Management Lessons from Final Fantasy 7
This month I embarked on a quest to lead a ragtag band of rebels towards their goal of saving the planet by destroying an evil mega-corporation that furthered its profits through stealing the planet’s lifeblood.
Ie, I started playing the original Final Fantasy 7 on the Nintendo Switch.
Being an engineering manager by trade, I tend to view experiences through management-colored lenses. I didn’t have to try hard to find parallels between FF7 and management. There are tons.
In FF7, you move and battle as a team of characters, or “party”. Battles do not represent a workplace analogy, but they are core to the FF7 experience. The essence of this game lies in choosing the characters in your party, and optimizing their equipment for best performance in battles. (Managers, this should already sound a little familiar.)
I’ll summarize a few takeaways below with ideas on implementation within your own organization.
Capitalize on the collective capabilities of your team.
In FF7 I chose Cloud, Barrett, and Tifa to be in my default party.
Menu screen with party consisting of Cloud, Barrett, Tifa.
I observed that Barrett had the highest HP (defensive power) of all the characters in my party. This meant that he could absorb more attacks than Cloud and Tifa. Cloud and Tifa, on the other hand, had stronger offensive attacks than Barrett.
The party was already strong, but there was an opportunity to optimize.
I leveled up Barrett’s defensive power further, and then equipped him with the Cover materia. The Cover materia allows him to absorb hits on behalf of defensively-weaker characters. This strategy capitalizes on Barrett’s high defensive power by enabling him to bring up the rest of the team’s defenses. With Barrett blocking attacks on Cloud and Tifa, all three stay alive, and can continue to fight.
At one of my jobs, I worked with two engineers who executed differently.
One was more thoughtful and deliberate. He would consider several different implementations before settling on the cleanest.
The other was more impact-driven. He would zip through several tasks in one day, sometimes at the expense of readability and testing.
Once these two engineers started working together, they evolved to adapt the capabilities of their counterparts. Through regular feedback and thorough code reviews, they leveled up and built impactful features together. They were strong as individuals and unstoppable as a team.
Know your team members and their capabilities. Nurture their strengths through positive reinforcement. Identify members possessing complementary skill sets to work together. Create an environment that encourages feedback and debate.
Eliminate single points of failure.
FF7 has many enemies that are strong or weak to certain types of attacks. Let’s say an enemy is weak against magic and knocks out your only magic-enabled player. You either lose the battle, or you exhaust all your healing potions to keep your other characters alive as they chip away at the enemy with feeble physical attacks. Failure to duplicate magic across multiple players results in an inefficient battle, with time and supplies wasted, and HP lost.
Battle scene with Cloud, Barrett, Aeris in a party.
A similar scenario can arise on engineering teams: Suppose an engineer works on and maintains a feature central to your company’s product. There’s limited documentation on the feature because they worked on it while the company was small and needed to move fast. The engineer quits, and you inherit his or her work. You need to modify it, but have trouble following the code, which was perhaps written in a rush.
This is not an unsolvable problem — you can spend hours reading the code, checking the commit log, and talking to folks who may have reviewed it. But it creates a scenario that could have been mitigated with knowledge redundancy.
Here are my favorite ways of creating redundancy:
Mentorship and Presentations (self-explanatory)
Even as a manager, you should not be the only one performing critical functions on your team (except performance-related ones). Share your processes with IC counterparts who can lead execution in your absence. This strategy has allowed me to identify high-potential leaders on my teams and has kept me from feeling guilty about staying home sick.
Create teams of at least two individuals working on key projects. This will create redundancy in the knowledge of the project and will speed up code reviews because of the shared context.
Hire impact-driven engineers, with a willingness to play with unfamiliar parts of the stack. This will prevent development from halting if employees leave the company, or if hiring is slow.
Prepare for Battle
Prioritize rest and recovery for your team.
I have game over-ed numerous times in FF7 because I forgot to check on my characters’ HP (health points) before rushing into battle. I win a battle, rejoice, rush into another battle, the enemy self-destructs, and game over. My characters were low on health after battle # 1. They were burned out and didn’t stand a chance.
I started checking the health of my characters after every battle and healing them appropriately. FF7 offers potions and magic to recover a limited amount of HP (based on the level of the healing magic, and the type of potion) and offers sleep as a means of recovering all HP. Coffee (potion) may help you pull off another few hours of work, but sleep is a true healing force in the game and in real life!
Working at a growth-stage startup reminds me of high-intensity interval training. You push hard, and then you recover hard. Sprinting for an extended period of time without any recovery is a recipe for burnout.
Check in on your team after an arduous sprint or project. Implore them to rest and recover after a rough week. Do the same for yourself.
Here are some ideas on how to recognize and mitigate burnout:
Conduct periodic pulse checks: Gather your team and call out some phrases: “work-life balance,” “ownership on the team,” “belief in team’s mission,” “number of meetings,” etc. As you call them out, ask the team to indicate with thumbs, how they feel about each topic (thumbs up = good, thumbs down = bad, thumbs sideways = meh). It’s a quick and easy way to know how people are feeling.
Identify reduced velocity: Periodically check in on task close rate or pull requests. Reduced productivity can signal burnout.
Identify reduced engagement: Are team members staying attentive and engaged during meetings? Do they display curiosity about the team’s upcoming projects and company initiatives?
Give your team members permission to take time off
Be transparent about your own wellness practices with your team, inspire them to develop their own
Ask your company to offer wellness classes, such as yoga and meditation
Burnout is also caused by a lack of motivation and empowerment. This is harder to mitigate and takes patience. I suggest spending time with your team members to clarify their personal and career goals and figuring out how to maximize their time in their zones of genius.
Every challenge wins you and your team experience points (XP).
The more battles you win, the more XP your party acquires, and the faster your characters level up. Your characters earn XP even if they sustain significant damage.
Post-battle screen. All characters gain XP and AP, and skills get leveled up.
This is also true of work and life.
15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership articulates this point beautifully, with the commitment: “I commit to seeing all people and circumstances as allies that are perfectly suited to help me learn the most important things for my growth.”
Your teammates may feel bruised after a grueling project. They may feel disheartened after missing a deadline or causing a production outage. Remind them that they always win XP.
While completing a task at work gives your team XP by default, there are ways to extract more actionable learnings and XP. My favorites are retrospectives and feedback.
After a project, at the end of a sprint, at the end of a quarter, after an outage, and whenever else. There’s no downside to reflection.
Top 3 / Bottom3 : Each participant lists 3 things that went well (T3) and 3 things that did not go well (B3) while working on the project.
Start / Stop / Continue: Each participant brainstorms what to start, stop, and continue before the next project.
Feedback and Debate
Check out some of the resources at the bottom of this post.
FF7 teaches you to nurture capabilities, create redundancy, prepare for challenges, and collect XP, but there are a few key points it misses.
If your party is not strong enough to defeat an enemy, you may find yourself stuck unless you decide to “grind XP” (fight a ton of battles to level up your characters) or check the internet for hacks.
If you are struggling with a challenge at work, you can ask your manager for help. This will cost you nothing, and might even award you real-life XP.
Don’t Play Favorites
Everyone has a favorite FF7 party. This is the party that fights most of the battles and levels up the most.
While it is tempting to put your most skillful team members at work on every project, it is not a good idea. All team members need opportunities to gain XP and level up.
Advancement Through Feedback
Imagine if your party members in FF7 characters could talk to you, and help you set up your battle strategy. Or if they could talk to each other, and level up each others’ attacks. That’s what feedback is — free upgrades for every participant, including the manager.
Unfortunately, the characters in FF7 do not give you or each other feedback. Thankfully, your team at work can communicate and share. It is worth proactively researching and thinking about how you can create a safe environment for feedback on your team.
My previous team participated in monthly open feedback circles. We would go around the room and give each person a turn to share a self-review. After they share their self-review, the rest of the team gives them positive and constructive feedback.
This method strengthens the trust between team members and allows individuals to signal for support through their self-reviews. In many cases, I’ve seen participants jump in to defend the self-reviewer against their own negative review! It’s wonderful.
The manager also participates in the feedback circle, which makes the team aware of what the manager pays attention to, and shows that the manager is not above receiving feedback.
I love getting folks excited about things I’m excited about. If this post convinces any managers to start playing FF7 or convinces any FF7 players to think about management as a career path, I will consider it a success. If you’re already a manager and already love FF7, I hope playing it now will remind you of how fun your job is!
Thank you for reading! Did you have any thoughts about management from FF7 or from another game? I would love to hear about them in the comments!
Thank you to all the folks who helped me review this post and all my prior teams which served as my inspiration.
Disclaimer: While my current party and strategy have served me well so far, there is a lot of FF7 left for me to play. I will have to periodically reevaluate my strategy and player configurations as my characters and the battles evolve. (Woah, look at that! Another management lesson!)
Radical Candor — Talks about why feedback is important, and how to deliver it.
Nonviolent Communication — Covers a framework that helps with difficult conversations. I have used this framework at work and at home.
15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership — Offers a framework that helps transition your management mentality from “this is happening to me,” to “this is happening for me.” I keep a copy of the 15 commitments at my desk
Open Feedback Circle (OFC) — Offers a strategy to create a culture of feedback on your team.