Why We Chose Holacracy for an Indie VR Game Studio

By Marin Petrov and originally published in blog hackandpaint.com

We started Hack and Paint in late 2016, but we had been thinking about how to structure the company at least 4 years prior to that. All of us are veterans from the movie, animation and games industry. We have worked together in some of the most prestigious companies in the world like Pixar, Blue Sky Studios, Ubisoft, MPC, EA Games, Rhythm and Hues, and many others! Through the years, we observed how these studios are structured, what their culture is like and really wanted to improve upon what they have built in terms of organizational structure and culture.

Companies and projects the Hack and Paint founders have been part of

In the past year we have been criticized about one fact — that we spent way too much time on building the company structure and culture, instead of focusing on the product itself, which for a game studio is the game we are currently making. I know why so many people are criticizing us about this, after all, the easiest approach for building any startup is — build and validate your product, fast. The structure and the company culture doesn’t really matter that much — that will “happen” anyway. Or at least that’s what most startups think. The fact is, to make a successful company, both aspects are really important. You can’t have a sustainable business without a product-market fit. That’s a given. However, the problem is, even if you do have a product-market fit, it’s only a short term success and potentially a very painful one. Or the way the Asana founders talk about it — “Companies that are succeeding with a more mercenary model are succeeding in spite of it, not because of it.” — https://www.fastcompany.com/3069240/how-asana-built-the-best-company-culture-in-tech

Since the beginning, our aim was to create the perfect company, regardless of the product we make. After all, whatever product a company is developing, there is always a team of people behind the scenes doing all the work. The product-market fit is just something that other people desire, which the startup team can provide. A functioning team can make any product. However a product alone, cannot create and sustain a functioning team. So we invested in creating the best studio culture, combined with the best structure and workflow, that helps us achieve our purpose and finally a product — creating successful, fun, VR games. I think Simon Sinek nailed it in his book “Start with Why”. We really started with the “Why we exist” question in the first place. Then we moved to the “How” as in “How do we work together”, and finally we came to the “What” question with “What game are we making?”

The reasons we chose this route, instead of the easier, more traditional approach, was to improve upon a few areas that we believe most studios struggle with:

  1. Better understanding of the company purpose and why the studio exists in the first place.
  2. Better understanding of what each person in the studio is responsible for exactly.
  3. Easy way to change how the company and the team operates without the need to go through a lot of politics and meetings.
  4. Employees feeling disengaged from work or from the project.
  5. Lack of innovation.

Note: if you are looking to find a silver bullet for all this, I have to say we haven’t found it. But we believe we are on the right track. We are focusing on two areas which we believe are important to get right in order for these challenges to disappear — the structure of the company and the mindset of the people in this different organizational structure.

The Studio Structure

When it comes to studio organizations, the prevalent model is hierarchical. The studios are usually divided into departments (e.g. “Modeling Department”, “Animation Department”), which are focused on one part of the whole production pipeline. In the upper example — the Modeling Department is responsible for creating the models of the characters and the sets in the games or movies. Then we have supervisors and production managers per department, making sure the communication inside and outside of the department is clear with everyone in the production team. Then the artists in a department are usually divided into junior, senior and lead artists depending on their seniority and responsibilities.

To begin with, we wanted a way to spread that power we usually see at the top of the pyramid, into multiple roles and circles throughout the whole company. We chose Holacracy as a system, but there are may different ways of achieving the same. For more on that topic, read Frederic Laloux’s book “Reinventing Organizations”. In effect, the traditional management paradigm and parent-child relationship, is replaced with self-management and partner-partner relationship. Everyone is free and liberated to take the initiative and start a project and everyone can change how the company works. The alignment between partners is far better than in a traditional hierarchical system. And there is a much clearer understanding around what each of us is supposed to be doing as part of this system, without the need of supervisors or project managers.

Our Mindset

This all sounds good, except that not everyone is able to work in such a way which was the big surprise for us. We thought that given the choice, everyone on this earth will prefer to work in this new and exciting way. Now we understand this is not true, but at the beginning we were quite shocked by this fact. Although there is a much bigger responsibility placed on each of us, we have a greater impact on the whole picture, compared to a traditional organization. The work that is usually done by managers is now spread among all of us. In essence, we are all managers in our domain and expertise.

But in my opinion, the biggest challenge comes from the fact that our mindset is too fixed on the “parent-child” relationship that we experience throughout our lives. We are supervisors, leads, senior or junior artists, CEOs, bosses, founders, employees, temp employees, freelancers etc. Even the words convey some kind of hierarchical structure. So our mindset is such that if we hold a certain position we are either the child or the parent. I expect my supervisor to take care of my problems. I’m also used to that feeling that she will protect me. She also expects that if a problem occurs I will tell her that, and she will be able to help me. This mindset is so ingrained that it’s really hard to get rid of.

Systems like Holacracy replace that “parent-child” relationship with an “adult-adult” or “partner-partner” relationships. Even the Holacracy Constitution specifically refers to “partners” and not “employees”, but only a shift in the names we use for things is not enough. The biggest shift is when our mindset changes. That’s a very hard thing to do, requires a lot of time and effort, and this is where the challenge begins.

There are many emerging tools and processes which are aimed at startups and facilitating these new working styles. Agile, Kan-Ban, Slack, Git, to name a few, as well as inspiring and thought-provoking programs like the Tuff Leadership Training, aimed at teaching and developing a new generations of leaders. Ultimately however, it is down to the people who are committed to nurturing this new style of working, and their dedication to breaking habits that have been ingrained over the years, in an effort to find a better way to do what they love, every day.

Republished with permission of the author.

Featured Image/graphic link added by Enlivening Edge Magazine.