People + Strategy Journal

Winter 2021

Designing the Game of Work

Organizations facing challenges from COVID-19, remote working, diversity and more should follow the design-thinking mindset that allowed the video games industry to thrive. 

By Alexander L. Fernandez, Streamline Media Group
Designing the Game of Work
The global pandemic has forced all companies to reassess their raison d’etre and align it with key strategic and operational activities that insulate it from further uncertainty. Leadership teams have realized standard business orthodoxy no longer applies in today’s new reality and they’re searching for something honest, robust and adaptable. Unlike the financial crisis of 2009, the global pandemic has changed all facets of life and has affected the nature of work. 

In 1942, economist Joseph Schumpeter introduced an economic theory known as creative destruction. His theory expressed how economic growth is achieved through natural and constant product and process improvements. Over the years, Schumpeter’s theory has been adapted to describe how innovation displaces incumbents and replaces them with newer, more agile organizations. COVID-19 has unleashed the full force of creative destruction upon the global economy and few industries have embraced it as fully and successfully as the video games industry. Creative destruction is part of the video games business cycle, forcing the industry to reinvent itself every three to five years. Its method for adaptation centers on a version of design that can be utilized by all organizations to survive this once-in-a-generation challenge.

The spirit of game development is that nothing is impossible. We create worlds from the passions of people and solve challenges through iterative design that at times can seem like trial and error. Trust between team members and management is necessary to get the very best out of each other and solve creative and technical problems. Above all, it requires openness to new ideas and approaches and a willingness to move forward when there’s no guarantee of success.

Design Thinking Refreshed

Videogame development is similar to design thinking. As a refresher, design thinking is a process to bring a human-centric approach to developing new products and processes, and reaching new customers. Its key steps are:
  • Empathize: Research and understand the context of the problem by understanding the circumstances of those who may find the solution useful.
  • Define: Analyze research and observations to draw out a clear understanding of the problem. 
  • Ideate: Brainstorm to find ideas that can be potential solutions without qualifying them at first for quality or feasibility.
  • Prototype: Paper descriptions, diagrams or even role-playing that are easy to produce and demonstrate ideas in physical form.
  • Test: Prototypes are put into the field and tested by the target audience. Feedback is gathered and balanced against the definition and research to see if the problem is solved.

Brave New Design

How we approach design in games comes down to a simple framework that engages stakeholders to deliver their best in a collaborative environment. To successfully implement the framework requires establishing its core attributes as part of the cultural fabric of an organization.
  • Straight talk: Everyone participating needs to feel free to share candid and frank insights and opinions. 
  • Build trust through transparency: The stakes should be clear and obvious to everyone involved, with results measured and shared with all stakeholders. 
  • Feedback loops: Micro-adjustments are discussed in 1:1 meetings or coffee sessions to air out issues before they become macro problems on the eve of performance reviews.
  • Expertise matters: Experts in all functions, products and regions need to be included in discussions that span and affect the organization.
  • Team first: Group achievement is prioritized over individual achievement with an emphasis on self-organizing teams. 
Accomplishing this new design approach starts with the organization’s leadership—what they believe and the imagination to design a better future. 

Press Start

A full year has passed since the outbreak of COVID-19. Yes, it has caused tremendous destruction to families and economies. But what stands before us is a rare chance to redefine what it means to work, and to reevaluate practices and norms we have maintained since the industrial revolution. Can we embrace the opportunity of a reimagined relationship between work and life, business and family, management and staff, the community and the individual? Such a dramatic leap is nearly impossible to plan for: the paucity of precedent, landmarks and historical data makes mapping difficult. I believe the route we take in creating video games may have some unique and broad applications towards this challenge. 

Few mediums can entertain, educate and capture our attention as well as video games. An industry filled with stories about mushroom-eating plumbers, heroes and heroines, and post-apocalyptic hellscapes may seem like nothing more than distractions rather than serious business. Still, in 2020, global revenues were forecast to reach $158 billion, and more than 2.8 billion people were actively gaming. Globally, the video games industry is recognized as an accelerator for emerging market economies. 

Videogame development is a complex process that gathers experts with engineering, art, business, psychology and design backgrounds in a singular focus to create an immersive experience. These products can cost as much as blockbuster movies to develop, with teams of more than a thousand. Designing these worlds requires the developers’ ability to create suspension of disbelief, trigger behavioral responses and provide a sense of engagement and achievement to gamers. This journey requires an alignment of mission, values, passion and incentives that take an untuned cacophony of noise and gives birth to a symphony. If this sounds like a challenge, it should. The development of video games can take up to five years or more. 

Designing the game of work can draw on the discipline of videogame development. Companies must recruit and retain talent through incentives that reward and shape career progression. They must capture employees’ attention and provide the suspension of disbelief that the organization is the best place to spend a sizeable portion of their adult life, thus empowering the team to work cohesively on collective goals while attempting to hit goals, fulfill objectives and make a healthy profit. 

Uncharted

Our first design challenge about work is to establish clarity around the challenges that companies face. Working remotely doubles the difficulties of communication, which heightens the requirement for precision on the goals. The team needs their leaders to use frank and honest talk. Encourage the open flow of ideas, suggestions and feedback so the teams can grasp the new circumstance. Effective design requires speed, accuracy and clarity of information.

For those leading global organizations, it’s essential to understand that each country office faces a different reality. Local offices need to be empowered through increased autonomy and trust from senior leadership to create new business and solve problems on the ground. The needs of Tokyo look nothing like those of Provo, Utah.

At Streamline Media Group, we were open from the start about the potentially disastrous circumstances we faced as a small company. By embracing teamwork, establishing a clear vision, being transparent about our circumstances and placing people over profits, our team could focus our energies on overcoming the challenges we faced. It brought us together even more closely and has accelerated performance to this day.

Design Toolbox:
  • REFLECTION / ANALYSIS: What were the company’s best decisions during the pandemic, and what were the bad ones? Why?
  • GREATER PURPOSE: Map the decisions against mission, values and vision to see where they match/don’t match and discuss with your leadership team.
  • TEAM SPEAK: Ask the broader organization what they feel could have been done better.

Together Everyone Achieves More (TEAM)

After a year of working from home, we’ve all begun to realize how much individual success relies on teamwork. Designing meaningful incentives begins with the end in mind. It’s not just about money in the team’s pocket, but behaviors that are shaped and informed by processes that reward group effort and achievements. 

It has been observed that Xennials, Millennials, and Gen-Z are drawn towards collaborative environments and specialization. This behavior is foundational in video games, particularly multiplayer games, as the design ethos is to present unique problems that must be solved within a finite amount of time or resources to advance, conquer and win. Online multiplayer games such as Fortnite require participants to self-organize and collaborate to succeed, quite often with team members who have never met each other before. Once the game ends, the world resets, presenting a new challenge to overcome for all players. 

The constant barrage of problem-solving, communication and organization reinforces a positive feedback loop that entices players to try and try again. In turn, this builds experience, expertise and elasticity of mind. 

Solving complex problems requires creativity, which requires the psychological trust of contributors to know their team has their back to take a risk that could deliver the results necessary for everyone. Inherent in the design is a frequent feedback loop that gives honest and direct corrective and alignment advice. In a business context, these micro-adjustments come in the form of manager 1:1 or coffee sessions designed to air out problems. 

At Streamline, we built a culture of curiosity that promotes active learning and problem-solving at all levels. We incorporate 1:3:1 problem solving by which a problem is identified, three potential solutions are proposed, and the best of three is executed. Alongside this, we have constant feedback to tune the organization further. This dynamic approach allowed us to pivot to work-from-home quickly, because teams are accustomed to organizing themselves quickly around goals and milestone objectives. Supporting this has been a culture of decision-making at all levels of the company. We all must block and tackle. Supporting this are leads, senior production managers and general managers who regularly interact and provide the psychological safety needed to perform.

During the pandemic onset, I was in constant contact with our leaders of all levels. It was my responsibility to ensure they were fine and let them vent frustrations and fears. It wasn’t always easy, but in hindsight, it gave me a more insight into the emotional state of our business and a greater appreciation for what it means to lead.

Design Toolbox:
  • TEAM: Review and align incentive systems to reward collaborative and group achievement.
  • ALIGNMENT: Implement weekly or biweekly performance management systems with feedback loops.
  • GENERALISTS: Increase cross-training and cross-department transfers that grow the team’s overall capabilities in various organizational disciplines.

What Matters Most

I am guessing that when we do return to the office, none of us will want to resume 12-hour days and 90-hour work weeks. The quasi-perk of business travel will be limited, much to the joy of CFOs, and leaders will have to find ways to create meaningful and productive work environments. This will be the most difficult design challenge companies will face as their teams, facing constant reminders this year of their mortality because of COVID-19, understand the value time has in their lives. 

For nearly 20 years, I have maintained an extreme business travel schedule. With business travel all but over, I found difficulties in not jumping on a plane every two weeks. I won’t lie that it took time to get over it and felt a profound loss. The journey brought me to increase my time focused on family, personal development and photography. The extra time spent in these areas has all but replaced the rush that came with business travel. 

Design Toolbox:
  • RESULTS: Focus conference calls to be results-oriented with expected outcomes of decisions.
  • ACCOUNTABLE: Adjust objectives, key results (OKRs), and goals to be transparent to the organization.
  • TRANSPARENT: Implement a cadence of accountability that reinforces over-communication.

Work Anywhere. Talent Is Everywhere. 

The freedom to work from anywhere is powered by trust and a proven ability to deliver results. Our teams are savvy individuals who understand the implications of being located in Bali while delivering results on the latest deadline. Through clearly defined sync-up times, remote work processes and infrastructure, today’s teams are more than capable of producing results. But it requires a clear vision of success so that teams can determine the appropriate course of action.

The design challenge here is to take a hard look at the desired output and work backward from where your firm is today to determine what needs to be done to unshackle your teams in terms of process, infrastructure, management overhead and results. The first step is categorizing employment contracts for employees located in different geographies. Taxes, salary, health care and performance-related bonuses become complicated when factoring in remote work setups. The trade-off for employees and employers requires honest conversations about how remote employment will impact administrative burdens and costs.

In allowing work from anywhere to gain traction within the organization, the company opens itself up to exciting new sources that possess tremendous transformative potential. From inner cities to rural areas, this talent isn’t restrained by group-think biases. For globalized companies, having diverse talent in crucial leadership roles sends important signals to current and prospective employees that upward mobility and promotion are possible while reinforcing agency and teamwork. 

Organizations need to be honest about diversity and inclusion. With the number of chance workplace encounters significantly reduced for talent to be noticed, they must double down on programs to identify and nurture high potential pipelines. In essence, pushing down the notion that everyone is a talent scout is critical. Commitment to promoting unique voices is central to all firms’ evolution and adaptation and need to be adjusted to reflect today’s circumstances.

As a Hispanic, diversity is a priority for me. I know firsthand what it’s like to strive for a seat at the table and the adversity that comes when you’re not like anyone else. This is why Streamline continues to hire a diverse roster. We have 45 nationalities, 25 different languages and believe that our differences make us stronger. Our leadership team is 60 percent women and they actively participate in identifying and developing the next generation of our leaders.

Our desire as an organization to reach the most significant talent possible brought us to the creation of a cloud-based development platform, Streamframe. This technology enables us to run our business from anywhere globally while also connecting various stakeholders in a transparent, secure and efficient way. When we first envisioned it in 2004, it reduced the monotonous, repetitive activities that we believed could be automated through software. Over time, it became central to our organization and allowed the company to switch with relative ease to working remotely. This freedom has yielded dividends and is one that I believe all companies should embrace.

Design Toolbox:
  • INCLUSION: Diversity at the top brings new voices, ideas and opportunities to the table. Promote it.
  • PERSPECTIVE: Accessing global talent creates opportunities in international markets. Seek to open it.
  • OUTLAST: The digital transformation of your core infrastructure increases the survivability of unprecedented events. Look at establishing your system or implementing one for your organization.

Entrepreneurship, Not Stewardship

For more than 80 years, the world experienced growth largely through administration, knowledge of past business cycles and technological and process improvements. Executive suites brimmed with MBAs, BAs and educated folks who brimmed with stewardship principles. They identified business patterns and correlations for just about everything. Stewardship worked as long as the world operated within the context of what was known. As we all know, 2020 turned out to be an outlier year.

The stewards of 2020 found themselves in an escalating battle of unknown circumstances that required grit, gut calls and operating without all the facts. This reality broke the guise of cyclical business administration by highlighting operational and management inefficiencies. The tried and true approach to business administration came shining through with unfortunate layoffs and budget cuts that left management teams with some cash flow but little understanding of what to do next.

For most entrepreneurs, 2020 was nothing different from the lives they were already living; sparse resources, low funds and an unknown future that they believed could only get better. Entrepreneurship requires elasticity of mind, blatant disregard for established rules and willingness to fail fast and learn while remaining optimistic. It heavily relies on design to solve for unconventional and inconceivable problems. Today’s unknown times require entrepreneurship and leadership that embraces the wholesale redesign of business processes, systems and value-creating activities to reinvent existing firms. We can’t administrate our way out of where we are.

The design challenge here is to design your organization to embrace entrepreneurship and locate entrepreneurs who can design forward. Every company has at least one person whose grit and instincts have made them successful. We’re looking for those who reflect the organization’s values and eschew politics, embrace teamwork, diversity and the unknown. These few are the leaders required now.

I refer to Streamline as a starveup company every chance I get. Yes, a starveup company because we started with insufficient funds, many dreams and plenty of grit. We blazed a trail across Europe, Asia and North America by attracting other like-minded individuals and investing in the potential that people themselves didn’t always see. Our approach to creating leaders brought the required infrastructure required to scale and saw the creation of five business divisions.

Design Toolbox:
  • ENTREPRENEURSHIP: Review high potential pipelines and match selection attributes against today’s reality. Do they need to be updated?
  • TALENT SCOUTS: Ask teams to identify the most results-driven outlier personality types in the organization and see if they’re on the high-potential list. If not, get them onto it.
  • MENTORSHIP: Pair your entrepreneurial high potentials with your executive team members.

The Gift

Take a moment and look back at the above design challenges. A pattern emerges regarding the types of people we must become. Our teams need to have a high aptitude towards volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous circumstances while also having psychological safety to take risks and work as teams in frank and direct ways. It means that all of us need to embrace the unknown while learning new things and exposing our teams to what it takes to run the business in meaningful ways.

You could do nothing—wait and see. Hope for better circumstances or just plain retire. All of that would miss the point that COVID-19 brought a pause to humanity to learn from past lessons and build a better tomorrow. It’s a gift that we all should courageously open. 

Alexander L. Fernandez is CEO and Co-Founder of Streamline Media Group Inc. He can be reached on Twitter @starveup and through LinkedIn.