Iterations on game dev meetings to nurture neurodiversity

More inclusive meetings are more effective meetings.

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If you read our first newsletter, you may be expecting to receive a Resource Management Map in your inbox… unfortunately right when we’d organised our meetup, Sydney went into lockdown due to a new outbreak of Covid-19. We’re still in lockdown, so instead of waiting for a physical meetup we’re going to pivot to an online workshop about resource management. Hopefully this can be a positive change, and we’ll be able to have more people from afar join the conversation.

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For today’s newsletter, I wanted to share a list with you that I’ve been slowly building on, removing things from, and making adjustments to over the last couple of years.

Neurodiversity in our dev teams is not a radical new concept (here’s a good read from HBR on “Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage” if you’d like a good primer) however it seems in my experience to be pretty low on our list of priorities when designing how our game productions are going to function. When we’re asking questions like, “How will we make decisions? How will we share information with each other? How will we use our time? What expectations do we have of each other?” understanding how the minds of the people on our teams work is very powerful.

There are a lot of great reads out there about incorporating neurodiversity as a lens in recruitment processes, career growth, company culture - in this list I’m going to focus on the things you can influence most directly as a Producer on a game team - Meetings!

This list is made up of methods that either I myself, or people I know and trust have tried and gotten good results from. (This is not a scientific study, it’s just the kind of conversation I’d have with you over coffee and biscuits.)

So, here’s my list of things to try to harness the power of a neurodiverse team:

1. Does this need to be a meeting?

Try: This is a tale as old as time, so I won’t spend too many words on it, but it’s true - meetings are not always the best way to get the result you’re after. This isn’t to say we should be trying to eradicate meetings, simply that we should be having meetings with intention. Here’s my meeting checklist geared towards neurodiversity:

  • Is there a clear agenda?

  • Do we have a defined outcome we want from this meeting?

  • Do we have all the relevant information we’d need to make a decision?

  • Has everyone been briefed with enough information to contribute to the discussion?

  • Can we do this asynchronously?

    • If you’re trying to make decisions, set a task or disseminate information asynchronously, try o keep information concise - use dot points, separate out discussions into threads, and stick to one topic at a time

2. Does your stand-up last the day?

Try: Ensuring the value you’re extracting from your stand-up (whether that be status updates, implementation details, dependency updates etc.) is visible somewhere after the meeting - either in notes, your Scrum/Kanban board or elsewhere.

Rationale: Between you and me, we both know that in most stand-ups we’ve attended, people were not paying attention to every single update in great detail. Rather than try to rewire the brains of the people on our teams, ensuring that you have something like your Jira board updated with the same level of granularity you would get out of your stand-up will mean team members who may find verbal updates hard to retain will have a way to get that information without just asking other people on the team what they’re up to 45mins after the meeting. Remember that this information will become disposable in 24hrs, so don’t spend too much time on it.

For when you absolutely need to have a meeting, try these:

3. Meeting behaviour expectations

Try: Set clear written expectations with your team about what’s okay in your meetings.

Rationale:

  • Many behaviours that may increase focus and information absorption for some people on your team have been deemed socially unacceptable by office culture

  • The energy people on your team might be spending trying to “look like they’re paying attention”, could be being used to retain information and contribute meaningfully

Example expectations: Have a team discussion where you make a list like the following:

  • You can pace and move around in our meetings - we know that doesn’t mean you aren’t present.

  • In digital meetings, you can have your camera off - we trust you’re paying attention.

  • You can bring sensory objects like fidget cubes if that helps you focus.

4. Agendas, agendas, agendas!

Try: Sending out meeting agendas two days in advance at a minimum - the earlier that you can have the relevant information, the better. (The night before does not count! Always assume everyone is too busy to read your agenda 24hrs before.)

Rationale: Many people struggle to form meaningful responses or make decisions on the spot. At a minimum, you're losing the benefit of the full depth of their insights by not providing them with enough notice to form an opinion. At worst, you might be causing unnecessary stress or discomfort in people who find that “on the spot” feeling very distressing.

5. Multiple response options

Try: Allowing for a window after a decision-making or information-gathering meeting for attendees to contribute further via text or a follow up conversation.

Rationale: Game dev is always busy, and often as Producers we’re trying to keep our meetings on time to let everyone get back to their work. An unintended side effect of this can be team members who are socially anxious (for example) not getting the opportunity to contribute their full insights. If the end of the meeting is the end of the discussion, you could be missing out on value from your team.

Example: Here’s a genericised structure I use for any major decisions within my teams - obviously you would adapt this to the specifics of your situation:

  1. Gather information for a pre-briefing from all relevant parties and circulate this in Slack for asynchronous discussion.

  2. Use the discussion to determine a meeting agenda - attach this to the meeting invitation and post it in the Slack thread.

  3. Remind people of the agenda in the thread the day before the meeting.

  4. During the meeting, explain that there will be a window of 1-2 days (or longer, depending on circumstance) to hear other opinions on the decision.

  5. Post the meeting notes in the Slack thread.

  6. Confirm the decision in the Slack thread.

6. Break time

Try: Scheduling a break in the middle of long meetings (e.g. a 5 minute break every 45 minutes).

Rationale: In my opinion, this just good practice for anyone - I refuse to believe that in the age of TikTok anyone has an attention span that can last more than 40 minutes in any meeting. However, for team members who may have ADHD example, breaks are essential to being able to contribute not only in the meeting, but to retain energy for the rest of their day.

7. Give people something to do!

Try: Rotate a Note Taker role within the team.

Rationale: For team members who struggle to retain verbal information, having either a task to do (take notes for the team) or notes generated after the meeting can be a gamechanger. I think rotating this role around the whole team also reduces the sense of hierarchy that can emerge from only junior or “support roles” being asked to keep notes. It’s also important to take these notes for what they are - a nice additional way for people to engage with and absorb information from the meeting. These notes should not replace any process you may have within production for recording decisions, for example.

Further Reading: While not all advice in this HBR article is totally compatible with my list, I think it makes some interesting points about retaining focus through activities.

8. Choose your time slot wisely

Try: Set clear expectations with your team about when meetings should happen. Setting up team rules like Flow Time (dedicated blocks of time your calendar where meetings and ad-hoc discussions don’t happen) and clearly communicating about other distracting or inhibiting time periods (e.g. is it harder for people to be creative first thing in the morning? Does your team not want to have in-depth technical meetings right after lunch?)

Rationale: Aside from the obvious benefits of knowing when your team will generally be most engaged, for some team members with OCD for example (like me!) being able to plan their week out in advance knowing when meetings might pop up provides a great sense of structure and clarity.

This HBR article on helping team members focus is a great quick read that encourages dedicated Focus Time, along with other approaches to give people distraction-free work spaces.

Example: Agree on dedicated “no meeting time” with your team. This could be:

  • A team-wide slot (e.g. 2hrs every second afternoon!) where calendars are blocked out, Slack statuses are set, and no meetings are booked

  • An individual “focus time” initiative where team members can set a Slack status like “Flow time - Back in 2hrs” and the team acknowledges and respects that window as a no-interruptions period

9. Colour code & beautify your meetings

Try: Introducing a visual stimuli to your meetings wherever you can - even the simplest of post it notes in colourful squares can work.

Rationale: For team members who have difficulty retaining information (particularly if they are attending a lot of meetings and frequently context-switching) a visual association with the information, discussion or decision being made in your meetings can go a long way to help them retain and engage. Try using different colours for different types of discussions (e.g. oranges and yellows for planning discussions, pinks and purples for brainstorming) and watch how this visual indication, over time, starts to help people shift into the mode you need them in for your meeting.

Recommendation: Miro is a great tool for making collaborative meetings visual quickly and easily. I’ve used it across four projects now, and it is so flexible, has great templates and is super user friendly for all types of devs and execs alike.

10. Establish emotional shorthand

Try: I’ve saved the hardest task for last! Try developing a shared language you can fall back on if meetings get emotionally heightened. Setting expectations with your team about communicating strong feelings in a way that doesn’t suppress self-expression, but still keeps your team spaces safe and comfortable for everyone.

Rationale: This is a complex task that Producers are likely to need external support with, either from training, consultancy or senior leadership in your company. Just because it’s hard though, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth tackling. In the most effective teams I’ve been a part of, the most sensitive people were able to express themselves using terminology the whole team was familiar with. This reduces the possibility for strong emotions to be misread, and gets us closer to empathy and clarity of intent faster.

Example: Establishing a template for providing improvement suggestions, e.g. “I was surprised when X happened, because my expectation was Y, and the impact of this was Z. If in future, we could…” provides a team with language and terminology to fall back on that will signal not only, “I’m giving improvement feedback right now.” but also “I’m coming into this with a mindset of helpfulness.” This kind of emotional shorthand can save a lot of anguish for team members who are uncomfortable expressing emotions, who are socially anxious, and many more types of people on your teams. You might feel a bit silly or robotic doing this at first, but the more you practice and the more you leverage these kinds of shorthand the more powerful it can become.

Recommendation: I’d recommend reading Difficult Conversations if you haven’t already!


Thanks for reading, folks. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this list - is there anything you would add, remove or change? What you are trying in your teams to support neurodiversity?

If you’re interested in contributing to the newsletter, drop me an email and let me know!

Don’t forget to RSVP to the online resource management workshop, and if you’ve enjoyed this newsletter please share the link with your best producer friend.

- Ally McLean