"Our culture is great, we have a beer fridge and on Friday everyone gets together and plays fußball."
I've heard many game companies talk about fußball tables like they are culture. Same for Nerf guns and a weekly masseuse. While these are all lovely perks, conflating them with culture risks catastrophe, because it misses what really matters. At worst, the wrong perks can signal incorrect values, subverting intended culture.
Defining what culture actually is, rather than is not, is hard, because its products are so wide reaching and subtle. However, at the highest level culture is the fundamentals of what your company believes. Culture is how people think and interact with each other. It's defined by almost every management and HR decision, whether culture is explicitly cultivated or not. Culture is always there. It is in the blood of the organisation and impacts every product, creative and technical outcome.
And what's more, good culture is the difference between a successful game and a failure. And I can prove that with science.
The science of culture
It's GDC 2016 and Paul Tozour is onstage talking about something called The Game Outcomes Project. This academic study, Paul explains, had 300 developers answer questions about the creation and relative success of their most recent game project, before the inputs and outputs were correlated.
The results blew my mind: As a leader I was focusing my time and efforts on completely the wrong things. Various project management methodologies, engine technologies, and even bonus schemes didn't matter, yet cultural factors were clearly and strongly linked to success. No matter how well your plan was thought through, said Paul, it was going to run in to problems. And how well you solve those problems is down to your culture.
"Good culture is the difference between a successful game and a failure. And I can prove that with science"
Culture defines the quality and alignment of decision making, because it dictates the context on which decisions are made: from what's important at a company or team level, through to the way in which people should set about solving any given problem.
If, for example, a culture is defined by lean startup thinking and player communities, then solving a problem will be contextualised by community interaction and getting to market as quickly as possible. Alternatively, if production fidelity and team consensus defines the culture, then the context is changed to finding agreement on what is the best possible solution. While neither of these approaches are right in the abstract - although they may be for a given company - they are consistent.
It's this context and shared understanding that ultimately drives greater harmony among teams, allows for greater decentralised decision making, greater staff retention, attraction of more senior staff, and better morale. So culture is a undoubtedly mission-critical factor for any business. But in order to avoid mistaking something trivial for culture we need to know what culture really is and the components that shape it.
Making a culture
Earlier, I stated that culture is "the fundamentals of what your company believes." While that's useful, the definition undersells the word's true depth and width of meaning.
I define company culture as being composed of four elements - mission and vision, philosophies and values, leadership, and management and policies - where each represents a subsequently lower level of a complete culture.
At the highest level of culture is mission and vision. This pair dictates what a company wishes to achieve and the journey it will take to get there. The mission and vision should be the reason why everyone is at this specific company and not any other. If the mission (what the company wants to achieve) and the vision (what success looks like) is clear and well defined then everyone knows the direction they need to be heading. If these factors are muddy then cracks appear, resulting in tension that ultimately derives from mismatched expectations.
To attract the right staff a mission or vision statement should be created to align with individual values as much as possible. Good mission and vision statements are appealing as they define the value that a given company will offer the world, whereas bad ones will be shallow and focus on vanity or monetary motives.
Profit seeking is implied in the foundation of a business so it rarely needs explicitly stating in a mission or vision, and wanting revenue alone lacks clarity on how you expect to obtain it. For example, "make the most profitable puzzle games in world" is a poor mission statement, whereas "bring a billion players around the world together through puzzle games" is much more compelling and descriptive.
Once a goal is set, the next level is philosophies and values. These beliefs are a collection of things a company understands to be crucial to success. Philosophies and values of a company might be anything from Agile methodologies and gender equality, through to mental health awareness and the teachings of the Millennial-hating author Simon Sinek.
Values and philosophies are likely to be wide reaching and varied, because there are many dynamics within any business that need perspective. However through a process of value setting, companies can work with their team to really uncover and prioritise what is the most important, creating a list that is fundamental. Digging into what's really important will lead to a set of values that is easily communicable to the wider team, but the process of defining them through the management will also inform how that group should be leaders.
Leadership is the third level of culture and defines the way in which mission, vision, values and philosophies are put into practice. Leaders within an organisation should live and follow what the company believes in, but should also be active in bringing them to their staff.
"Mission statements above the door or value posters on the walls are worth little if the company leaders aren't applying them daily"
When a decision is being made, it's the leader's job to make sure those making the call are given the full context of the mission and company values as well as any business needs. While this context will impact the decision itself, it also dictates how the decision is made. Good leadership is often being a good meeting chair, steering discussion according to an organisation's principles.
Mission statements above the door or value posters on the walls are worth little if the company leaders aren't applying them daily. Ultimately it is actions, and not words, that set culture in any given group, and leadership offers a primary path to making an impact on outcomes. However, the more rigidly defined systems of a company also shape culture.
At the lowest level of culture is management and policies. This pair of factors encompasses the structure and processes of everyday work, from organisational hierarchy to if there are dogs in the office. While management and policies might seem unimportant in culture, they are the mechanical shaping of what work looks like. For example, a company that wishes to empower staff shouldn't have four layers of management between an individual and someone who can and will veto their work. Alternatively, a company who wishes to promote mental wellness should have an Employee Assistance Programme.
It's not uncommon for an organisation to put in place systems that work against culture because of a will to protect itself or cut costs; I've been in many myself. HR's job should not be to defend employees from the company, but to ensure that the company and its staff have the best possible mutually beneficial relationship.
Management and polices are the lowest level and truest communication of what company believes, rather than says it believes. If done right, the shape and rules of an organisation can assist the work of leadership in showing staff what is and is not acceptable or desirable, creating the foundation of a good culture.
Making good culture
A good culture is one that's effective in taking an organisation to its desired outcomes. In the creative business of making games, the research points us to strong vision and the efficient resolution of production and design problems through great teamwork and communication.
"Fußball and beer may be a nice way for the team to socialise, but does it also signal the company as a 'boys club'?"
The exact implementation of a culture, however, is down to the specific goals of an organisation as well as the beliefs and personalities of its leadership. One organisation might desire to move fast and cheap, whereas another cares about quality over cost and time. There's no one right culture for all organisation, even ones that are ostensibly similar. And what's more, there won't be one right culture for even a single business, as culture must evolve over time.
As staff come and go, the group dynamics of a company will change, as will the market, the success of the business, and the beliefs of the leaders, so embracing change and striving to improve culture is noble cause. Yet culture is ultimately owned by the collective staff. It's the actions of the staff, and not any single person's words, that constitutes a culture. Leaders would do well to watch and understand culture, before nurturing and shaping it.
For a culture to be accepted by a company it has to be acceptable to the staff. In an existing company this means drawing out the current culture and building on it, while lessening the worst of aspects of it. In building a new company this means careful selection of candidates whose values can align with those of the founding team, while also encouraging the hire to help to shape and evolve the culture in the best way possible.
However, above all else, the key to building a good culture is keeping it in the forefront of everyone's minds.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast
Culture is a vast, wide-ranging set of qualities that are messy and muddled. It's hard to see culture holistically and it's harder yet to steer it. But culture is the blueprint of success, so it should be the highest priority of not just management, but every team member to build upon and improve it.
In the face of this difficult process it's easy to consider culture to be a fußball table and a few beers, but not only does this risk missing the point, it may have unintended consequences. Fußball and beer may be a nice way for the team to socialise, but does it also signal the company as a 'boys club'? Do catered dinners save the team the labour and expense of having to cook, or signal they must stay late?
If there's one simple step each of us can take to improving culture it's in remembering that every decision, every communication and every action is both contribution to and shaped by the shared culture of a team. And if you're looking to make better games, first look toward your culture.