Thursday, June 6, 2013

Values as a Foundation

It's been a while since my last blog - my apologies for that!  It's been fun for me to see some comments on Twitter and elsewhere asking for additional blog posts; to continue my tradition of thinking out loud, maybe I can get into a more regular routine by posting shorter entries?  I fear those types of entries may be less compelling, but, to reference my previous entry re: goal alignment, I would say that the goal of my blog first and foremost is to serve as an outlet for my personal thoughts - so that is what I will attempt to do this morning.

It is 4:40am on Thursday June 6th and what is on my mind?

A couple things are happening that are interesting:
Hail Queen Ashe!
- My wife is due to give birth to our first child (boy!) in less than two weeks.  I am quite excited about this - I was the one twisting her arm for us to get rolling with starting a family, and she's been a champion (hah!).  Being a father is going to be quite an interesting journey and I'm very curious about the upcoming lessons and experiences; I've heard they are unlike pretty much anything else in life.
- Riot has continued to grow and take on more and more challenges.  While rapid growth is not exactly new for us (we went from 60 people to ~1,000 in roughly 3 years since launching League of Legends) many of the challenges are of a slightly different nature than many of the previous challenges because they relate to scale at unprecedented levels for the company.

What do these two events have in common?  They both:
- Have many unknowns associated with their futures
- Over time require more and more "letting go" from their creators
- Will only make their parents proud if the decisions they make are driven by strong values

Having a child and scaling a company may seem like an odd pairing, but I think the common attributes above are worth exploring a bit.

Why?  Because they both largely deal with lots of uncertainty and:
- Uncertainty causes fear
One of my best friends is a fire fighter - THAT is courage
- Fear can have many negative implications on human behavior
- Courage occurs only in the presence of fear (absence of fear is not courage - acting in the face of fear IS courage)
- Values are the thing that help people find the courage to overcome fear and do what is right

As I transition into becoming a father, it will be natural for me to be afraid for my child and to start planning for their future.  I will care deeply about his security, health, well-being, education, etc.  Naturally, I feel the same types of feelings for Riot for this is extremely common among entrepreneurs.  As you can see here there are many references to company's being "the babies" of their founders, and I know my co-founder Brandon feels the same way.

One of the current major focuses for the leadership team at Riot is "institutionalizing" the values of the company throughout the organization.  One of the primary reasons that Riot has been able to grow well is because the company has (to date) done a great job staying true to our values and actually having the reality of day to day operations reflect these values, rather than having them just be inscribed on the walls with lofty statements that are essentially ignored.  With this link I am not attempting to pass judgment or call out a very successful company whom I have a lot of respect for, I am merely pointing out the type of thing that is the number one issue which keeps me awake at night and causes me to come down into my basement to write blog entries like this during the wee hours of the morning.  This is the issue that causes me the most fear when I think about the future of Riot, and this is likely the same cause for concern I will have as I think about my son and his future.


Doing the right thing for players is our guiding beacon
Riot has largely been successful at building a values-driven company culture oriented around serving our players because we have a crystal clear mission statement: To be the most player-focused game company in the world - and this has been our guiding principle in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty and fear of the future.   In a nutshell, this crystal clear message helps orient Rioters towards decisions that do the right thing for our players over and over and over.  If we ever do the wrong thing for our players, it is most likely due to a flaw in execution, rather than the fact that the company is being motivated by something other than serving our players well (and while better, is still not good enough).  It has been nice to be recognized for our efforts here with various awards, but the best reward by far and away is actually seeing delighted players at events like this:

The League of Legends Season 2 World Championships was a historic event

Or seeing the "Thank you Riot" posts around the internet or that we get in personal interactions with players.

But, insert scale into the equation - IE - League of Legends being the most played online game in the world with tens of millions of players playing the game each month, and it is quite an amazing challenge to continue to deliver upon our promise to all players around the world day in and day out.  Ironically, our success has actually been our biggest challenge, because it takes time to create the service infrastructure necessary to carry out our mission in the far corners of the globe as effectively as our players need.  Again, we've done a pretty good job here overall, and while we've had our bumps in the road, we wouldn't be seeing the numbers we are seeing if players didn't see value in the service we are providing them. And in other news, we fortunately believe we are close to getting permanently over the hump from a service technology perspective - but we all know that "soon™" isn't good enough either.

Building effective infrastructure to support scale requires effective leadership and while great leadership is always difficult to come by at any level, it is a more familiar experience for many to lead small teams than it is to lead hundreds.  The leadership skills necessary to be effective "at scale" are different than those to be effective "in the trenches".  Both are necessary, and it has been an interesting challenge to personally grow to be capable of succeeding in this regard, especially because the way leadership success is largely achieved at scale is premised upon the ability of growing the leadership capacity of others to effectively achieve the multitude of initiatives we must accomplish.

(As a side note, on this topic, I think the Jesuits do a great job of teaching authentic leadership values as summarized by their motto, "men and women for others".)    

Finally, today's "amazing" becomes tomorrow's "expectations".  As Riot continues to create amazing experiences, we can't be simply satisfied by these or think "we've won" or "done enough".  The expectations of our players are not static - and thus, we must dynamically adjust to deliver value to them.

"Duh, everyone has one"
Just think about that smart phone you have with you.  Just a couple years ago these were the most magical devices on earth and now if your phone runs out of batteries, or doesn't have "X, Y or Z" features, "it sucks".  Good example of how quickly we become accustomed to new and amazing experiences.  What's the next amazing product or service Apple will provide?  The incremental improvement from the iPhone 5 to 6 likely won't be earth shattering.  Thus, one thing we continually challenge ourselves to become better at is to ensure that we stay abreast to what our players expectations are, and we come up with ways to exceed those expectations - over and over and over.

So what does all this have to do with values?  It means that in order to reliably deliver on our company's mission, at scale, as time goes on - IE - across the entire world, day in and day out, across every service we offer - from League of Legends, to the League Championship Series, to experiences we will offer in the future - it means we need the same elements that have enabled Riot to achieve what it has to date present in all aspects of the organization.

We believe those "elements" are the values of the organization that guide our decision-making.  Hence why the leadership of Riot is very focused on further defining the "who we are", the "how we work" and the "what we do" to help contextualize the nuances that we believe distinguish us as an organization from others and then ensuring that our key internal systems reflect and reinforce those values.  I'm now extremely confident in Riot's ability to institutionalize its values to help the company culture remain strong for years to come - but to be honest - for a period of time, I had some doubt.  We were expanding in many directions simultaneously, everyone on our leadership team was extremely busy and focusing on different areas, and many of us felt a looming shadow.  We hadn't quite succeeded at defining the problem we sensed well enough, and that ambiguity caused some fear and uncertainty for a time.

The answer?  Go back to our roots.  Our values.  Define them.  Live them.  Institutionalize them.  When the foundation is solid, we have the strength to deal with the unseen challenges that loom ahead.  We will have the courage to face down the difficult decisions, Rioters will remind themselves about their deep understanding of the company's values and they'll do the right thing.  Hopefully, by being proactive here we will avoid major culture crises that face many companies, but we can never assume we're out of the woods and we must remain vigilant.      

My current perspective is that it would be wise to take a similar approach with my son.  But how?

Religion has often served this purpose well for humanity, as a grounding mechanism to align communities around shared values.  Yet neither my wife nor I are religious (although we were both raised with religious traditions and values of different faiths), and although we respect and appreciate the values that exist in many, one question we have is how to effectively transfer the strong values we share into our child in the absence of an easy to lean on framework that is so often provided by religion.

Einstein is win
Such is a question that will likely take years for us to answer however - and it may be one that we never answer fully.  But, I take assurance in that by identifying the problem, we can continue to make progress on a solution - and I believe that understanding and defining the problem is the most important to step to problem solving.

As the great Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

The role of the leader is not necessarily to be the person who comes up with the solution, but you have to be darn sure you are the person with the wisdom to choose the right answer since you are accountable for the outcome of the decisions.  When you have trouble understanding what the "right" answer is, go back to your roots.

Go back to your values.

My wife and I aspire for our son to have sufficient courage to do the right thing in the face of challenge and adversity.  If we mean that as much as we think we do, then we had better do a good job of raising him with strong values.

Wish us luck!

 Marc "Tryndamere" Merrill


  1. Nice read. As a dad of a 3yr old girl - you are in for a world of hurt, and joy, and yes - it will be like anything you have ever experienced. Good luck with fatherhood and hopefully you can get some of these values instilled into your boy ;)

  2. Thanks Marc, your thoughts always inspire me. And you always exceed my expectations as a company leader. Good luck to you and your wife, and of course, your little boy.

  3. Wow, thanks for being so vulnerable. That's encouraging to see for those of us in the lower 'rungs'. Best ahead in all aspects.

  4. Fun read, Marc. Good luck with your kid and everyone back at Riot!

  5. Good post. I look forward to working on the scaling challenges we face at Riot. Good luck with the baby!

  6. Greetings Marc, please tell me, how can i contact you, or just mail me
    Best Regards Alex