My post before this was a kind of therapy / Buddhism / personal growth kind of deal, but I also spend a lot of time thinking about how to run effective teams and to be a responsible, thoughtful manager of people. It is my work: I am a lead engineer at Bungie, an independent video game developer of about 300 employees (though not for long, we're growing.) There are some unique aspects to making videogames, and I'll use game development terminology here as I refer to, say, texture artists or sound designers or programmers, but when I talk to friends in different creative industries - film, industrial design, other software development - I find these themes are pretty universal.
If you're going to manage people, you're going to have a lot of conversations about employee performance. It's just bound to happen. Sometimes, like during reviews, it might seem excessive. You might wonder if's worth all the time it takes. It is. It's OK that you spend a bunch of time on this. As a manager, that is your job. It's your job to have well-formed opinions about how you evaluate people and how you work with them to help them grow. If you aren't spending time on that, then you may be succeeding as a leader, but probably not as a manager. Apples and oranges.
It is, however, important to spend this time well. During conversations about performance, everything you talk about should boil down to one thing: the value they contribute to the team. What is their value, and how can they become more valuable?
I find a lot of review conversations tend to focus on strengths, weaknesses, and specific work results. These seem like reasonable topics, and there's value there, but I also find this often leads to a review that looks like this:
This post is a sequel to my Role Shapes post from last year. Like that post, this post is about a metaphor for working on a team, and talks about each of us as shapes in a space of work that gets done. This year, I’m talking about a slightly different space.
I’m going to call last year’s metaphor the “hindsight model.” The hindsight model talks about a finished project, and all the work that went into it, and the shapes we each carved out of that. It’s “hindsight” because you don’t know what all that work is when you start. You can only know for sure what all the work was once you’re done.
This model, then, I’ll call the “foresight model.” It’s about an ongoing project, and the responsibilities we each have as members of that team. In the foresight model, the shapes aren't about work we have done, but about areas of responsibility, like parts of the field we’re covering for when work arises.
To explain that, I’ll tell you two stories.
I gave a talk at PAX Dev recently on the skill of staying with unpleasant emotion. My basic argument is, if you're not comfortable staying with fear and anger, then they control and influence your actions in bad ways and you make poor decisions.
Here's the video of the talk. It's just under an hour long:
I had more material for the talk than I could fit in an hour, so a bunch of stuff got cut. One of the big things was my thoughts on production - the discipline in game development responsible for schedules, coordination, and logistics - and how a skillful relationship to negative emotion is especially critical for producers.
Before I left Bungie, I had a conversation with a friend there, a producer with whom I had often disagreed. He spent a lot of time working with data to make predictions about the schedule. I was teasing him about how elaborate his spreadsheets were. I told him I didn't use them very much for my team.
When I talk about having a meditation practice, people sometimes ask why I do it, what I get out of it. In a way being goal-oriented about meditation is missing the point, but at the same time, certainly it yields tangible benefits. One of those has been on my mind lately so I thought I'd write a little about it.
Meditation has helped me see the difference between stories and life. Before I meditated, I thought they were the same. Actually, I didn't think about it at all. I took it for granted. Seeing the difference is profound and important.
If you haven't watched the recent clip of Louis C.K. talking about smart phones and profound sadness, you should.
Chilly autumns like the ones we have in Seattle make me wistful and nostalgic and I have lately been really in touch with that basic loneliness he talks about. It comes up as a bare feeling for just an instant before my mind fills it in with story. And my mind is tricky: it tries to make it seem the other way around, like the story came first, and the loneliness resulted.
I'm sitting in my apartment alone and I'm single and that's why... feeling of profound sadness and loneliness.
I had a post written about difficult conversations. It was quite reasonable. Then I read this article by Clayton Christensen on the Harvard Business Review, and specifically this quote:
"Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team. More and more MBA students come to school thinking that a career in business means buying, selling, and investing in companies. That’s unfortunate. Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people."
I read that and realized my post was far too tame and this topic is incredibly important. So I wrote this post instead:
Having difficult conversations is one of your fundamental responsibilities in living. Difficult conversations are the very essence of love, intimacy, and generosity. And every time you postpone or avoid one out of fear you are wasting your precious life, failing in your responsibilities to others, and acting out of cowardice.
[Sorry for the post delay and the switch to photographs for this one. I'm searchng for a better illustration method than the way I was previously drawing on my iPad, and anyway photos are more appropriate for this post anyhow.]
Both times I've been to Tonsai Beach I've gotten food poisoning.
This time I learned it has a name: Tonsai Belly. Food handling practices aren't up to Western standards, I guess. But then, neither are standards for garbage (most of it is burned in piles), water (bottled is the only fresh source), and lodging (most bathrooms are outdoors, hot water is a luxury.) The economy of Tonsai is so small that cash is a problem: the ATM dispenses thousand-baht notes, and most food and drink is tens of baht. There are maybe thirty stores total on the entire beach, so there's not much commerce.
In spite of its challenges and small overall size, Tonsai has two things in abundance: rock, and people who climb it.
I bought a 1996 Winnebago Rialta to live in starting when the lease on my house is done at the end of May. Obviously Tynan was an inspiration in the sense that I would never have considered an RV if not for him, but long before he and I reconnected I'd always taken the stance that I would live in the smallest living space possible as long as I had a great kitchen.
So, when I was looking around at apartments in Seattle's Capitol Hill recently and dreading moving into a lousy studio in some nice building's basement with an electric stove and a crummy refrigerator, I thought, wait a minute, Tynan's got a great kitchen in his RV. Time to put my money where my mouth is.
I've done a fair amount of work on it. The Community section of tynan.com is a perfect place to log this stuff. I'll post some status here in a minute.
I was going to just email this to Tynan but noticed Tynan.com is running on SETT now so figured, what the hell, I'll share it with everyone.
The reason I came to the site was to find the quote from his post on meditation. It's the first sentence of the post. "The thing that really scares me is spontaneous personal expression."
That's certainly the case for me, too, and of all my fears, pushing on that one has been the most rewarding thing I've ever done. Eight years of western therapy and western Buddhist meditation have done a lot for that particular fear but it's still the strongest. I'm afraid of heights and falling and injury and public speaking all sorts of other stuff but working with those fears is nothing compared to the fear of expressing myself, especially in ways that I don't already identify as "things I'm good at" or "things I'm proud of."
I went to the Game Developer's Conference last week, but only managed to attend two talks other than my own (because I was still preparing for my own) but one of them was by John Sharp, an art historian, academic, and game designer who teaches at Georgia Institute of Technology. His was a talk on Abstraction in art and game design. He talked about a lot of stuff: painting, photorealism, photography, Jackson Pollock, Islamic religious art, dance, and more I'm forgetting, but one thing that struck me was the trailer clips he used from Wim Wenders' "Pina", a documentary film about Pina Bausch, a choreographer I'd never heard of, but Wikipedia told me was one of the foremost influences in modern dance over the last 30 years.
Then I got back to Seattle and completely coincidentally a friend had posted on Facebook about it playing at a theater here, and about wanting to see it. I bought tickets and saw it tonight.
First, it's the first and only 3D movie I've seen where the 3D was not just a dumb gimmick. It was integral: it felt like you were on stage watching all the dance. Second, the dance was all incredible. And third, and most important, it did an incredibly job of showing how modern dance is a practice of - and performance about - overcoming that deepest fear of personal self-expression. Bausch died days before the film began shooting, so it became a tribute to her, but has no interviews with her directly. Instead, her dancers talk about how she was constantly challenging their fear, pushing them out of their comfort zones, driving them to explore the deep yearning that motivates them, and inviting them to scare themselves and others with the intensity and intimacy of their work.
I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Like I said, I was just going to tell Ty he should try to find a theater showing it because I think he'd love it, but I'd say the same for any reader of this blog. If Tynan's words and attitude resonate with you, I bet Pina will too. It's a real masterpiece.
In Buddhism there's this great concept of near-enemies and far-enemies. Two things are far-enemies if they are polar opposites: the far enemy of compassion is cruelty. But near-enemies are more subtle: they seem very similar at first, but when you look deeper, they're still opposites. The near-enemy of compassion, for example, is pity. They kind of seem like the same thing, because both mean you "feel bad" for someone else, but compassion is dignified and brings you closer together. Pity is condescending. It distances you from the other person.
Far-enemies aren't that interesting to me because they're pretty obvious. Polar opposites. Ho-hum. But I love near-enemies, because there's a lot to talk about in the subtlety.
So let's talk about two of the biggest near-enemies of all: self-consciousness and self-awareness.
Superficially, they seem very similar. Both of them are about paying attention to yourself, your thoughts, words, and actions in the present moment.
I got a lot of feedback that the post on role shapes was useful to people, but it's only one metaphor, and no metaphor is complete. The subtractive way of thinking about work simplifies away many aspects of development: it ignores the way the needed work can change and morph over time, it ignores the way that good decisions in one area can change the work in another, and it postulates a "set of all work" as though it's a knowable thing. Other than trivially simple projects, the set of all work is not something you can just write down with confidence. A huge part of the challenge of running a project is the skill of sussing out what needs to be done in the first place, and reconciling world views between teammates so you can have productive conversations about the work.
When I think about this what comes to mind is a city. The city has development that needs doing, and also ongoing maintenance. Fires happen, bridges collapse, stuff like that. Your job, your whole team, is to array yourselves around the city to get the work done. How do you lay yourselves out?
Every place you can stand in the city involves a tradeoff between direct agency and line of sight. By "direct agency" I mean the ability to actually do things, like fix broken water mains or build a garage or pave a road. By "line of sight" I mean the set of all things you can see from where you're standing, and how well you can see them
If your project is very small, then in the metaphor it's a little village. If it's really tiny maybe it's just a little shed. And maybe there's just two of you building the shed. There aren't that many perspectives you can have on a shed. You will sometimes see things differently, because you're standing on different sides of the shed, or one of you is on a ladder looking at the roof while the other is inside looking at the interior. But it's easy to reach a shared fundamental understanding. You can get blueprints and spend half an hour looking at them and agreeing on them.