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How to Kill Creativity – Layers

September 19, 2010

This is the ongoing issue of any organisation – when you are smaller and lean you can act fast and ideas flow well as they can be easily communicated.  However as you grow it gets harder and harder to allow the free flow of ideas and innovation.  In addition it also get harder to keep track of accountability – are people doing what they are supposed to be doing?  The oft used solution is to add layers of management – to control information and to ensure accountability.  Except that layers come with their own cost – the bureaucratic cost of running each layer and the speed cost that comes with it.  It’s a tough muddle.  Here is one account of how it went down at games developer Realtime Worlds:

More people in one team created knock-on effects elsewhere: more programmers needed to support more artists, more IT, QA and admin staff needed to support everyone else, more project managers needed to manage everything, and more recruiters to hire all these staff.  We hired a whole “business development” group that did, well, nobody else in the company got told what they did, except they hassled development constantly for “executive” progress reports (of course, making reports takes time, so this probably contributed to further hiring).  Then we hired a director of development, who while certainly helping us focus on on-time delivery, was sadly forced to spend much of his time fending this senior management layer off our backs.  Then we added a “program manager”, reporting to business development, to fulfil a nebulous floating cross-company communication role.  Someone above us came up with a “patent strategy” initiative; the engineers dragged along to the meetings managed to fend that off long enough for management to get distracted and forget the whole thing.  We hired a “live production” team, whose entire job seemed to be to pass messages between operations (the folks who run the servers) and engineering, on the basis that these two groups were struggling to communicate.  Unfortunately, they struggled to communicate with either group, and spent a lot of time creating Processes for how to pass these messages around.

All these layers, of course, generated extra meeting upon meeting.  When I worked on APB, my Outlook calendar looked like a game of Tetris, the day stacked full of meetings, usually with a triple-booking somewhere and several double bookings.  Hardly any of them held sufficient value for the time spent.

I don’t mean any of that to be a criticism of the specific people in those roles.  Many of these folks were wonderful, talented people, and many of them realised the problems they were part of and fought hard against them.  I was as much to blame as anyone.  I built a technology team that was too big for its goals.  I also spent a year in a nebulous “technical manager” role on APB, and didn’t do enough to fight the cultural problems, including the question of why I was there at all (and why I had so many meetings).

There is a theoretic number – Dunbar’s number – that is supposed to give the optimum group size that humans function in.  Dunbar’s number is set around 150.  Realtime Worlds were at around 300 people when they fell.   I think in all cases you always need to be striving to reduce the number of layers, to flatten hierarchies and to empower people to act.  That is no magic formula for organisations to have success – but if you want to breed creativity, they try to cut layers – because layers tend to absorb creativity.

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