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Five tips on being a better producer

Fundamentally Games' Ella Romanos looks at what makes production successful for the GamesIndustry.biz Academy

When we think about production, what do we think about? Agile vs waterfall? Trello vs JIRA? Sprints, tasks, milestones?

All of those things are important, but they are just tools or rulesets to follow. They don't actually define what it is that makes production -- or a producer -- successful. So, what does? Fundamentally, you need to know your field. But once you know that, what else matters?

From 13 years managing teams, projects and studios, these are my five key tips on how to be a good producer.

Tip #1: Take organisation to another level

A producer has to spin a lot of plates. That's basically the definition of the job. You have to keep up to date with everyone's tasks, remember to remind people of things, chase for deliveries, keep to deadlines, report to management, coordinate team members, plan sprints, attend meetings, record meeting notes and actions -- and that's just a Monday morning.

So how do you do that? Unless you have an incredible memory (which I do not) you need to find ways to track it all. Some of the tricks that I've learned over the years:

Ella_Romanos_VGTR

Ella Romanos

  • A to do list is either 100% accurate, or worse than not having one

The purpose of a to do list is not just to remember things for you, it's to free up your brain to do other things, without having to retain things, or worry about what you've got to do next.

That means that if you can't trust your list completely, then it would actually be better to not have one, because you won't be able to free up your brain, and you are actually more likely to forget things than if you knew you had to remember them.

  • Have a dump list

Keeping a to do list up to date does take time. You will need to take time every day to update it. However, throughout the day you will be very busy and not have the time to keep it up to date as new tasks come through. So have a dump list, where you can throw any reminders, in any format, and then take time daily to go through it and triage the tasks.

  • One single solution probably doesn't exist

I use several different tools to manage my tasks:

  • A personal to do list: key tip is to aim for only three tasks a day, more can be overwhelming.
  • A to do list per project: so you can organise and keep track of project key tasks too (not the same as a dev roadmap!).
  • Email organisation: snooze should be your best friend, and inbox zero should be your goal at least once a week.
  • Reminders of actions assigned to others (which you need to chase/check they have done): I use the Slack app TaskOnBot, which is great for setting reminders on actions from meetings or Slack chat.

Tip #2: Ask stupid questions

Particularly when you're new to producing, or feeling under pressure to do your job well, it's tempting to nod wisely and make important looking notes when you don't understand something -- worrying that you should know, maybe you've forgotten, maybe you will annoy someone, or look stupid, if you ask.

The reality is, asking stupid questions is key to being an effective producer

The reality is, asking stupid questions is key to being an effective producer. Without these questions, assumptions get made, misunderstandings happen, and projects go in the wrong direction.

I often ask people to explain something to me as if I know nothing about the topic at hand. I also often repeat back to someone what I believe they have said to get confirmation.

The key question to ask yourself is: do I genuinely understand what is being discussed? If someone asks me later, am I confident I can explain it?

Tip #3: Track decisions

Game development can take a long time, there can be a lot of people doing a lot of things, and as we all know, we can't design everything upfront, so decisions get made all the time that steer the direction of the project.

At the time, a decision can seem like the best decision ever, or it can seem like the smallest decision ever. But decisions made now can have an impact later, and if that impact is negative, then a stakeholder -- whether it's your boss or a client -- is going to want to know why.

Therefore tracking decisions should be a core part of any producer's role, as should taking notes of all meetings, to keep a record of how the project has progressed. Recording what was discussed, but most importantly what was agreed, who was involved, and the rationale behind it is key.

And then making sure that any stakeholders who it affects, are aware of the decision -- in some cases you may want their explicit 'ok', other times, you may just want to let them know. We use the Slack app Cloverpop to track decisions, where you can add details and tag everyone involved, in the relevant project channel.

Tip #4 Make complicated things simple

Being a producer is largely about communication. Whether it's working with the team to identify the dev and art tasks that need to be delivered, or creating new processes for your teams, being able to deliver in clearly and in a way that is easy to follow, is key.

But that is not an easy thing to do, when the information you are trying to communicate is complicated, with many moving parts, dependencies, unknowns, estimates and people involved.

Turning something complicated into something that is easy to digest is a skill that took me years to learn

Turning something complicated into something that is easy to digest is a skill that took me years to learn -- and I'm still learning all the time.

Some key considerations that have helped me:

  • Create templates and processes where you can -- creating structure for things helps not only to save you time in future but provides a consistent format for the information you're trying to communicate, which makes it easier for you to communicate, and for teams you work with regularly to understand and know what to expect.
  • Always ask if you have explained something properly -- not if someone has understood you. It's a fine line, but an important one. Always give people permission to ask stupid questions too.
  • When creating new processes, think in systems. What are the high level elements and how do they flow, what elements are those made up of, and what elements are those sub elements made up of... Allowing people to see the high level overview easily, helps put complicated and extensive information they will then receive in context, which will help them understand it more easily.

Tip #5: Know what level of detail is required

Every team is different, every project is different, every stakeholder is different, and every producer is different. There is no 'one size fits all' on how to manage production.

A key consideration when working out how to best manage a project or team is to think about what level of detail is required? For example, some team members will like having a more hands on approach to managing their tasks, others will thrive having more freedom. Some projects are more risky or complicated than others and so need more detailed consideration. Some clients or bosses want more reporting than others.

Your job as a producer is fundamentally to enable your teams to be the best they can be, and facilitate them to deliver the best project possible -- as on budget, on schedule, and to spec, as possible.

So being able to tailor your approach to the specific needs of a project and team, is essential. And yes, when you first work with someone new, you will need time to find this out -- so put in place processes to help you work that out.

In summary, being a producer is not about being the best JIRA user, or knowing Agile inside out, it's about facilitating people to do what they do, to the best of their ability for the best project result possible and setting up systems and processes to make that happen.

Ella Romanos is chief operating officer at Fundamentally Games, which provides strategic support to developers and organisations to help make better and more successful games.

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