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Internal Comms in a gaming startup

Internal Comms in a gaming startup

Jonathan Davies


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44 mins read

Thu, Aug 13, '20  

The Internal Comms podcast has respawned yet again.

We’re joined by Emily Scammel, Director of Internal Communications at Improbable, a UK-based gaming development company. Emily’s our first guest to come on the podcast to discuss the famously fast-paced gaming industry – the perfect environment to roll out creative solutions and initiatives as an Internal Communicator. You can watch, listen to the podcast or read the full transcript right below – whatever makes you tick today. Press start to play. 


Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher


Jonathan: Welcome, Emily. I'm super excited to have you on board because you work in a company, and in a specific sector of which I've not had the chance to talk to a lot of Internal Communicators about. So, I'm really excited to share your learnings with the audience, and see what we can discover together. First, I want to give you the chance to introduce yourself to our audience of amazing Internal Communicators. 

Emily: Yeah, absolutely. I'm very happy to do this. I'm Emily Scammell, I currently  look after the Internal Comms at a gaming startup called Improbable.  I'm new to this role.  I've only been with Improbable for six months. 

I've had a varied career, in different places, but at the moment I'm focusing specifically on Internal Comms.


Corporate vs. startup Internal Communications

Jonathan:  Your career journey has been a really interesting one actually, because I think in a way, to a degree, we went through a similar thing, but you may be more on the extreme side of stuff because you've worked for an organization with 30,000 people. Now, you work essentially for a startup.

What was that journey like, and what made you want to go into an organization with less people?

Emily:  The places  I've been working at  have been very interesting places to work in.  I started my career, and I'm very thankful to Virgin media, because I kind of grew up there.

I had 11 years  working my way through my career as an Internal Comms professional and working in employee engagement also. They were pretty big, so like 25,000 people, including contractors. So. That was a great place to start as an Internal Comms person, being part of a  big team, with  lots of different people doing different things in terms of Internal Comms.

It was really interesting, and  solely UK based. I learned my craft in that business, and we were traveling across the UK in terms of different types of people that we're communicating with. Lots of engineers who work out on the road in vans. and then lots of big call centers in places around the UK where, you know, people were doing kind of the same job day in, day out, and they needed to be motivated and communicated effectively with so that they would give the best experience to the customer.

I then wanted to have a bit more of a global experience, then moved on to work for a big market research agency called KANTAR, part of WPP. They were just huge. We're talking 30,000 people across the world in 100 PLUS different countries. From five people working in Sierra Leone to 300 people working in the London office.

That was actually a really interesting experience. They were quite cool, and a collection of mergers and  acquisitions. Very different cultures, all around the business. Lots of different brands and lots of people who felt really strongly about the company that they worked for a sub brand of the KANTAR brand.

That was really  interesting. I kind of felt like I needed to experience something small. To experience what startup life would be like , moving to businesses that move really fast, where you've got direct access to the people who started the organization, who are super passionate about their vision and what they're trying to create. Trying to be successful, really. Rather than established businesses who have been around a long time and, may be fighting, to change, or needing to turn their businesses around in the case of KANTAR, to react  to what the industry was doing at that moment.

I've loved being in the last two businesses I've been in. Onfido, which is a FinTech, which was smaller than Improbable - another startup - which when I left was just over the 300 mark. Now improbable, which is verging on the 700. It's difficult to call it a startup when it gets to that size, but I guess we're still not, you know, we're not listed. It's a company that's funded by investors. So, it is officially still a startup and a very exciting place to be.


Tackling cultural incompatibility

Jonathan: I think that's amazing. So I already have like 15 questions that I want to ask you. I think the first one I wanted to ask you. does come from the field that you have moved away from, but when you worked at KANTAR, you said that the organization really grew through mergers and acquisitions.

Now, that must be a massive Internal Comms challenge because you're essentially merging in companies with entirely different cultures. If that happened frequently, I imagine that at a certain point you developed a certain knack for overcoming those barriers. What did you do to combat the cultural incompatibility, and create cultural synergy? 

Emily: Actually, that was a really interesting challenge.

I worked with some super clever people, drafted in from different parts of the organization to put together what we called KANTAR first at the time. With the challenges of having multiple brands, the business change while I was there was that we needed to now align the ways that we were working with clients across the world, you know, different brands needed to now collaborate and come to pitches together, and con different pieces of work for different clients together.

Hence KANTAR first came forward. There was a massive piece of work to try and encourage collaboration across brands. It was very difficult to ensure that you did reach everybody across the entire organization. That's where advocacy really, really comes to bear.

You really need to understand and have a network of people across your organization that are working on your behalf, because you can't possibly reach all areas of the organization in all different countries and all different brands yourself. This is one individual or one small Internal Comms team.


Invigorating change through behavioral nudges

At KANTAR, first, the initiative that I worked on with members of the team across the world, pulled together expertise in terms of behavioral science and really helped us understand why people weren't collaborating effectively right now, and how could we encourage them to do so. Using the concept of behavioral nudges to encourage people to change their behavior in small ways, and kept that effectively so that we could tell the reader good news stories across the business where things were actually working, and people were moving in the right direction -- changing and  collaborating more.

Again, highlighting what was actually working ,and telling those stories more and more. That was a really interesting piece that wouldn't happen in a small business. I don't think, certainly not in the kind of startup world. 

Jonathan: Those behavioral nudges that you just spoke of, we were talking about having small goals of small changes that people need to perform.

Then, when that would happen, you would kind of highlight that story and share it with the rest of the businesses. Am I right?

Emily:  Absolutely. I mean, it's really easy for the leadership of an organization to say, okay, you're not only to collaborate, but actually what does collaboration mean? How can you boil that down into everyday lives of people who are on the front line, working with our clients.

Maybe that means when you get a pitch in from a customer, you just have to make sure that you call up your equivalent in another brand, in the same country, so that you highlight that there's pitchers coming in, and you can talk about that together. It's just having that initial conversation, and it's those behaviors  that need to be influenced.

We can encourage people to think about that, rather than saying, okay, well you need just to collaborate with that brand in your team, and you boil it down to pick up the phone and speak to that person. Or, send them an email. It was introducing nudges, that were often created by the people who needed to be nudged because we had an army of what we called champions, to help us create those nudges and instill that change on a very foundational level, like just encouraging people to pick up the phone. 

Jonathan:  I'm going to use behavioral nudges from now on. I see it as one of those things where if you're right, if your entire behavioral change needs to be people who aren't collaborating and they should collaborate, then that's the mountain that you need to climb, but you don't climb a mountain by taking one giant leap.

It takes a whole bunch of small steps to get there. Those nudges are exactly those steps, I suppose. 

Emily: Exactly. You'd think maybe in businesses that have had Internal Comms for a long time, or been thinking about this for an awful long time, that encouraging people to pick up the phone is such an easy thing for people to do, but actually in some cases, and in KANTAR. people didn't know where to find them - the people directory. They didn't know it wasn't highlighted on the internet effectively. It wasn't because there were so many different parts of it,  and so many different brands across the world. There was inconsistency in terms of  what was highlighted to people. 

From an Internal Comms perspective, that was a really quick win. Just to ensure that people had access to the contact details of everybody across the board. It just seems unbelievable that that wouldn't have been the case, but actually, it wasn't in all cases. Without that advocacy, without that network of people across the organization that are helping you as a top level of the Internal Comms team, you can't possibly know what's happening across all areas of the business.

Jonathan: Yeah, very true. I definitely think that  the importance of advocacy is really highlighted there. Get those ambassadors onboard and use them as your Internal Communicators by proxy, because they'll know they also know the audience much better than you do. 

Emily: As we know with Internal Comms, you don't often have an unending amount of budget to get things done.

Maybe you're an individual on your own, or maybe you've got a very small team and you just haven't got the bandwidth to get to every place in your business. It's just not gonna happen. 


Making employees Internal Comms ambassadors

Jonathan: So, what did you do to get those people to help you out to act as your ambassadors? I recently had a really interesting conversation with Imogen Hitchcock about this, who highlighted that you always need to push the what's in it for them. It needs to not be seen as an extra task that they need to carry out. It's not leadership who can just make a list of "these are the people that we want as ambassadors". How do you approach this? 

Emily: Actually, there were limited resources within Canada in terms of design and things like that.

What we had access to anyway. We went off the book and created an animated video ourselves using one of the free versions online and  created something that helped people understand I knew what was going to be in it for them, you know, how can they change things?

How can they encourage people to initiate change around them? It really was about what was in it for them in terms of what they wanted to see change around them. They wanted to see what was happening in their parts of the organization change. 

That was the impetus for them to get involved. We ended up with 1500 champions across the 30,000  person business .Simply,  it didn't actually take that much to push that hard because they were suffering the pain. They weren't seeing the things that they wanted to happen happen.

They were coming up with some fantastic ideas. For example, there was one group that wanted to encourage more  connections between different people that were working in the office. They felt that there were different brands working in the office, different teams, and they weren't connecting enough.

They introduced a desk bingo game, which meant that you had to sit in a different colored area of the office. We were all working on  kind of, agile working. It was super easy for people to move around and work on different desks. You had to sit in the green area, then a blue area, then a red area.

Then, by the end of this period of time, they ran this game. You'd win a prize. If you put it into a hat, if you managed to get bingo and all the different colors.  It's just simple things like that that don't take an awful lot of work, but. we're created by the people that wanted to see the change and were genuinely wanting to get involved  in initiatives  like this that help it work. 

The other element, I think, which I now know is incredibly  important - manager advocacy. No matter how invested some individual is in the business, getting involved in things like this, if their manager isn't for it, if they're the blocker, then they're not gonna be able to do anything.

They're going to come against me causing barriers to spending a small amount of time from that day. I'm working on things like this. That's where engaging with the management community really early on makes the difference. Involving them in the story, making sure that they understand the initiative that's happening, what your objectives are, how you are going to do this?

How much time are we going to be taking from anybody who's working on this? Making sure that they can flag if they've got any particular issues with their teams working on this, and giving them a voice and helping them feel part of the story is an important  part of it. 

Jonathan: I really love that. I'm going to use a buzzword, which I hate doing, but essentially you figured out a way to gamify a part of advocacy, which is really fun. Now, speaking of gaming, you made a switch to an entirely different scene, an entirely different industry. You now work very much in the tech world, essentially.

What's that been like? What have the main things been that you notice are so different here compared to maybe a more established industry? 


What can we learn from the gaming industry?

Emily: I think  the people who are developing games, they are massively invested in what they do. Often they are gamers in their personal lives.

They are truly invested in playing the games, the types of games that they're creating, outside of work, which, you know, when I was working for on Onfido with FinTech, It was a finance tech. It was about ID verification. If you signed up to a bank, for example, the technology that Vito put together would verify your identity, which is fantastic, but you're not going to be doing that in your free time.

You're not necessarily going to be invested in the world of finance, outside of work. Whereas in gaming,  it's almost like a vocation. I don't think that many people join big gaming businesses if they're not into games. Now, I joined  and my experience of gaming is very much on mobile and, and you know, a little bit of PC games. I was a massive Sims advocate and Sims player when I was a teenager.

 I think that the people who are developing games in our business are genuinely invested in the gaming industry and love it. That's the type of thing I've needed to tap into in terms of communicating with them. They're also incredibly analytical and provide challenges all the time. 

They want reasoning for why things are being done, they don't like change ,new channels that are put in from the Internal Comms perspective changes the way things are done. If you can  describe or really help people understand actually why things are happening  this way ? Bring them on the journey with you, rather than just  putting in place something and  hoping for  the best. I've got an example of that on Onfido, because there were an awful lot of texts taking people in I'm on Thedo as well. They were developing the code behind the scenes, to develop FinTech capabilities and I introduced the new intranet? And I made it the default homepage for everyone.

 I had told a few people about this and only engaged the kind of leadership community on this change, but I underestimated how much of an impact that small change would have on people who are invested  in the kind of guy getting into the flow of writing code. 

That caused an absolute furore of feedback, and it's a learning I've made and I've taken into Internal Comms  improbable that the slowly catch a monkey  approach works helping people to come on the journey.

Jonathan: I would totally agree with those observations.

I think we share the same observations, and how when we moved to tech, like the kind of changes in the audience that you have there and the different challenge that those people can give you with that very analytical mindset.  Have you found yourself first off, extremely passionate about what they do?

Maybe even more so than any other kind of job discipline that I've ever encountered, specifically with developers. Has that passion kind of rubbed off on you, and on your Internal Comms. Have you become more passionate about your job now? 

Emily: I think so. I think when you have a really strong vision for the organization that you're working with, when you have leaders and especially co-founders, really believe in what they're trying to achieve, and the journey they've been on is so tough because trying to put together investment for an idea that's never been thought of before  or creating, something new  is really not an easy thing to do. 

You need to be so invested and passionate about that to get that off the ground. Herman. our CEO has been incredibly successful in bringing investment into the business, and you can't help but have that rub off on you.

The way he talks about what Improbable is trying to achieve, it can't help but make you passionate. From an Internal Comms perspective, when I'm writing, and sharing stories  with the organization that connect to our vision and my priorities - if I didn't  believe in it - I'd find it quite difficult to make it engaging enough for people to actually care. 

Why should they read this article? Why should they listen to this presentation, our town halls,  unless the people behind it genuinely care about what they're delivering.  I think in larger organizations and  certainly earlier on in my career,  that maybe wasn't always the case all the way through the business.

I'd met leaders in my time who were very much there and hanging in there until retirement. For example, rather than genuinely wanting  to see that it becomes successful at the end of the day. Also not wanting change to happen, certainly in the world of if market research change had to happen.

When I was at KANTAR,  the industry was in flux because people could gather big data from anywhere now and what they really needed was the insight and the expertise to interpret that. The business was moving from a place of " here's your survey results" to actually, this is what it means.

This is how we can really help you get value from your organization based on what we've discovered about your business and that change. It wasn't always the case in terms of what people didn't always believe in that change. They'd been doing it for an awful long time and actually they didn't hold the same passion in all cases.

There were obviously some people who very much believed in it, but in a startup, I think that kind of environment is very different because for people who are there it's a bit more risky, whether the business will succeed or not, you're not in it not necessarily for the money, you're in it because you're genuinely interested in what they're trying to do.

I think that definitely has rubbed off on me. If you're going to engage with people that you're talking to, you need to genuinely believe in what you're doing. 


Where does the Internal Communicator sit?

Jonathan: Absolutely. Absolutely. When it comes to your title as the Director of Internal Communications at Improbable - within the hierarchy, where do you sit?

Emily: I think  this is interesting actually, but it has been super interesting for me. Now, I've  moved into the strategy and operations team that sits under finance within Improbable. This is the first time I've ever sat anywhere, but the people team or branded marketing. It's been really useful now. I'm not going to lie, a lot about strategy and finance perspective goes right over my head. and some of the meetings I sit in and I'm like, okay, well, I'm going to have to go and Google those terms.

However, what it has meant is that I'm privy to that type of conversations about the business and the direction of the organization, the challenges  the business is experiencing . I don't think I was necessarily privy before. 

However, sometimes you can fall into a trap of being very focused on people communication. The benefits of the organization or the changes, restructure and things like that. That's fine, but it does leave you slightly blind, and it can make it harder to connectwith the strategy and vision of the business.

Same with brand-on marketing, they're very  focused on selling the product and making sure that people externally engage with it. That's fine. It's great to be so connected to the brand and making sure that all of your comms look really on brand. It can look fantastic.

Then you can slightly distance yourself. From the day to day workings of the business and what are the challenges and actually, what are we trying to achieve? Certainly, where I'm sitting now, I've never felt so embedded in, in the constant conversation about,what are we doing to keep our investors happy? Where are we moving from a priorities perspective, and how's that going to change in the next 5, 10 years? How are we going to reach profitability? 

 It makes what you're  communicating about.It makes sense. You can see a line of sight between some of the things that you're putting out there into the business actually. and what the business is ultimately trying to achieve. 

Jonathan: What made them then decide that this is where their director of Internal Communications at the time they hadn't found yet? What made them decide that  this is where you would be sitting? 

Emily: I think there was some internal debate about  whether this role should sit within the people team or not.

I am understanding that it took some time to justify this role within your organization. Now Improbable  is seven years old. It's taken a while and I've only been here for six months. It's taken a while to get somebody who's a specialist in Internal Comms to actually come into the business.

I think some of that conversation was about that we don't want to abdicate responsibility for communications from the business. So we don't want to say, okay, we'll bring in Internal Comms and now communicate everything. Then, managers won't have to do anything. He just won't have to do anything.

Teams won't have to communicate what they're doing. There won't be any need for them to actually do it. They're able to keep responsibility. They can be slopey shoulders about the whole thing. And actually the challenge around that. and as I think I said in my interview with him, my manager at Improbable, is that actually a lot of Internal Comms is about enablement . It's not about doing that job for people. It's about enabling the business to have the right channels,the right processes and the ability to communicate themselves about what's happening in the organization.  I think the reason  that it was put into the strategy and operations team is because this person needed to fully understand the business, and be so heavily connected with the strategy and priorities of the organization, and be so heavily connected with the CEO and the exec team, that in order to enable  then had the weight behind me to go to different parts of the organization and say, look, this is important.

We need to focus on communications. This is what needs to change. I need to better understand your part of the business so that it can help you, and enable you to communicate better and more effectively. It's certainly  something that has been eye opening for me and an interesting experience for me over the last six months.

I can see why it's been decided to kind of have it work this way. 


Positioning yourself as an Internal Communicator

Jonathan: So is there not at your privy to high-level strategic conversation? Do you feel that there are things that you've been able to achieve because of where you sit at Improbable that you maybe wouldn't have been able to do at a different organization?

Or maybe not as fast?

Emily:  The experiences I've maybe had in the past have been that I've been thrown in very fast, and not really had the breathing space for a full discovery phase, to properly  understand a, what are the nuts and bolts of the organization - what's working and what's not working.

In some cases that's because I've been firefighting. There's been a true lack of Internal Comms and engagement activity, and the fundamentals needed to be put in really, really fast. However, I was certainly given breathing space, and have been given over the last six months within Improbable to carry out that full discovery. To put those surveys out, to have those types of conversations across the business, to ensure that I could wholeheartedly recommend things t o be done.

 Fully understanding actually what impact they were gonna have and why I was recommending those, so that I have the weight  and the data  to back up the decisions I'm making now, six months in, about the way that we're going to communicate effectively in the future and actually with an analytical and very challenging workforce to communicate with. They benefit  from having somebody who wants to measure, who wants to interrogate, who wants to hear what they've got to say, who genuinely  cares about what's working. Something I have discovered is that I was all guns blazing to come in with a brand new swanky intranet  relevant to this, the compensation and the appetite just isn't there for that level of change right now.

What I'm doing is making the best of what I've got and then. Talking to people about what  that will actually look like. But in the future  and maybe in the next 12, 18 months, they'll have seen actually me talk about this from a perspective of experience and expertise, which helps them come on the journey I'm trying to put in at Improbable without saying "this person just wants to come in and change everything from the beginning and knock out all the hard work  we've done, and remove things that we thought were working. That's been a refreshing and enlightening thing that I've managed to achieve here so far.

Jonathan: Yeah, it's that old idea of employee engagement is being done to me and  not for me, which is a very big  difference . I like your catch the monkey approach. It's a great way to win people over early in a journey when you know that big change is coming. It can be big or medium or whatever, but roping them on early, I think is really important for them to increase their understanding.

Emily: Yeah, that doesn't mean that I'm not putting quick wins. For example,  just giving some structure to the town hall meetings that happen every Friday. As far as I was aware before I joined, they were a little bit more haphazard. There wasn't really any planning that happened in terms of what was going to be spoken about or how it connected back to overall themes that were happening in the business.

One of the simple things I've been able to do is just to create  structure, and I mean that there's some planning and people know what's going to be spoken about at the town hall every week. They know what they're committing their time to come into view, and take part in.

Having that level of interaction in those meetings as well, so something as simple as putting in a polling tool and, and helping them feedback in terms of what's working, what's not right. Having that effective discovery phase, isn't about not doing anything for six months. It's about being able to have the space to properly understand the business while implementing some quick wins.

Certainly with COVID,  I certainly couldn't rest on my laurels and not get involved with that. So I was thrown into the deep end in terms of making sure that we're effectively communicating about working from home and everything that's happened in 2020, so that there's certainly been an awful lot to be getting on with.


Balancing strategy and quick wins

Jonathan: I can absolutely imagine. I have one final question for you on the subject. Strategy, but then also quick wins - how do you balance the two? Because I've heard this before and I've heard two sides of the story, which is either I'm so involved in strategy that I don't put out quick wins, so my business things I'm not visible. That's one extreme. The other extreme I've heard is I'm getting overrun with creating quick wins, so I don't have time for strategy. How do you find a balance between those two? 

Emily: I think there's always going to be things so it needs to be done on a day to day basis.

There's always going to be things that need to be communicated, and  there's always going to be planning. For example, there's nobody else that is planning town hall every week, other than me. So I need to be doing that. I need to be working with people that are presenting at town hall.

I need to be making sure that I create the slides and make sure that we invite certain people and they've got the right zoom link, and so on. And that day to day kind of admin administration needs to be done.  I'm not going to get away from that, certainly for the time being.

At the same time, as long as I can agree the priorities with the people who are my stakeholders - say my manager, but also the leadership team, the CEO of the organization, in terms of this is what I'm going to be working on over the next six months. This is what I'm going to be prioritizing.

At the same time, I'm going to be dealing with this BIU, but it means that I can't fix on X or I'm not going to be able to do that until a certain time, or it might take me a little bit longer to actually make it effective. You can agree that upfront. Then,  you're in a much better place  to start balancing actually what you're going to achieve.

 Sometimes in Internal Comms, people fall into the trap of trying to boil the ocean. So there's so many things that we could be doing in the business.  I could be putting in a new intranet.  I could be completely changing up everything that's happening across the business, putting in some massive virtual events all at the same time,  as trying to kind of do the day to day and the foundations.

What I've agreed is that I need to get the foundations right. I need to fix the channels that currently exist. I might put in some small scale new channels at the same time and create quick wins. For example, I've got myself a new email tone, and I put in a polling interaction tool as well.

But they're not groundbreaking. They're not going to take up all of my time. And, at the same time I can implement some of my quick wins while thinking about the future and planning out the next six months.A lot of that is about effective content. The channels that you've got can be the most amazing channels in the entire level.

But if you don't have correct content, you don't have things that you use for the business, for people to actually help them do their jobs. Then it doesn't matter. You could have the best one in the world, then it won't work. So for me, it's about making sure that the foundations are really good while putting in quick wins at the same time and working for their future in 6 to 12 months.

Jonathan: I think that's a very healthy approach. Emily, I want to thank you for your time so much. I really enjoyed this conversation, and I think that there are a lot of learning points in here for our audience.

Maybe it wasn't you who invented it, but I'm going to introduce behavioral nudges into my standard vocabulary from now on. So thank you for that. Thanks so much and I hope to see you soon.

Emily: It's been great to chat with you. Thank you very much.