Tobold's Blog
Friday, August 27, 2010
Is management the only one to blame?

MMO Fallout is reporting on bitter ex employees blaming their management for the failure of All Points Bulletin. I've seen that happening a lot, and always found that discussion a bit one-sided, as most managers not named Derek Smart either have the common sense or a legal obligation to not reveal internal company information about the development of a game. Mark Jacobs recently resurfaced and mentioned that he had been under legal obligation to keep his mouth shut for a year after being fired from EA Mythic.

There is absolutely no doubt that bad management can do great harm to any project, including the project of developing a game. But I always found the story of "management is to blame for everything" a bit too smooth and easy. If the game had been a big success, would the developers have said "oh, I didn't play any part in this, the success is all due to good management"? I find it more likely that in cases like these there is some blame to be shared among all participants, from investors, to management, to game developers, and even other employees. What do you think?
I think the best analogy i've heard about this is the gunslinger and his gun. (The gunslinger being management and his gun being the employee)
The best gun in the world is doomed to miss everything if the gunslinger is crap, whilst the best gunslinger in the world can hit his target (or at least, achieve what he perceives to be achievable ie using the gun to smack his opponent, fake the opponent out etc) with a crappy gun.
If you actually read the piece, he's not dodging responsibility for the failure of APB as a game, as he says, that was down to failures at "all levels" of the company.

What he's specifically calling management out for is choosing to run the company well past the point it could be wound up safely - i.e. properly lay people off and give them their due pay. When RTW folded it not only had no cash in the bank, it had £3m in debt, with former employees forced to call on state redundancy provisions (which was no good if you were from outside the EU, as many were), and which is capped at a paltry £320 or so a week. That's entirely down to management - they're willing to gamble a few extra months to see if they can turn things around because at the end of the day their wealth (and the men making these decisions are millionaires, in this case) insulates them from the impact of not receiving your due redundancy.
Is management the only one to blame? No, but they do take the lion's share for two reasons:

1. They are the ones who are supposed to be in control. The employees are supposed to do the best job they can, but if the managers don't pull it all together it's useless. Even if some of employees are screwups, a good team with good managers can still pull of amazing success. And, if the majority of the team were screwups, then management didn't do their job when it came to hiring. Plus, as Dissimilitude said, it's the management's responsibility to make sure the employees are taken care of if the worst does happen.

2. They take the large share of the reward when things go well. If APB had been a big success, it's usually safe to assume that the management would have had bigger bonuses to show for it.

In the end, assigning blame doesn't make the game a success. But, it can be some cold comfort to people who lost their jobs and are looking for new ones.
I'd like to hear more about the game itself. Was it a bad design all the way around and as bad as prominent reviews actually indicated? No amount of management can save a badly designed game, so what's the scoop in that regard?
Sorry Chris, can't help you there. "MMO PvP Shooter" is not exactly the type of game I'm rushing to try out on the first day. And once I read the same bad reviews as you saw, I was even less likely to give it a try.

But I repeatedly did read complaints about controls being unresponsive, which to me suggests a problem of programming, not management, for that particular issue.
The whole team was aware of the control issues. They were not considered important enough to dedicate real time and effort to fixing.

Dave J considered the driving and shooting fine, so it wasn't dealt with, simple as that.

My apologies. I wasnt attempting to call you out for not covering that aspect of this issue, but rather to point out and beg the question of what exactly is management to blame for? Are they to blame for treating employees badly, or for continuing to stand behind their employees while they struggled to polish a turd?

I see a big and fundamental difference there, and the distinction needs to be made in order to provide a proper focus for these types of cases when games fail.
I think their biggest problem was the concept tbh.

Cops Vs Robbers in citywide carnage. Just seems a bit weak to me. Sure it may attract the GTA fans for a while but even for them it has to get old fast. As one of my guildmates put it, there are only so many quests you can make out of "steal the car" and beyond that it's all PvP action...only not really real world pvp with some interest, it just seems to be one big version of a warcraft battleground on constant replay...

Maybe ok for something like GTA which made a huge franchise off this stuff, but this is an MMO and it's a completely different territory.

I just think it was perhaps a somewhat weak idea to begin with.
Is it possible that the employees made this happen? Yes.

Who would be responisble?
The management, because they employed them.

With the right to fire somebody comes the responsibility to do so if necessary.

With priviledges come responsibilities. Has always been this way.
Except that management has the ability to fire fail developers. So if the project succeeds and you keep your job all the way though it is reasonable to assume that you are a good developer or at least don't good enough. But if the project fails because of bad developers, management is still at fault for not identifying the fail developer. So the blame does fall disproportionately on the managers.
Good mgmt + Good devs is ideal.
Good mgmt + bad devs may fail but could be salvaged if mgmt does was it needs to do. The bad devs might try to deceive mgmt but if they succeed at it can you rightly call that mgmt good?
Bad mgmt + good or bad devs always fails unless the project is trivial or the good devs leave and either find or appoint one of their own to be mgmt and hopefully a good one.

The point is, that it takes good mgmt and good devs to make things succeed but it is ultimately up to mgmt to either find good devs or turn fail devs into good devs.
Of course management is to blame, as they have the final word and say on all things. Employees could speak out, if they wanted to lose their jobs, but it's the management that is in charge. Workers do as they are instructed by management. Only blame workers should take is not getting out before it all fell down. I'm sure more than a few saw it coming. But management is sure as hell to blame for it all.
If the controls are unresponsive during test you have bad developers. If unresponsive controls gets past QA and into the finished project you have bad management.
But it is worth pointing out that blame in these situations is not a zero sum game. Unresponsive controls making it to the finished game is the fault of management but the existence of unresponsive controls in the first place is the fault of the developers. Both are at fault and both failed but it is management who has to take responsibility for it because they had the authority to do what needed to be done to fix it.
I agree that taking responsability is part of the management's job description. And the investors who lost $100 million should certainly blame management. But my question was whether management was the ONLY one to blame, or whether investors and employees also were partially at fault.

For example the employees must have known they shipped a bad game, and they blame management for "running the company past the point where it could be wound up safely". But didn't they do exactly the same mistake of clutching at straws? They could have quit earlier and been first in line looking for a new job.
I don't believe in the distincion of blame and responsibility in this context.

That's like stating: "Hey, the blame is with my employees, but I take the responsibility."

Are the investors guilty? Well, they are guilty of investing their money badly. They cannot blame anybody for that. Investing money means taking risks. That's why you usually get out more than you invested+inflation.

Of course, the investors are not to blame of bad quality of the product. That's still the part where the management bears responsibility.

Fazit: Have influence is not enough for being responsible or 'blameable'.
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At my work I've found things that are designed horribly. I've brought them up to management and was told leave them alone.

When they break, and they will, it will cost our company millions. Someone is going to ask me why I didn't do anything about it, I will forward them my emails I sent my boss about it.

My boss will have to explain why he did nothing. I'm sure he will try and blame me or someone else.

If you know something is wrong you have to cover your ass. When it breaks everyone is going to look to shift blame.

If the employee's did nothing to address the problems, bring them to their managements attention, then they are just as responsible as their management. The manager is always ultimately responsible for failure, but that doesn't mean employee's can't share the blame.
As a libertarian American, I find it a totally foreign(pun intended) concept that management would/should shut down a company while they thought there was still a chance of getting some value (product or selling the division/company) merely to have a buffer for redundancy/lay off payments.

I suspect there is plenty of blame to go around, but as Nils, VG et al said, management also had the duty to monitor and fire the employees so will always get a share of the blame. As gaming and MMOs mature, a successful enterprise needs competent management, workers and investors to succeed; and that might not even be enough without a bit of luck.
I suppose I'm just a soft old teddybear type of person, but what exactly is the point of apportioning blame here anyway?
The point is not to apportion blame, but to ask whether it is fair of the employees to simple point the finger at management and pretend they had nothing to do with the quality of the game they were programming for years.

Not just a question of who gets how much blame, but as I mentioned also a question who has the opportunity to say things, and who is under legal obligation to keep mum.
I think the issue is that usually management are the ones that are supposed to focus on the bigger issues of the project, while the employees are the ones that concentrate on the details. If the game has poor performance or ugly graphics, that's probably the employees' fault. If the game is bad because of fundamental design issues, it's the management's fault.

Having played APB, it's not quite clear - the game just doesn't seem like a product that should have taken as long and as much money to make as it did. It could mean that the employees were at fault for taking far longer to produce content or get the engine working than they should have, or it could have been management at fault for not having a clear plan and wasting resources developing things they didn't even end up using.

In the end though, if the employees ARE doing a bad job, it's supposed to be managements responsibility to deal with them and get them to do a better job, or if they can't, hire people who can. Managers are the people who have the power to solve the situation - so even if an employee is aware of an issue, the most they can do is report it to their manager and hope something gets done.
Fair or not fair, I don't know many people who will ever stand up and say "it was my fault, if I had done my job properly things would probably have turned out alright". Usually, even the most upright stick to the lame "I think we all share some of the responsibility for this fiasco".

When I do something wrong at work or at home I feel terrible about it. I hate mistakes, big and small. Even though some people aren't like that I think (hope, perhaps) that most people are like that. However, I've lost my job twice and neither of those two times did I think that it had anything to do with my performance. The companies I worked for were struggling and had to cut back. Obviously, I felt some resentment towards the company for terminating me. Neither of these companies were huge faceless giants: I knew my superiors very well. Still, I can't pretend I didn't blame them and in one case the company's owners for some bad decisions that I (and others) felt had contributed to the situation.

Here, we're talking about people who have just lost their jobs. They're out of work from one day to the next. They work in a blog- and twitter-heavy environment. I'm not surprised that some vent their frustrations publicly in this fashion. Is that fair? Frankly, I don't think it's a really fair question. Right now, let them fume. If they're still doing it a year from now I think they should reassess their priorities.
I am a manager, albeit in a unrelated field.

At the end of the day, both success and failure fall on the shoulders of management, if they fail it is because we didn't give them the tools to succeed or we put someone in a position they were not qualified for, if they do succeed it is because they the tools and motivation to do so, management put the individual in the right place.

It takes a good manager and a good employee to make a project work, management should always make sure they have the later, if not then the former needs to be replaced.
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The problem is always LACK OF COMMUNICATION.

There is a *reason* why Management does everything. Every order, every change, every new ploicy, new directions, etc. There is a REASON that makes perfects sense to them that achieves only positive outcomes.

If that reasononing isn't communicated to the staff that feels/is effected by this change, then they are demotivated and automatically accept all the negative aspects of that change, rather than focusing on the potential benefits.

If all areas of the workforce had an ear in the decision making process, they could:

a. provide solid experience on why a change could have negative results in ANY area (as opposed to the negative results being unexpected by everyone but the workforce, who simply earns the blame when the inevitable occurs, since the initial decision-making team agreed that "only good can come of this decision").

b. the workforce may not see the value in a management decision because the positive effects are felt outside their area. A decision or change could have *fantastic* outcomes... but the workforce never see it nor appreciate it nor feel a sense of ownership for that result (ie. pride). All they see is the more work and/or less resources aspect, because that's the only part of the decision that's been made aware to them. Contempt ensues, which leads to job disatisfaction/lower outputs/high staff turnover... all three having a negative impact on business.

c. the best solution to a goal (more profit/lower costs) can be determined because every level of the staff have a clever idea. Bring these together, and you can determine which one is best, while simultaneously avoiding pitfalls due to a "good" decision being made by unknowledgable people. A voice can say "that idea will have a negative aspect in OUR area because blah blah blah, etc". Bad decisions can be tweaked/remodelled to ensure the outcome is achieved because the unknown is now *known* and accounted for.

Instead... poor communication results in flawed decision-making by managenment because all POSSIBLE results weren't known and accounted for.

Like at my old job: Management gave the Sales department a new computer to speed up the workload and improve sales. GREAT idea... but WHERE did that new computer come from? The IT department, of course. Now Sales had 2 computers, and we had zero.

That computer was a VITAL piece of equipment, and without it a 2min break/fix job now took 10mins because we had to walk to the Sales department to use the PC to access our *required* resources (Management assumed we didn't need the Internet, nor a place to put files/forms/processes. *Surely* any knowledge we needed was in our HEADS, right?). Result: Sales were making more sale, but instead of IT serving 30 customers per hour, we served six. Maybe.

We *predicted* this outcome the moment the decision was made aware to us when we turned up for work and asked "Hey, where's our computer?". Management had no idea of the broad company-wide effect of their decision, but instead blamed IT for a drop in efficiency and inability to adapt to change. COMMUNICATION could have prevented a bad solution being implemented while simultaneously discovering a better one.
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Yes, management is to blame. Always. Utterly and fully.
I mean it exactly like that.

Because management not only controls the goals and the processes to reach those goals and the (financial) conditions of the project, they also decide who gets to work on the project and who does not. They are responsible for picking the right team for the project.
If one programmer does a lousy job, then it *might* be bad luck, but its also management's duty to work around that, by replacing him or demoting him or whatever. If 100 developers do a lousy job, then management should ask themselves if their hiring strategy is the correct one, if their incentives are the correct ones and if their "people management" style is the correct one. Tom DeMarco has quite a bit to say about that.
In the end, all important decisions -- especially personal decisions -- can be made by management. If they refrain from doing so, it's their fault.

Now, if a developer sees that things go badly, even if he works to the best of his abilities, but he is unable to change things, because of management decisions (or rather: political decisions), then he has two choices: Stick with the team and deliver a lousy product and find some way to cover his ass or quit. If he quits, some other poor programmer will replace him, finding himself in exactly the same situation.

It is perfectly possible that all developers did a good job, but the project failed, because of wrong management decisions, a faulty business plan, an unrealistic timeline, etc.
It is impossible that a project fails if the management did a good job -- because in that case, their business plan would be sound, the timeline realistic, and the choice of the team adequate for the task.

(Ironically, while I was writing this comment, somebody from management asked me to proxy him for the next two weeks)
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