“A focus on morale and retention isn't just about maintaining a positive work atmosphere during these tough times. Nor is it simply about making sure that your best people remain committed to the firm should the market soon beckon with new opportunities. It's about establishing a way of doing things that may well be essential to survival just a few years down the road.”
- Paul Michelman.
As part of the Enterprise HRO (Human Resource Outsourcing) model, Reji (name changed), an associate of The HR Practice had been deployed at Prista (name changed to protect client confidentiality) a respected name in the game development industry in India.
The game industry in India is still in the nascent stages in India and despite the rosy predictions the year had not been a very good one for the game industry. Prista was no exception. The PC/Console game space was yet to see any big release of an India specific game by any developer. This was because most of the Indian game development companies could not afford the huge investments needed to develop and market a game. Also for an Indian game developer to develop and publish games for the Indian market was an extremely risky venture since revenue projections were difficult to make on the games, as there were no precedents to base forecasts on. Hence most of the game developers worked as outsourced vendors and there was immense competition for new game projects.
Prista has 2 divisions. The first division, Game Art Studio works as an outsourced vendor for game developers in US and UK creating the art assets that go into making a game, and has worked on some very prestigious AAA titles in this capacity. It is the cash cow for the company. The second Studio focuses on development of full games through tie ups with renowned game publishers. This division has yet to record any success story and is still in the red. Pritsa’s woes this year were compounded by the fact that a big project from a major publisher had significantly overrun its time and cost estimates. Prista was doubly hit. It had not only to incur huge losses on the financial front in the current project but the client had also cancelled the subsequent project assured to them earlier, due to lack of confidence. This had disastrous consequences for the revenue projections for the year.
The resultant blame game witnessed the exit of Studio Head and the next in line, which triggered a series of exits at all levels. All in all, Prista was faced with some major challenges on all fronts. The Management team decided to pass the responsibility of Studio Management to the most capable member of the senior team, Sridhar, ahead of many of his peers. His primary challenge was acceptability as a leader - he had no prior experience in managing a Studio with close to 60 artists and the Studio had a group of senior artists with claim to more experience in the industry and the company than him. Anticipating this problem, Reji, the HR Associate had forewarned the CEO that Sridhar’s appointment would not be easily accepted by a group of people who also had similar aspirations.
Post the announcement of Sridhar’s appointment as Studio Head, Reji decided to chat around to get the pulse of the Studio atmosphere. It was as had been feared; the group of seniors was not at all happy with Sridhar’s appointment. They had also passed on their bitterness to others in the Studio as they had a good amount of influence on the juniors, mostly recruited through their reference. Employee morale had hit an all time low and employees had started voicing concerns on the company’s ability to manage operations and execute projects.
Our Team's Role
The situation had become quite challenging and Reji realized that immediate and urgent steps needed to be taken to restore company and team credibility. Often lack of communication during such scenarios can create misunderstandings among employees. So as a first step Reji undertook a series of focused communication exercises via townhalls, mails, client validations etc to instill confidence among the team on the company’s stability. The numerous communications did make an impact but Reji sensed that team members were not being very forthright in this mass communication mode and were holding back.
Reji and his Account Manager from The HR Practice, realized that the context required more enduring actions to be taken. On analyzing the situation further, they thought it was important to provide a platform for Studio Leads to air their real and personal concerns. This would also help in identifying the solution, going ahead, to improve the team environment.
So they advised the CEO to individually meet the senior members in the Studio team to assess the real concerns and ways to address them. The CEO was game for it. Reji facilitated meetings for all the senior members of the Studio with the CEO and Sridhar. The key concerns highlighted by the seniour members during these meetings were:
- They had not been rewarded for their loyalty / seniority.
- They were afraid to voice their concerns/ disagreements due to top down pressure.
- They had not had opportunities for skill improvement as they had been busy leading projects and hence were lagging behind in terms of the skills required for next gen game development.
Our team viz., Reji and his manager had now progressed the situation – the leadership now had specific details on Senior Leads concerns. The final list included the following concern areas:
- Individuals had more personal allegiance rather than team allegiance.
- Lack of differentiated roles across the Studio team.
- Limited communication across teams.
- Individual voices not being heard.
- Poor project management.
- Limited variety of projects available.
Some of the concerns were arising from the nature of the industry - very similar to the one faced by other creative businesses like media, advertising etc where people are highly talented, but individual players. Our team drew upon the experience of The HR Practice team members who had worked in creative industries. As is the norm at The HR Practice they also consulted the client’s team members and spoke to experts in the relevant fields to arrive at a strategy to address the root of the problem.
The devised solution was on two levels viz., Micro and Macro levels.
Our exact scope of work included the following:
- Devising rules of engagement / work charter .
- Designing a new organisation structure.
- Defining Job Descriptions for each role.
- Defining career paths to bring about greater clarity.
- Institutionalizing alternate channels of communication.
- Facilitating discussions with the senior members to discuss all the new initiatives.
Devising the solution was simpler than ensuring its implementation in letter and spirit. Implementation was going to be the more challenging aspect as creative people are not by personality amenable to change.
At the Micro Level
The implementation started with Reji along with his manager identifying a group of senior members who would work as a core group in tandem with Sridhar on all Studio responsibilities. It was reiterated again and again to the core group that the onus of running the Studio efficiently lay with the core group and that Sridhar was a first among equals and not running a single point command centre.
The core group then brainstormed on the “Work Charter” by which they would choose to conduct themselves both in group meetings and with other colleagues. While The HR Practice team had developed the basic framework of the Work Charter, they wanted the ownership for the Charter to lie with the Prista team and not be something thrust upon them. Hence the core group was asked to come up with the rules of engagement for the team in general and the core group in particular. They also had to own it and ensure adherence to it. The senior team now felt that they were a part of the decision making process and hence started conducting themselves in a responsible manner. As they were major influencers among the employees it was decided to convey the information that the company has a stable pipeline of work and fund flow situation was improving, through the informal communication channel rather than the formal means of communication.
The HR Practice team also detailed out a skill improvement program and classified employees on skill level based on set parameters. They were then put on the relevant ‘Skill Improvement’ module. Employee morale started improving when they witnessed a unified team coming out with a definite plan for Studio operations.
At the Macro Level
As the next step it was decided to work with a smaller team of process oriented individuals to work out Studio specific benchmarks and processes for measuring productivity, competency etc and to define a new organizational structure best suited for the Studio’s effective functioning. Our team’s endeavor throughout was to work out the basic framework and guiding principles and to ensure the process group does sufficient brainstorming on them to ensure ownership.
The first couple of meetings did not witness much participation as employees tried to first understand the concept and its implications. Getting them to accept the fact that the Studio needed to change its way of operating to ensure projects were managed better was quite a task! A huge amount of data needed to be churned out and dissected to prove that although the Studio had done a commendable job, it had not always given priority to time estimates and productivity. This was affecting the bottom line significantly. Also the fact that artists typically are not very comfortable with numbers and data, compounded the difficulty. Distrust again flared up as the seniors felt that the Management was trying to target them to increase productivity and was not focusing on quality. Meetings started becoming shouting matches with each trying to blame the other for all the problems the company was currently facing. Matters again seemed to be going downhill.
Our team advised the Management to stop the meetings for some time to give everyone time to mull over the facts. Then they suggested that the Management takes one process at a time and experiment with its implementation with a small group of people to work through the problem areas. This approach proved to be more successful. Few project specific processes were rolled out through first implementing them and then discussing ways of refining them for better success.
As the positives of the new processes began to be visible to all, in terms of more planned projects which in turn meant that employees could plan their day and be more productive, the senior group slowly started accepting the changes. Management’s commitment and involvement to ensure that processes were given priority by all, also helped drive home the fact that employees had to ensure timelines were met.
Employee morale started improving and people again started focusing on their work and taking pride in their projects. It is heartening to note that attrition rates have dropped significantly since these initiatives were launched. The senior members were pleased with the fact that their concerns were being addressed and have been raising pertinent questions regarding its implementation. The positive effects of greater transparency and regular communication through weekly meeting of the senior members, monthly team meetings, and town halls are visible. And Reji hopes to use this as a stepping stone to building greater levels of trust between management and employees. Also Prista needs to be commended for using the challenges as an opportunity to focus inwardly to improve itself.
Published in 2008