Supercell: “Small teams are part of Supercell’s identity.” | Pocket Gamer.biz
Supercell closed 2021 with huge financial success, closing the year with $2.24 billion in revenue, a 45% increase in revenue over 2020.
In the same announcement, Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen identified the need for “fundamental questions[ing] an in-depth discussion at Supercell”, following the deterioration of mental health and the increased burnout of the company’s teams. Tellingly, he described his ‘small team mantra’ as ‘definitely one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my career, one that I will remember forever’.
Following his GDC interview, PocketGamer.biz sat down with Lesley Mansford, Co-Head of Human Resources at Supercell, to discuss how Supercell’s work culture has changed over the years, its new plans for team composition and how Supercell and the wider mobile games industry can combat rising burnout.
PocketGamer.biz: Could you summarize your talk at GDC for our readers who couldn’t make it to San Francisco?
Lesley Manford: My talk at GDC, titled “Challenging Supercell’s Sacred Cows: The Importance of Evolving Culture as You Grow”, was a discussion of how Supercell culture has evolved over the past 12 years and the importance of identifying core values from the start, while continuing to assess, evaluate and eventually challenge the corporate culture so that it can properly adapt to changes over time. I shared a bit about Supercell’s culture journey, specifically how we did our latest culture reassessment, and some lessons learned along the way.
Paananen’s journey to refine the culture of Supercell took many years and involved the production and iteration of many different documents and advice. What can other companies learn from Supercell’s approach and what do you think they can add to the opportunism?
I think the most important lesson other companies can learn is the importance of writing down your cultural values early. An example I shared in the lecture was that even though early Supercellians agreed on our core values and ways of operating around freedom, independence, trust and responsibility, a discussion on responsibility revealed that they had very different interpretations of what in reality meant.
Aligning with values is important, but going further to define what that actually means in practice is just as important. Culture is never over – that’s actually the last line of our latest culture memo. Although we will not see the great principles of our culture disappear, they will evolve as we continue to learn.
Much of Supercell’s work culture was guided by two documents: its work platform and its culture note. Your GDC speech mentions that Supercell staff would confuse the advice as strictly the instruction and interpretation would vary between readers. What has been done to ensure clarity of messages?
Today we only have a culture note. We went from a game that was more for presentation purposes to a memo meant to be read. With the memo we can provide much more detail on how we operate. However, this cannot be a playbook for every situation, so we encourage new Supercellians to speak to veterans if they have any questions about our culture in practice.
Paananen’s February 2022 blog highlighted the need to expand Supercell’s traditional preference for small teams as games move into beta and live. Can you tell us more about the specific needs of large teams and Supercell’s team expansion process?
Small teams were an integral part of Supercell’s identity. What has become clear over the past year is that not all team situations and all stages of development are the same. While a new games team can always consist of two to five people, the concept of small teams can be limiting for a beta or live games team.
The approach now is to start with our players, and the ambition we have for them, as one objective and the sustainability of our Supercellians as the second. That being said, a large team at Supercell may still be as small as 30 people. So the idea is not to have big teams all of a sudden, but to have good size teams.
The blog also highlighted an increase in burnout rates, a situation reflected industry-wide. What is Supercell doing to provide better protection against burnout and mental health issues, and what do you think the wider mobile games industry should be doing to support its workforce?
Burnout is a global problem, obviously exacerbated by more than two years of global pandemic and loss of connection. We started by encouraging conversations about mental health and wellbeing across all of our offices – the goal is to raise awareness and reduce stigma around mental health.
It’s clearly a starting point and I think while it’s important to provide great support, benefits, mindfulness apps, etc., it’s even more important to explore what’s happening at the the company, then at the team level: what factors promote mental well-being and what are they? t. It was great to see several teams include mental health goals in our annual goal presentations. Other things we are currently piloting in our Helsinki office are training leaders on an early support model, an in-house psychologist twice a week, and a “Jedi of the Mind” program – a mental health equivalent of First Aid – where Supercellians apply for training to better recognize mental health and support team members.
I encourage leaders to be vulnerable, speak up, and embrace best practices. I’ve been pretty honest about my own mental health issues. I think programs like Mental Health Days are great, but we also need to have tough conversations about root causes and focus on being proactive rather than reactive.
I think it’s great to see our industry discussing this at conferences and in articles – the more opportunities we have to share what we do as individual companies, the more it will benefit the industry as a whole.