Today, I'm very pleased to bring to you Brian Sharp. A veteran, high level, and extraordinarily competent project manager in the video game industry, most recently with Bungee before becoming self-employed on his own projects. He was in the top 1% of well-paid project managers, but more importantly -- he was effective and empathetic, getting the best out of his people, helping them develop, and marching towards achievement after achievement while keeping his team healthy, happy, and engaged.
The following interview is in line with the launch of his GiveGetWin deal, Elite Management & Leadership Coaching for People In Creative Industries.
"Leadership. Highly Skillful Leadership." by Brian Sharp, as told to Sebastian Marshall
Buddhist philosophy has a lot in common with how I tend to think. I find professional work within organizations is one of the best forms of ethical practice.
It's one of the few environments where you're constantly juggling diametrically opposed goals (or at least, goals that can seem to be diametrically opposed).
You want to do best for every one of your team members individually, but you also have an obligation to the organization's success as a whole. You want everyone to be productive, but also want everyone to have career growth. You're balancing near term goals and long term goals and looking for the best thing for people individually, and the best thing for the organization.
I find friendships, intimate relationships, and with family are very different from jobs because you sign up and you have this professional responsibility that's your obligation. With jobs, the main goal is to fulfill your professional goal you signed up to do for them. But you have also the same ability to practice being an ethical person and treating people with kindness.
That extra constraint, the professional component, creates a lot of obligations to balance with the ethical practice.
So I think work is one of the best places to practice. You very often have these interesting-seeming conflicts where you have to work really hard to figure out the responsible course of action.
I always recommend the book Difficult Conversations highly, because if you're managing or working with someone, it's your avowed responsibility to do right by them. Every time you avoid having a difficult conversation, you're avoiding a responsibility and wasting that person's life.
I've been making video games for 16 years now, starting the end of my high school career. I've worked for about 10 different companies from actual video game developers to related hardware developers. I began as just an individual contributor, a programmer. As I became more senior, I moved to the kind of soft skills and people side of things. Engineering at most companies tend to fork into architect or to manager, and I've now been managing teams for about 9 years.
I've managed everyone from artists to technical artists, and mostly engineers. I've worked on a number of titles including Halo Reach, Halo 3: ODST, Spore, Thief 3, and Deus Ex 2, and I'm currently working on Destiny.
I identify as a firefighter. I prefer to be in situations where I'm solving difficult problems and dealing with crises. I've given two different lectures on leadership at the Game Developer's Conference which were super well-received.
Probably the most significant thing I've learned as a manager is that reality is a process and not a state. If you're solving really challenging problems and you're trying to be a leader, the balance of doing the work and staying in touch with everything is not possible in a static way. You're always shifting your balance side-to-side, overcompensating a bit too much, and shifting your balance back when you go too far.
A few years after I became a manager, I was talking to a more veteran friend of mine. I lamented that I felt like I was always spending 80% of my attention on 20% of my responsibilities. She laughed and said it sounds like you're doing it right.
I think basically all the work I do in the context of management and leadership is grounded in the persistent sense that while I'm spinning seven plates while there are 23 that are perilously close to crashing to the ground, that's not only OK but also necessary. If I'm not doing that, I'm not really being ambitious enough.
I've learned that situations that seem like competing responsibilities that seem like you can't resolve them -- like being responsible to a team member's career goals while also respecting near-term needs -- aren't actually mutually exclusive if you really work on your own intentions and approach them with an earnest and humble spirit.
Communication is important in two ways -- you need to have enough of it, and you need to not have too much. Purely from the signal perspective, my thing is I can write quickly, I can write a lot… and over time I've come to really respect the value of conciseness, which really comes down to empathy.
Good communication at its core is empathy practice. Not in a conceptual way, but in a very literal applied way. When I'm writing an email, I'll stop and spend actual seconds or minutes or clock time thinking about who is going to get the email, visualizing how much email they get, thinking about how much attention they'll give it, and imagining how they'll respond to how I've written.
I think the best communicators know their audience not just in a detached sense of knowing who they're talking to, but also in a deep sense of really writing for them, speaking for them, and having a strong sense of purpose in communication. It's easy for that to get lost. You write an email and you don't always get into "what am I trying to accomplish?" You get enamored with the sound of your own voice, or you have preconceptions about form… you might think you can't write too short of an email, or you can't have an 18-minute long meeting since meetings are normally 60 minutes. But actually, you need to focus on the outcome and appreciate the communication at the same time.
There's many levels of communication -- one is conveying facts, like if you decided to cut a feature, or put a feature back in you preciously took out. You need to convey that so people can plan around it, and also appreciate that every interaction is building your relationship at the same time. Be mindful of the way you're guiding those relationships. That's about building trust, establishing expectations, handling perception, and being empathetic.
I used to think certain skills were purely intuitive, and they couldn't be taught, because you either had them or didn't. But over time, I really came to appreciate that many "intuitive skills I've always had" I actually learned over the entire course of my life including childhood. Maybe they weren't consciously learned, but that doesn't make them intuitive only and unlearnable.
As a manager, I've realized that skills that are intuitive for one person can be wildly unintuitive for someone else, but almost all skills can be taught to almost all people.
In my years as a manager, at every point that I thought a particular team member was "irredeemable" and who wasn't working out -- really struggling -- I'd have some gut sense for whether it could be made to work or not. As the years go by, situations I believed were intrinsically unworkable, I no longer believe that. I see it was due to my lack of skill as a manager at the time.
I previously had a notion of what skills could be taught and what couldn't. What ways people could grow, and what ways people are the way they are. As the years go by, the set of things I find people can learn continually expands. Constantly, my mental set of "this is the way people are and unchangeable" is getting smaller.
I see leadership is taking initiative, ownership, and the habit of taking action.
When I say "habit of taking action," I think the habit part is important. A lot of people start with an attitude of "I can't do that, that's not my area" -- but leadership is about having a nuanced ability to step outside your official role to solve problems when you see them and know they need solving.
That's where the ownership comes in, you need to care. When you see something going wrong and no one is doing anything about it, you go take action. The first time, you fumble through it, you try to talk to people, you keep thinking "why isn't anyone else doing something?', you think "how do I get the person who should be responsible for this to do it?", and you finally realize that the vacuum is because no one is currently responsible for it, and if you want it to get done you have to do it yourself.
I think this is probably more obvious to entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship isn't my background, but it's obvious to entrepreneurs -- if you don't do it and you're the only one working there, it doesn't get done. You have to keep the lights on. But even large organizations are just groups of people.
Usually the important responsibilities do have owners, but it's not because the Hand of God comes down and makes it that way; it's because a human goes and does it.
The genesis of leadership is the recognition that you have a unique perspective, and you see one kind of person that bitches about stuff and says "why isn't anyone doing anything about this?!," then there's a leap to make. You might be only person situated at just the right intersection to go after this with clarity.
Instead of complaining, you start think, "Well, maybe I should go solve it."
That's the first part -- having the inspiration and motivation to become a leader, which is caring about the organization and your team's success combined with the kind of awareness that there are problems you see better than other people, and thinking maybe you should be fixing it.
The second part is the skill and savvy of knowing how to do it. That's where the craft of leadership comes in, just knowing "this thing is a huge problem and I'm going to solve it" is great, but solving problems actually takes hours and minutes of work to get the result you want. Especially in busy organizations where everyone is solving at least 5 to 10 problems at any given time, you need the ability to navigate the organization's dynamics.
All of this work involves fundamentally the skill of getting groups of humans working together to get specific things done. And it's more complex than that, because it's not like you stop everyone and work on what you just noticed right now.
Instead of trying to control the waves, you learn to surf.
You appreciate that human organizations have culture in the form of preconceptions, personalities, and you have to understand how to work with that thing to achieve the results you need to achieve. And that's very separate.
Sometimes this gets a bad rap as Machiavellian, so that's why I think you have to come at it with right intention. You have to have respect for the problems that other people are trying to solve, and you have to learn to have perspective on how important your work within the organization is. You won't always reach agreement, and the problems you're working on won't always be the most important thing to do at the moment. But basically, my experience is it goes badly pretty quickly if you don't approach it with an attitude of "I'm trying to do the best for everyone."
If your intention is clouded with personal agenda, grudges, or whatever -- and to some extent, all of ours are, no one is a saint -- then it causes you to do things that don't serve the team, and creates unnecessary friction.
An important quote: "The work is done not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." -- Antoine de Saint-Exupery
This especially pertains to creative work. All creative endeavors especially have editing as a key part of it. You have constraints, and you can't do everything you want. The more seasoned the creative professionals, the more they tend to have a feeling of "constraints are liberating."
The thing you have in your head wouldn't be as good if you had time to do everything instead of being forced to make tough decisions.
I tend to like to throw myself into firefighting situations, because they can sometimes be the highest value situations. The best leaders are the ones who can take the most challenging things facing the team, and go tackle them head-on, rally behind them, and get them taken care of.
If you're doing that, you inevitably have way more than you can get done.
My last boss at Bungee, he said to me, "I feel like every day, on a good day, I have 8 full days of work I'd like to get done. The challenge is to get one good day of work done." I replied, "When it gets bad, I feel like I've got 25 full days of work I want to get done."
That's the sense of being overwhelmed. You have to triage. If you show up and only have 1 full day of work you'd like to get done, you're probably not being valuable enough for the team. You could think of more, and then cut some of the less valuable pieces.
Triage and not overcommitting are the other side of the coin of time management. Time management is making sure you get a good day of work done every day. You must be ruthlessly honest with yourself that you can't get more than a good day of work done every day.
A manager at Bungee had a great phrase about triage -- "Break hearts early." People don't broadcast early when they triage sometimes because they don't want to disappoint people, and that whole break hearts early thing is knowing it takes discipline and knowing it's not doing any favors not telling people about reality if something isn't viable. Don't string people along.
The single best thing I got from GTD is "treat planning as its own activity." You have all of these levels at which you're thinking about your work, but any activity taking time out of the same clock. If you're doing strategic thinking, if you're head-down in tactics, or right up in the implementation, it all takes time from the same clock.
Set aside a chunk of time to plan what you're going to do with the rest of your time, so you don't get burdened and overwhelmed mentally. The rest of that time you can then focus more. That pertains to overcommitment -- overcommitment means you've been at too low a level for too long, and with not enough planning.
If I catch myself saying, "The commitments are a given, I need to get them all done," then that's a sign I need to pop up a level and do more planning and strategic thinking. If you're working on a creative project, if you're overcommitted, it's almost like squeezing people into a Tokyo subway. You're like, "Does anyone have any bandwidth to deal with this?"
That's popping up one level, delegating. Working within your team. "Can someone just be the guy who handles all the bugs? Because it's taking a ton of my time, and I need to do all this other stuff." But that's really the same thing as trying to do it all yourself, just up one level.
And it'll fail, too. People will say, "Sorry dude, I'm even more slammed than you are." Then you need to pop up another level. You ask, "Should we take a broader perspective on things to do and not do?" You can see if the actions you're trying to do are still relevant, and cut ones that aren't.
But let's say you do all that, and you're still overcommitted. Now you need to keep popping up levels. Keep taking another step back. Keep asking, "So, what are we going to do about this?" You need to be unafraid to confront reality at all times.
If you know you're overcommitted and important stuff isn't getting done, that really needs to get done, it's always tempting to kick that can down the road and not deal with it, but that's never the right course of action.
When you look at organizational structures, there's different models -- organization tree, org charts, flat structures. You can draw them all different ways. But the immediate phrase that comes to mind is, "The map is not the territory." They're approximations. They're the finger pointing at the moon (in the Buddhist expression).
You impose process on things that are constantly moving and fluid, to make it tractable. But the best way I've worked with structural models is noting they trail reality, and exist as documentation and guidance.
It's chicken and egg. An org chart is two things -- it's an attempt to acknowledge reality, and it's also a statement of intent. "We haven't spun this team up yet, but this is how we'd like it to go. This guy seems good at this thing, so he'll do that; this woman seems good at that task, so she'll do it." It's a reaction to the past and trying to steer the future.
What it isn't -- it's not a rigid constraint. It's one thing if it's like "you can't do that, because you're stepping on someone's toes" and it's a personal relationship thing. But if it's, "you can't do that, because you're not the technical art director" -- and the technical art director would be onboard and cool with you doing it -- then it becomes an end in itself.
An org chart should be a means for getting shit done, not an end in itself.
At Bungee, the org chart changes a lot over the course of the project. Some of that we could foresee, "we'll need less people on this later as it's almost complete," and sometimes it's not something we foresee -- where an area goes off the rails and we need more people, or it turns out we get more bang for our buck with a few people and don't need to staff it up more.
One great thing Bungee does is get people where they want to be in terms of their career. Bungee lets people move where they want to be, and move where they want in the org chart. The titles and positions aren't everything, but getting the right one named as your job, having it be named your responsibility, helps a lot with getting things done.
The org chart stuff and popping up levels -- this is part of the overall coordination and logistics of working together as a team. What I call time management is doing things with minutes and actions, that's the lowest level. And I see coordination of logistics as one level above the time management level.
Coordination is when you take the smallest possible step back, stop grinding on whatever you were doing, and figure out what's going on around you. You ask, "What are the goals we're trying to accomplish, and do I believe everything is on track?"
There's a lot of possible metaphors for coordination and logistics -- people rowing a boat, trying to work from maps to make sure you're going in the right direction, steering, and rowing at the same time.
Coordination and logistics are often about course correction. Sometimes middle managers justify their own existence where they start their own fires just to put them out. And it's important to be able to take a laissez faire attitude to coordination and logistics. Specifically, it's important that you notice any resistance to the idea that things just might be fine.
It's easy to go in with the idea that you're going in to fight a fire, so you go start a fire. You don't want to do that.
Depending on how political the organization is, you'll see people do that for clout or power reasons. But in great organizations, you want to go in as a leader or manager and really ask yourself the honest question, "If I just left, if I just quit my job, would anything actually go wrong? What problems would actually arise, and how long would they take to arise?"
It's happened a couple times at Bungee -- times when I could have left my role, and everything would have been fine. Lao Tzu had a quote about leadership -- "The best leaders, when they job is done, the people feel they did it themselves." That's not 100% true, because some charisma and visible leadership can be helpful, but that's a good direction to move in.
On Spore, my executive producer Lucy Bradshaw said repeatedly, "The job of a senior employee is to make yourself replaceable." You should essentially always be trying to get things to the point where you're able to move on and go work on something else.
The job is not to get under a bridge that's falling down and hold it up forever, where it'd fall down if you moved on. It's to hold it up for a while as you fix the bridge so it can stand on its own. Then your team and organization -- and yourself -- make permanent progress.
There's a certain amount of basic work of making sure people are talking to each other, paying attention to people in a broad perspective way who are each solving individual problems. But with a real sense of teamwork, so people are taking on peer roles. The broader perspective doesn't make you a more valuable person, it just makes you another member of the team filling another role that needs to be fulfilled.
The day to day logistics/production, I'm lucky to have full-time producers at Bungee who track scheduling, dependencies, and process. There's always some group of people that are working on solving leadership, management, and production. That could be one person doing that, or multiple people.
In most video game companies Bungee included, there's a lead developer/designer/artist and a producer working together to handle leadership, management, and production. If you had someone completely omnipotent, you'd want all three to be handled by a single human because they all interrelate. The work of production is better informed if the team understands what it's trying to get done. All three of these activities play into each other and inform each other. Any time you divide up work between people, you suffer from what I see as a fundamental aspect of a human nature -- the most basic truth about human existence might be that you can never truly know another's experience. Everything we do as a species is trying to get there.
That's why leadership and management are interesting. It's trying to get people together.
Conway's Law is a useful mental construct -- it says that the communication structure of an organization is mirrored in its products. If you're trying to write a compiler and have three separate teams working on, you'll get a 3-pass compiler if those teams aren't talking to each other. That's interesting, you can look at the communication structure of an organization and see that appearing in the products it creates. Two separate teams that aren't talking can't make one coherent thing.
When it comes to coordination and logistics, I think of this very visually. I think of lines slicing through a blob, slicing up roles between people. Most of your problems come from setting the boundaries well for who does what.
You can't partition work super-cleanly, because you need overlapping ground for communication. It's like the Google problem: "I don't have to memorize things any more, because I can Google." That's kind of true, but you can't reason with information that's in Google, you can reason with information in your brain. As soon as you need information that's two Google searches away, but you don't know the first search, you're screwed.
Similarly, if you split up a chunk of work between multiple people and there isn't overlap on the boundary, and the information only exists in one person's brain and the other person can't see past the boundary at all, then you have to be constantly together to get the work done.
Long story short, in my best relationships working with producers, we've had a strong personal relationship, strong personal rapport, and really see eye to eye at the boundary so they know what I'm doing and I know what they're doing.
This is kind of like Talib's argument in Antifragile that you shouldn't specialize too much. Don't take it too much to the extreme and divide it up so cleanly that there's no redundancy.
I talk about diplomacy and power dynamics a bunch, I talk about this at the Game Developer's conference and the room was packed for the talk.
I first heard the term "framing" from George Laikoff, the political theorist. Earlier we talked about communication, the factual level of communication is the most basic level possible. But all communication simultaneously has a diplomatic/relationship component -- you can choose all sorts of ways to tell others about facts. You can say it in a tone that makes it clear you don't care what the other person thinks, or you can explain your reasoning and get input at the same time.
It's really just a skill, a learnable skill. You need to know whether a tone you're communicating in is helpful or harmful.
A lot of people who aren't sensitive to this stuff offend other people by taking tones they shouldn't, or selling themselves short, or being in positions where they don't have the clout to get done the things done they want to.
When you talk to people who are already very good communicators and mention this is a skill, you'll probably hear back "oh, duh, obviously." But a lot of times, you talk to people without the communication skills and they'll say, "That isn't something I want to learn. I'm a programmer/artist/etc, those skills are for for politicians."
But no matter what, everyone has to be able to be persuasive and communicate well. As a manager I've worked with guys who are extremely technically competent, but they didn't develop the skills to be able to share a smart perspective they had where they could foresee problems and results coming from the future, they still couldn't get others to pay attention. It was like Cassandra -- we'd walk right into the problem they foresaw, and we walked right into the trap anyways.
It's as much your responsibility to make people able to hear you, and respect your perspective, as it is up for other people to listen. You train people how to treat you. I say it as an imperative: it's your responsibility to understand those diplomatic aspects of communication, because you train people how to understand and regard you.
You don't get to abstain from this. If you choose not to practice this stuff, you don't get to bow out of it. You're doing it anyways. So then you wind up coming across too submissive, or too aggressive -- you don't really know. You're always communicating somehow, whether consciously or not.
Did you read that all? Awesome stuff, huh? You can grab Brian Sharp's GiveGetWin deal here, "Elite Management and Leadership Coaching For People In Creative Industries" -- it's powerful stuff if you need to lead a team, you'll get a 1-on-1 session with Brian, and additionally have the opportunity to connect during a bonus group session and meet other leaders in their fields. A great way to make huge gains and new friends.