Tag Archives: management

Fire Emblem: Management Simulator

A new day dawns. Another Wednesday in the office. The hours go by; meetings and one-on-ones had. But something feels different.

I care for my employees. It’s normal for me to wear their burdens — work-related and otherwise — upon my shoulders. But today, it feels like my attention of their emotional well-being and performance has gone a level deeper. Maybe it’s because it’s review season and I’ve been carefully reflecting on their year? No. This is different than years past. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve been a sounding board and observer of each of them a bit more as of late.

Then it dawns on me. I haven’t been spending more time in the office, but I have spent at least 20 hours of my free time playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses — a game that puts me in the role of a military academy professor intently focused on the subtleties of my students’ personalities and behaviors, strengths and weaknesses. The better I can guide them down the right paths, uncover hidden talents, or find deeper relationships, the better they will perform in battle.

Many a review and commentary focus on Three Houses’ Harry Potter-like setting and structure. Garreg Mach Monastery is a sizable castle (Hogwarts) with its students divvied up between three houses — the Golden Deer (Gryffindor?), Blue Lions (Ravenclaw?), and Black Eagles (definitely Slytherin). In addition to students, staff and several members of the Church of Seiros walk the halls helping you train, build relationships, and assist in battle. Consider these the professors of Hogwarts. You will spend a majority of your time wandering the monastery speaking with students and staff, teaching your recruits different skills, analyzing individuals over tea, fishing, forcing conversation between students over a meal, fishing, taking exams to unlock a new military class, and fishing.

This is a game focused on education and academy life. It’s not about a 9-5. That said, since I become a manager, I’ve felt there is a direct parallel between teaching and managing. Harvard Business Review will tell you the best leaders are great teachers. It’s no surprise that I began to see my own work-life take place within the walls of Garreg Mach.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is my first foray into the Fire Emblem series. Jumping into the 50 hour TRPHPFS (tactical role-playing Harry Potter fishing simulator) took very little deliberation. Since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, every core Nintendo franchise title released on Switch has been the fully realized version of itself. I figured this would be a good place to dive in. I wasn’t wrong. I haven’t been sucked into a game like this since Breath of the Wild. Even then, it was less about the game itself and more about the zeitgeist propelling me forward.

Three Houses taps into something true to my core: empathy. I legitimately care about the cast as I care about my real-world contacts. Will Ignace realize his full potential as an artist? Will Raphael, the jovial brute, realize he can master the battlefield? Will Marianne realize she is a wise warrior… that can talk to… horses? Will Lorenz stop fucking harassing women?! If none of them can on their own, can I help them get there by revealing chinks in the armor of their ignorance?

These are not the same issues as the employees I care for. But I care nonetheless. Will they approach ambiguity with unease or confidence? Will they understand the subtleties of negotiation within a large bureaucracy? Will they learn to lean on the specialities of someone with less “professional” experience? Will they feel comfortable leading a particular project?

I take these thoughts home with me. And when I pick up the game, they come back to life. I think carefully about which skills to stretch, not entirely sure my judgement will pay back the greatest dividend. I think beyond the workplace and wonder how home-life may be influencing my employees’ creativity. Are they committed? Are they motivated? Do they care? Is this what they really want? Do they need a break?

Fire Emblem: Three Houses asks these same questions with every explore-teach-fight loop, ultimately growing my cadets. And they do throw it back at me. If I offer and incorrect response or pair incompatible personalities together, they’ll let me know. No two students are alike. No two employees are alike. No two human are alike.

And like management, the more students I have under my purview, the less time I can spend teaching them individually. Who is more critical to grow? How balanced does my team need to be? Should I round out each individual, or focus on their strengths? And ultimately, who are my favorites?

And there in lies the beauty of Fire Emblem: Three Houses. There is a repetitive loop, yes, but there is also painstaking care put into each of the students. And the fact that you will likely only experience 1/3 of them on your first play through is quite incredible. There are two other houses, two entirely different yet connected campaigns to explore. (I’m a sucker for games where only a fraction can be played through, leaving more to discover again and again. Think Star Fox 64.)

What is more is understanding how to balance the comfort of an individual for individual-growth. The best path forward may not be the easiest or the one that suits an individual’s strengths. There is pain in growth, for the individual(s) involved as well as for the leader calling the shots.

Where things divide — where a game cannot mirror reality — is balancing the growth of an individual and the goals of the bureaucracy. A role-playing game will almost always propel you to win, regardless of the “feelings” of its characters. In reality, it’s impossible — or should be impossible — to ignore the feelings of our own kind. As a manager, it’s a more difficult and existential challenge to prioritize the company’s goals over the fulfillment of your employees. More often than not it’s your job to move the company forward — increase revenue, decrease cost; increase productivity, decrease bottlenecks.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses rewards you as a professor with growth whenever you successfully pair students in activities or win a battle. These are balanced by days on a calendar. Will you converse with students this week, or will you fight? Either way, you’re leveling up. In reality, those choices are not and will never be as clear cut. Your professional growth is measured by the value you provide the company. Creating a great culture amongst your employees ultimately pays the company back, but the time it takes to build that culture versus hard and quick calls will always be under the omnipresent eye of the corporation.

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‘Everyone feels lost all the time’

Uncharted director and writer Amy Hennig and Campo Santo (Firewatch) founder Sean Vanaman in conversation for Polygon’s excellent 2017 Year in Review essay series:

Amy Hennig: I talk to students and young developers sometimes, and they’re always sort of amazed to find out that everybody has imposter syndrome.

Sean Vanaman: I still feel like I’m ripping everyone off.

Amy Hennig: You look back at your own work and go, “I’m not even sure how I did that.”

Sean Vanaman: Exactly.

Amy Hennig: So even though you have this underlying sense of faith and tell yourself, “Well, I’ve been here lots of times, and I’ve always figured out a way to solve these problems, so I’ve got to relax and assume that I will figure it out again,” in the moment you’re like, “I don’t know how I did that before. I don’t know what I’m doing.” And everybody feels that way. It’s something I haven’t heard creative people talk about that much until recently. I always hear this sigh of relief when I bring it up. Everyone feels lost all the time.

This is a wonderful conversation between polar perspectives. Whether you’re running a large ship or a tiny dinghy, self-doubt is inevitable. I’ll add that it’s not just the captains that encounter it.

The quicker everyone and lay bare their uncertainties, the quicker the entire crew can sail in the same direction.

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The Cubs Way, Music, and Management

“Is that Tom Waits?”

“Yeah. Do you like Tom Waits?”

“I love Tom Waits.”


I am haunted by a childhood memory. Around age 13, my Little League coach and assistant coach had a falling out. Team practices were put on hold. For a kid unenthused about sports, you’d think this was a blessing. But the team was working well together and… winning!

We had a fantastic cast of characters resembling The Sandlot. There were Bennys, Hams, and Yeah-Yeahs. Maybe a Squints here and there. I myself felt like Smalls. We were a mixed bag, some with little to no skill, but we bonded. We helped each other. The loss of practice was arresting. Devastating.

Mike called me up. He was one of the leaders — very much a Benny type. He was organizing a practice and called me up to summon others. After we got off the phone, I had a thought: we should bring music. I loved doing any activity to music. I called Mike back.

He didn’t call it a stupid idea, but he suggest that we didn’t need it. I hung up and felt silly for the idea. I’ve never forgotten how embarrassed I felt for suggesting the idea.

In his fantastic book “The Cubs Way”, author Tom Verducci notes an immediate tactic new Chicago Cubs coach Joe Maddon took with his team at the opening of the 2015 spring training — his first spring training with the team:

After Maddon’s opening speech as Chicago manager, the Cubs took the field—actually, a wide swath of grass out in back of their training center—looking like a different team. The best way to measure the immediate change in the Cubs under Maddon was in decibels. As the team began its morning stretch, a huge speaker blasted “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix. What followed were more tunes from among Maddon’s rock-and-roll favorites, including “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones, “Gimme Three Steps” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and “Tom Sawyer” by Rush.

“I’m a product of the ’60s and ’70s,” he told his new team. “You’ll have to put up with that.”

After reading this passage, I felt vindicated. My 13-year-old self’s idea was not stupid. Joe Maddon plays music. It’s not that big of a deal. Scaling back a bit of focus for a bit of fun encourages free thinking and flow. (A big reminder that my 13-year-old self had shit for brains.)

I’ve recently taken on a new management role. It is challenging beyond belief. With these challenges, I’ve put lots of attention into how my manager runs his team. One of the simplest and subtlest tricks he uses is playing music during one-on-ones and meetings. At times, it can feel distracting, but more often than not, it lightens the mood and opens up conversations outside of work. In a recent case, we hit on our shared love of Tom Waits. (What’s he building in there? A team. I’ll stop.)

I’ve now applied music to my one-on-ones. Nothing too distracting. No early-’00s post-hardcore, ’80s pop, or ’70s prog rock. Mellow electronic, jazz, or my Apple Music Chill Mix do the trick. I think it’s helping. It’s lightened the mood. And — for me at least — makes me feel a bit more connected to my team.

Music can be an equalizer. Embrace it. There shouldn’t be rules to how you manage or run your team meetings. Find energy. Find flow. Find commonality. And while you’re at it, find a copy of “The Cubs Way”.

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