The Lazy Designer

Secret Keeping


This is an addendum to my previous post on being a manager.

I touched a bit on the issue of being open in that discussion, though I want to expand that here.

Currently I am reading the biography ‘Riding Rockets’ by Mike Mullane and while I am fascinated by his descriptions of his journeys to space and the path he took to become an astronaut (the reason I bought the book) I’m finding a lot of valid criticism of poor leadership techniques in it, something I was not expecting.

As Mullane explains it NASA had a rather weak management structure, one that served to diminish astronaut morale. Astronauts were kept in the dark about who would be assigned to space shuttle missions (and why), sometimes for years at a time. So they spent their time guessing and competing with one another — and feeling miserable.

The NASA leadership either intentionally, or out of habit, kept the shuttle assignment process a secret and never revealed the selection criteria they used to decide who would get to go next. I suspect most of this was accidental leadership, in my opinion, as it is a classic trap managers fall into — not even thinking that anyone below them would care, or needed to care, about the criteria managers used to make decisions.

Why are Secrets Bad?

A manager wants his or her team working, actively engaging their minds on their tasks and projects. When major decisions happen (astronaut assignments or video game release dates slips) and the employees are kept in the dark, regardless of the reason, these intelligent, creative employees start spending energy guessing why things are happening the way they are.

Creative people fabricate creative fantasies.

Theories will be postulated and meetings intended to plan or develop new features will be turned towards guessing the intentions of higher management. Often the theories will paint an even more negative image of management, turning them into incompetent fools. Eventually this ‘fool’ label (whether warranted or not) starts to become how the employees actually think of their managers. After that it is not a long road to employees leaving the company (why did I ever work for these idiots in the first place?) or staying but becoming an active agent of low morale (an evangelist spreading the message of discontent).

This happened at NASA, according to Mullane. And I’ve seen it happen elsewhere, even with minor decisions. When possible managers really need to think about how a particular decision, either one that they have made or one they know upper management will make, will affect their team. Discuss it with them, get their viewpoints.

If a manager knows a decision will be unpopular with a subgroup they should try and speak with them directly first. Don’t be afraid to personalize things, say, “I don’t like this either but x, y, and z were all taken into account and everyone agrees this is the best solution. Here are some others that were considered and why they were discarded.”

Of course if you do support the decision make sure you explain why and be able to defend the points. And you need to tailor your argument to your audience. If you’re telling a team member that you have decided to adopt Feature Y for the game and your only defense is ‘because everyone else is doing it’ be prepared for the more data-savvy in your group to challenge that assertion. Make sure you’ve done your homework and that the decision is something that can be stood behind (else why did you agree to it?)

Now clearly not all decisions can be communicated when they happen, or are happening (especially financial things like company acquisitions since there are laws enforcing secrecy). But at other times always consider if information is being withheld (intentionally or accidentally).

Former lead designer at BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights). Creator of Raiders of the Serpent Sea.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.