to a lack of trust in the decisions made and the absence of clear leadership, which can put communication and the team at risk.

  • With good communication and good results, we might think that the team structure problem would be solved almost automatically. However, one person may be unhappy with her job, another may have a problem with a colleague, another may not be getting the job done, and so on. Problems that one may overlook because, “Hey, it works!” (or rather “The end justifies the means”), and which will therefore end up snowballing (resignation, harassment, internal quarrels or lack of treatment between colleagues, etc.) if not dealt with properly.

This time we will mainly talk about communication management within the team and the tools available to a project leader/producer to make it effective, honest and accessible. While we may be satisfied with the team’s structure, daily operations, and results, effective communication is crucial to the team’s welfare and the company’s culture

Building a solid team is crucial for any business project. All individual efforts must be directed towards a common goal. Each team member contributes differently, but their efforts should always align with each other, and their contributions should fit together perfectly to create a seamless and logical whole. This can be achieved by developing smooth and effective relationships with the team, as well as among team members, while avoiding any friction and minimizing wasted work.

Building relationships is not just about having a drink with people after work -although it helps-, it is about setting up effective communication rules, which make everyone feel equally involved in the project’s direction. If you fail to consider their suggestions and ideas and do not allow them to do the same for you, it should come as no surprise if your team members start losing interest in their work, become less engaged and foster a negative work environment.

This communication must cross all areas of the company’s structure, but a particularly key one is to create a safe work environment that empowers your colleagues to give feedback without fear. Although there is an executive hierarchy, the communication hierarchy must be completely flat and organic, and everyone must feel they can talk to each other, regardless of their influence. Whether by inaction or imposition, a boss perceived as inaccessible to other colleagues is unlikely to achieve her objectives or, if she does, is unlikely to maintain an engaged team around her for long.

No one is saying that every little detail that takes place in the company has to be made known to 100% of the staff. Still, as soon as a breeding ground is created in which each person understands that communication is fluid. Information is shared in the company, we will be preventing countless future problems. Perhaps the programming manager will not necessarily be interested in knowing that we have met with a lawyer to discuss intellectual property issues or that the company in charge of the trailer will be a week late in delivery. However, she will want to be aware of the general direction of the project and decisions that affect her personally, such as signing a contract with a publisher or being involved in meetings with the QA team to help establish a proper testing protocol.

It is nothing more or less than your ability to build trusting relationships and genuine connections with the people who work with you that will determine the quality of everything else. Those relationships positively or negatively reinforce the rest of your responsibilities and will be what pushes you forward or leaves you in the lurch. If you make a mistake with the planning of a new milestone or mess up with the payment of an invoice, it will be much easier to understand and apologize if the rest of the time you have actively contributed to building good communication and a good working environment. However, if you have been elusive with some issues, if you have stopped sharing information (for whatever reason) convenient for the team and only share it circumstantially when someone asks you actively or, obviously, if you have shown a sour, negative or very authoritarian character… any mistake you make that affects one of your colleagues will be seen in a much more severe way and may become the trigger for a bigger problem.

Wrestling Story, the ongoing project from Ao Norte

We have talked about the vital importance of creating a safe environment that empowers your colleagues to give feedback without fear. There are many things you can do to achieve this, but at an abstract level there are some keys:

  • Have a simple and standard system for employees to give feedback and issue complaints. This can range from enabling an anonymous suggestion box/form, to a daily work in which in each meeting (group or individual) each colleague feels that a safe space is generated where criticism is received and taken seriously.

  • Make sure that this system is used and that, above all, opinions are given and conflicts are discussed with some regularity. It is no good doing it once a year. Repetition is the key to normalization.

  • Take these issues seriously and propose changes. In addition to that, give explanations if certain issues have been left unaddressed or unchanged. This system must feel useful, not only to share issues to be addressed but also as an incentive for the workers themselves to actively contribute to this change.

It seems obvious, but I’ll end by reminding you of the importance of listening. Your colleagues need to feel that you are accessible, both to seek advice and guidance, as well as to suggest changes and tell you what is not working well. To do this, you must ask for their feedback and opinions with some assiduity so that they feel that you care about who they are and what they have to say (if you really care, if not, don’t worry, it will be noticed even if you follow these guidelines) and that even the less vocal people have a space where they feel listened to. It’s important to ask for feedback honestly and assiduously and commit to doing so before giving your own so that your opinions don’t feel like a one-way imposition.

We left a thousand things to be dealt with regarding communication within the team, but the seed is planted. The goal may be to make and sell games, but never at the expense of the health of the workers who make them, and whoever is in a position of responsibility must lead by example so that this permeates the rest of the team and is applied in all directions.

That said, I would love to hear your thoughts on these issues and your advice on how to build a better team culture and help improve communication with your colleagues. Here is my email to chat about this and to give you a hand in whatever you need: ruben@aonorte.com.

To finish, here are some books that have been very helpful to me this year, and from which I have taken some notes for the article. I hope you find them useful!

  • Game Development and Production, by Erik Bethke
  • The Game Production Handbook, by Heather Maxwell Chandler
  • Radical Candor, by Kim Scott
  • The 15 Commitments of a Conscious Leadership, by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman and Kaley Warner Klemp
  • Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury

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