Avoiding crash and burn

Avoiding crash and burn

By Develop

July 4th 2007 at 12:22PM

Development can be a positive experience, says Evolutionâ??s Matt Southern, who details the studioâ??s unique efforts to encourage staff satisfaction â?? calling in a business mentor to coach the staff through productionâ?¦

We’ve matured a lot as an industry over the last five years, but long working hours and challenging next-gen tasks, leading to stress and burnout, are still prevalent. High levels of productivity-killing crunch were recently reported online by the BBC, and BECTU are now highlighting the problem as much as the ‘EA Spouse’ did.

Talented people, who love games, eventually hate the industry. Then they go elsewhere, forcing developers to engage the enthusiasm and energy of younger people, freed as they often are from home commitments.

This issue is serious for a reason that isn’t often highlighted – games are made ‘by kids for kids’ and our maturity as an art form is likely being slowed by our lack of passionate veterans, meaning that as game fans grow older they have less on offer for them. This is the most serious issue we face as we start to truly take on other mainstream entertainment options.

Keeping people happy
Like most developers, we face these issues at Evolution Studios. We look for ways to keep staff buoyant, stress-free, and with a good balance between work and home, because it is the key way to increase productivity and quality. Milestone bonuses, in-house caterers, lots of social events such as the annual trip to Amsterdam and to the V Festival, and free days in the Evo track cars have all been used, to a reasonable degree of success. We have a high level of retention, especially of our invaluable ‘veterans’.

Plus, using SCRUM – the celebrated agile software development method – has also helped.

But then, a year ago, our friends at RealtimeUK told us about a ‘mentor/coach’, who had helped them to increase productivity and reduce stress. They suggested he might be worth calling in as MotorStorm production ramped up.

I was initially sceptical, and knew that staff would feel the same. In fact at first his appointment was questioned, and Mick Hocking – our managing director – asked me to sit through a typical session to make a call. I was expecting a David Brent figure, pumping ‘Simply the Best’ from his ghettoblaster whilst he strode from his dreadful, cliché-littered presentation. Plus I wondered what he would make of our hit-driven parochial-yet-cutting-edge industry.

The scepticism eroded straight away, I found the man, David Veevers, to be hugely energetic, knowledgeable and optimistic, and we decided to give him a try. The results were almost immediately positive. Our staff have reported improvements to their work-life balance, and increased self-belief, motivation and focus, and Evolution has subsequently improved productivity and work culture whilst minimising the inevitable crunch.

So what do people like David do? It’s actually quite tough to summarise, but the majority of his work falls into the category of business mentoring. It’s an established field across many industries, but absent in ours.

Put simply, a staff member explains their challenges and frustrations confidentially in one-to-one sessions. A business mentor helps to resolve them using a number of psychological, physiological and management exercises and techniques, most of the techniques focus on increasing positivity and happiness, and some of them are outlined here.

Business mentoring for development
David describes his own approach as ‘positive psychology’. “Every linguistic negative is accepted as true by the subconscious,” he says, “whereas with positive thoughts it demands ‘proof’. I try to encourage this to be the other way round.” He also brings physical training expertise and business development principles amongst many others.

Staff identify areas for improvement using a ‘web’ system (see Spider Web, above). They need to be as honest as possible, but business mentors can often spot ‘truths’ in sessions and encourage them out.

This web then allows the two to start building a ‘wish list’ of possible life improvements – which must quickly become a properly defined list of realistic goals (see ‘Goal-setting methodology’). As David says, “a goal is just a wish with a deadline”.

It’s at this stage that an assessment is made about whether the staff member is predominantly towards motivated (“If I stop smoking I’ll be happier and healthier”) or away motivated (“If I don’t stop smoking, I’ll die”). The form of motivation will obviously help shape the nature of the goals: they’ll either be specific rewards or specific threats.

However, our business mentor always tries to channel people into being towards motivated: reward-driven goals are far more positive for the workplace. Away motivation is essentially about ‘removing pain’ – i.e. people tend to head towards a goal but then reach a ‘comfort zone’ where the pain is tolerable and stop. They don’t commit to fully solving a problem, only alleviating it.

In development terms this means that demoralised, away motivated staff will ‘tick boxes’ for their deliverables and hours but not aim for the absolute best. So when a developer can offer tangible towards motivated rewards, positivity and sense of vocation are increased and quality goes up. But be warned: “it’s crucial to focus on what you want to happen rather than what you fear, but trying to take someone straight from negative to positive can be met with major resistance. I take people from negative, to neutral, to positive”.

Staff are then simply helped and encouraged to attack these goals, in once-a-week hourly sessions with additional techniques and exercises brought into play when needed.

The changes don’t take long too manifest. “It takes about 21 days for someone to stop a bad habit or start a good one,” says David, but staff who have benefited from the sessions often keep going back for the odd hour, largely just for someone to talk to, but also to sort out problems at home and even get advice on using business mentoring methods to improve their fitness – something that is becoming increasingly important to business.

Going forward
‘Smart goals’, ‘away motivation’, ‘business mentoring’: many staff cringed at the use of such language and ideas, but David’s own positivity, and bullshit-free Northern delivery, combined with the strong results, wins most people round.

This was a common theme in feedback from staff – massive initial scepticism, followed by some major buy-in, and then endorsement testimonies with a number of recurring phrases of their own – ‘happiness’, ‘enthusiasm’, ‘motivation’, and ‘maturity’.

So having a business mentor on board has helped us grow as a company through a testing period. The proof is reflected in our recent achievements. MotorStorm has pretty much hit the visual bar we set with our infamous initial visualisation. And we were one of the first developers in the world to hit Alpha Accept for a Sony-published PlayStation 3 title – and four days early, to boot. As one member of staff has said to men: “It’s perks and opportunities like this that reinforce the huge differences between Evo and other companies I’ve worked for”.

Crunch could seriously hurt our industry – and games as a 21st Century art form – unless we share and learn from solutions such as the implementation of business mentoring. No, a business mentor will not sort out all of a developers problems, and some staff will never be comfortable with the processes. But positivity, energy, proper goals, and being able to go home, help a developer enormously.

■ www.evos.net
■ www.reachbusinessmentoring.co.uk