Another fantastic article by Liza Wood, an XDS Industry Influencer and facilitator for XDS 2015. The basis for this article was her facilitation at our smaller event XDS Ignite 2015, that occurred in San Francisco during GDC. Read on as we explore the topic – empowering vendors.
Is It Possible to Empower Vendors?
Is it possible to create an external development relationship where your vendors are empowered? That was one of the questions our group of forty external development professionals tackled at XDS Ignite this past March. In a classic sticky notes on a flip chart brainstorming session, the group came up with many suggestions on how to encourage empowerment along with a considerable list of challenges that need to be overcome.
Starting with a positive mindset, the group was first asked to identify areas or examples of where vendors could be empowered with more ownership. A lot of good ideas were generated, which covered four main areas:
Integration of vendors into the overall process
- Rather than have vendors just receive requirements and deliver assets, there were many suggestions on how to create a partnership by integrating your vendors more into the overall process, including:
- Ask open ended questions in the RFP or bid such as “How will you innovate on this project?”
- Include vendors in streamlining or defining documentation such as Content Creation Guidelines.
- Integrate partners in the daily review process and make the part of team stand-ups.
- A good way to help vendors and clients understand each other is to work onsite. Invite your vendors to work at your offices and plan time to work at theirs.
- If you have a long-term partnership, vendors can participate in creating the art direction for the assets, through creative iteration from looser brief or proposing, concepting and creating a proposed benchmark asset.
- Give vendors a choice of assets to work on. If they know their team well, they will be able to choose the assets that work with their strengths.
- Include partners in design discussions.
- Once a vendor has proven they understand the art direction, ask them to create their own assets from scratch.
Ownership of scheduling and estimates
Project management and reporting project status of ongoing asset creation can be a lot of work, which is easy for partners to own. With ownership of the project management and status reporting comes more reliable estimates and commitments. The group thought clients should encourage partners to tell us what works best for them to manage production or even to propose processes, especially if there isn’t one already in place. Expose partners to the overall project milestones and integrate them into the overall production management process.
Ownership of a pipeline from end-to-end
Some members of the group have developed their partnerships to the level where the vendor owned the process from concept to in-game asset or the development of a feature or entire level from start to finish. Other suggestions included involving vendors in choosing development technology or engine and participating in tools or creation or pipeline improvements.
Vendor approval of final assets
Every production strives for 100% completion for their assets, but often 90% complete is good enough. If you have established a sense of what done looks like, vendors can have an internal quality control and approval process before delivering the assets, which one person in the group has achieved with a long-term partner. As a first step, another suggestion was to set up the process so the vendor delivers assets with fewer approval gates.
When the group was asked to identify the challenges that need to be overcome to empower vendors with more ownership, they covered the flip chart in yellow sticky notes in less than a minute. Four main themes also emerged:
Trust… and other human factors
This was by far the first, and biggest, hurdle everyone identified. Fear and lack of trust were two of the first notes put on the board, which then sparked some ideas on the source of those issues. While scars from bad experiences contribute, the group also identified perception of outsourcing, concern about accountability, a willingness to relinquish control and an emotional attachment to the work as issues that need to be addressed before starting external development. Overcoming these and other internal resistance factors requires empathy for an external partner and an ability to forgive small problems in the early stages. As the group noted, these are difficult to develop if ego, pride, arrogance or prejudice is a factor. One member of the group proposed that the threat of competition could be a problem if the external partner turned out to be more skilled than the internal team. As a result of all these human factors, external development leaders will need to work to keep their internal teams bought in to the process.
It’s not only about human factors
As the group explored the reasons behind the first group of challenges, they identified a number of business issues. In addition to intellectual property protection, legal concerns and corporate approvals, the group touched on areas such as internal planning, internal and external skills, staffing, cost and quality control. Empowered vendors rely on their clients doing more proactive, rather than reactive planning, and clearly communicating what done work looks like. When plans or definitions change, then both vendor and client need to be able to smoothly deal with those changes. One person raised the point that clients need to have an ability to teach and transfer knowledge. That, along with other internal expertise, may be lost over time. How much ownership a vendor can have also depends on the skillset and aptitudes of the team, consistency and stability in personnel, and an ability for the vendor to honestly assess their capabilities. Cost and quality control are always a consideration, particularly the resource cost for supporting bugs with external development partners.
Communication problems are not just due to the challenge of bridging culture and language gaps when working internationally. The group also recognized that both the client and the vendor need to work to understand each other. One art manager asserted that different areas of the world have different art foundations, which needs to be understood if the art direction for the project is vastly different.
Technical and logistical challenges
Finally, the group listed several technical and logistics challenges that need to be overcome to empower vendors. First, not all tools and technology are easily useable or shareable with external development, including scheduling and production management tools. Logistics with the delivery of these tools, as well as the delivery of the finished work, also needs to work smoothly for both client and vendor. Ultimately, the group recognized time as the most significant factor in this area. It takes time for a vendor to ramp-up and learn everything needed to be more empowered. Depending on the length of the engagement or the duration of production, there may not be enough time to go through that learning curve.
If both clients and vendors work to overcome these challenges and build trust early in the relationship, then there are many opportunities for empowering vendors. It all starts with the first step.