Thursday, October 13, 2011

All Men, Great and Small

Prologue: I apologise in advance for the repeated use of the term 'Great Man'. In the spirit of this little musing, it is not meant to be sexist but the common term used to denote a historically significant, great individual. There are/have been many Great Women, but I didn't want to go down the route of talking about Great Men & Women or Great People as these seem less emotionally resonant than the - admittedly rather patriarchal - term used herein.

In the wake of Steve Jobs' passing I find myself, like many, musing over a world minus a Great Man. This isn't Apple-fanboyism, but a simple statement of fact; however flawed or odious one may find Apple's working practices, it cannot be denied that Mr Jobs was a key part of Apple's image, their development mindset and vision. If we must admit that Apple is a Great Company (measurably successful, valued by its clients etc.) then it it seems mealy-minded to keep the GM accolade from Mr Jobs himself.

This, in turn, has led to me thinking about others I have met who would willingly don the GM mantle.

[For the record, I am not one, nor do I have any expectations of becoming one. I do what I do fairly well, and enjoy patching up my flaws as I discover them, one at a time. Despite my sympathies for the Randian mindset, I am no Howard Roark. Do not construe this musing as some sort of masturbatory ego-stroking]
I have met many impressive people from different walks of life who either were - or had the potential - to take on the GM title. It strikes me that they share a number of common traits. Others have studied this subject in great detail: there are many MBA case-studies in prestigious universities across the globe on exactly this subject.

This is a personal blog (or collection of musings) so don't expect too much research. Think of it as 'Bloke Down Pub Said This' and we'll all be fine.

I believe the attributes shared by all Great Men are (in no particular order): Confidence, Intellectual Honesty, Clarity. These might not mean what you think they mean in this context, so let me elaborate.

1) Confidence
This is the ability to make a mistake, understand it, learn from it, and not be crushed by it or allow it to define ones personality. Successful entrepreneurs all have an elastically enthusiastic ability to bounce back from even the most disastrous business ventures without it harming their mental health. I believe this requires a certain amount of delusional thinking - but no more so than its opposite, where every tiny failure or misfortune is seen as a personal indictment of ones value. Without confidence, one cannot convincingly lead, and without leadership one cannot be Great, but merely Good.

2) Intellectual Honesty
By no means am I suggesting that good businessmen are scrupulously honest. They are no more so than good poker players.

In this context, what I mean is: having the ability to ask the right questions and answer them honestly - without biasing the answer toward the path of least resistance. In the case of Apple, it seems to come down to repeatedly asking:

"What do people really want?" and "Is this good enough yet?"

Jobs was notorious for forcing his most talented staff to return to the proverbial drawing board. My guess is that each time this occurred, stress and fatigue levels in the staff-members involved were high enough for them to have stopped asking these questions of themselves.

Being honest about your own work is hard - especially at the end of a long development cycle... or even a tough week. When you are the poor bastard doing the actual graft, weariness is going to affect your judgement on occasion. Welcome to being a human being.

Great Men can retain an element of Intellectual Honesty denied to their staff; partly due to doing all this work by proxy. This is not a criticism, but a nasty, professional fact.

3) Clarity
By Clarity, I do not mean knowing every aspect of what you want from the very first moment. This is usually impossible. However, if you are able to answer the (right) questions you have asked honestly, you know the key things you are looking for in your staff/product.

If you know that 'The Thingy' has to be easy to use, you have a clear mental model of the user, their ability level, and - when faced with design decisions - can imagine how that individual would react to the product. Clarity requires that the key ideas behind the product are known, and in some way measurable.

If you are designing a game that is meant to be a fun puzzle game, then it must have puzzles. And be fun. These sound vague - but they are not. If you start asking the right questions, these things become very precise quite quickly.

a) Fun for whom?
b) What sort of puzzles?
c) How difficult?
d) What happens if the answer from a) alters the values for c)?

In the case of Incoboto, I know the answers to these questions. It took a lot longer than I planned to get there, but I muddled my way toward the end and discovered the answers. I wish I had spent more time at the beginning of the project focusing on these 'big picture' questions and achieving the necessary clarity. It would have made my life considerably more pleasant.

Falling From Grace
Back to Great Men (rather than 'small, strange games').

Along with those blessed with the potential to be GM I also know of those who seem to fundamentally fail on one or more of those three points, yet still believe themselves to be GM. The result - rather sadly - is not merely a Good Man, but something far worse. The stresses caused by attempting to fulfil the points beyond their reach seems to cause the others to warp: sometimes into something very nasty indeed.

With no confidence, one cannot lead. With no leadership, clarity is muddied (if not for you, then for the team) and honesty is eventually swapped out for expedience.

With no honesty, the foundations of confidence are shaky, and clarity is merely a straw man waiting to be unpicked by rivals, customers or - in some cases - the team itself.

With no clarity, confidence mutates into arrogance, and honesty is shoved aside to make room for ego. The Small Delusional Man merely stumbles on to the next ill-conceived project having learned nothing.

Big Jobs
Someone once said to me that remaining in an environment inimical to ones nature devours the soul and leaves nothing but a 'hungry ghost'. It's a colourful metaphor, but I can see exactly what was meant.

I have met some people who claim they want to be writers (who never write), designers (who never design) or musicians (who never write or perform music). Their problem is that they miss the point: the title is not an end in itself, but a side effect of what you are doing. It is notable that none has been particularly happy.

There are also those who see becoming a Great Man as an end in itself. They, likewise, have missed the point. It is a by-product.

If I were to don the trappings of a chef, to bully people in my kitchen and constantly lose my temper, it would not make me a better cook.

If I were to grab a guitar and sneer at passers-by while wearing shades, it would not make me a great musician.

This sort of unpleasant behaviour is seen in many Great Men. It is tolerated and often (inaccurately) presumed to be a necessary side-effect of that greatness. This may be true in some cases - if the traits are genuinely due to an honest, clear, confident pursuit of excellence. In these cases, inspiring others to share the ethos still works because the end-goal is clear and desirable to all involved.

If the team's not with you, it's your fault. You've failed in one of the important areas. Bullying won't help.

To those who look at Steve Jobs' more belligerent, unpredictable, and unpleasant behaviour, and use it to validate acting in a bullying, brutish or antisocial manner I offer this piece of advice - from a Small Man:

A dick without Confidence, Intellectual Honesty or Clarity is just a dick. No caveats. No 'but he's always right's to make up for the nasty bits. No 'but look at the results'. Just... dick.

R.I.P. Mr Jobs. May those who seek to follow in your footsteps fully understand your path and not simply mimic your peculiar walk.