When most folks think about project management, game design probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But every video game that’s developed needs a project manager at the helm to ensure the final experience is both functional and fun.
In this episode of Time Limit, Brett chats with Tim Leinert about his journey from traditional project manager to managing video game projects for a digital healthcare startup. Listen to their conversation to hear:
Tim has over three years of experience in project management within digital health. He left the field of UX research as he found a passion for bringing structure to projects and empowering designers and technologists to do their best work.
He has a background in Cognition and Communication (MA, University of Copenhagen) as well as Media Studies and Education (Stockholm University & Goethe University Frankfurt) - which gives him a strategic toolbox to apply psychological insights to digital product development.
Tim is currently a Product Owner and Producer at a game company that focuses on the healthcare space, where he combines his previous experiences in digital health and UX as he leads a game development team that focuses on gamification of health behavior change.
Brett Harned: Hey. Welcome to Time Limit, a podcast all about project management, leadership, and productivity. My name is Brett Harned. I'm the lucky guy who gets to connect you with all of the unique voices in the global project management community here on Time Limit.
I'm pretty excited about this episode, because my guest, Tim Leinert, is a project manager in the digital healthcare space. But, more specifically, he's at a startup that's creating games in that space. If you're interested in managing game projects or even just in the startup space itself, you're going to really like this conversation. Tim shares his on-the-ground experiences as a PM in that space where he's doing more than your typical PM, and it sounds like he's pretty much loving it. Check it out.
Hey, Tim Leinert. Thank you so much much for joining me on Time Limit today. How are you doing?
Tim Leinert: I'm good. How are you?
Brett Harned: I am doing really well. Thank you. I'm really looking forward to this conversation. It's a topic that's been in the back of my head for a while. As PMs, we know that there are project managers in every industry, working on every possible type of project out there in the world. You're working on something that's interesting that I think a lot of people, at least in my generation and generations younger are into, and that's games, right? Video games.
Tim Leinert: Yes.
Brett Harned: I have to admit that I actually have a little bit of experience with game design projects. Maybe not game design as much. I once worked with a really well-known video game company, and I managed the redesign of their front end website and their e-commerce experience. I got to work with the team who was making one of their games. I know and I understand the culture and the workspace pretty well, but not the actual projects, which is funny. I have to think that video game projects are a whole different animal, so I'm excited to get into that.
Honestly, based on what you've told me about your project, Tim, it seems like it's a little bit different from the run-of-the-mill video game. Can you maybe start by telling us a little bit about your project?
Tim Leinert: Yeah, of course. I would love to. Thank you. Yeah. I'm working as a producer and product owner in a new field of video games. It's up and coming right now. It's called health games. We develop games for healthcare, and we try to use the power of games to change behavior for the better.
Yeah. I'm working at Mindforce Game Lab. It's a small startup based in Sweden. If you can hear, I'm from Germany, so I moved up north, very up north, in Sweden, where we have snow. It's beautiful nature. It's a beautiful place to be.
We work with a game project that addresses depression and bipolar disorder. I'm running a team of maybe 10 people, trying to use the power of games to make people who are diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder not feeling so alone. We're using a lot of game mechanics in a small space, but hope to make a big impact.
Brett Harned: That's really amazing. There's so much to unpack there. I hope you're ready to dig in. I have so many questions.
Tim Leinert: Yes, I am.
Brett Harned: The purpose of that game is really an interesting one. Is this the only product that your company works on, or do you manage several projects within the company?
Tim Leinert: Yeah. This is a first big product, and we have been working now since maybe two years on that one. It's really complex, because there's so many things we want to do right that we started understanding the whole patient experience. How do people feel when they get the diagnosis? How can we develop game experiences that is inclusive to make people be part of something bigger, not just, I don't know, another addictive game? It's something that you should really like to play, enjoy to play, and want to spend time with.
That took a lot of time to just focus on that, doing a lot of research, and ... But we are very excited to have also some small projects at the same time going, for example, with students, doing some healthcare projects with gaming. We have one big one, but some smaller innovations things going on as well, so that's pretty cool.
Brett Harned: Okay. You mainly get to focus on this one big project, then?
Tim Leinert: Yes, exactly.
Brett Harned: Okay.
Tim Leinert: Yeah.
Brett Harned: Really interesting. I have to imagine that there is some kind of project charter or set of goals that are determining what you're there to do and what you're building, what your goal is. Is that true?
Tim Leinert: Yes, of course. That's really important, especially ... My background is, I came from, I would say, traditional project management. I came into game design with this project. I came from a very standardized way of working with a project, and I got to learn better now with the game designers sometimes.
Brett Harned: I bet.
Tim Leinert: Because it's very different, but also quite similar in so many ways. It's very interesting to be part, for me as well, of a learning journey, because you work with such a creative process. You have so many people who have the talent in 3D, or game design, or writing the scripts, the dialogues. You need to make sure that those all align a specific goal. For us especially, working within healthcare, we need to make sure from the beginning that we meet the right goals. We do that in a very empathic way.
For us, for example, project charter is, how do we want to meet the patients who will use our game in a more emotional way? What feeling do we want to evoke? What tools do we want to have to help them along the journey? That really helps us to define outcomes, so to speak, so people should feel better.
People should feel like they are on a journey to understand why ... The good things about the journey, but also accept that it might not be easy on a personal level when dealing with a diagnosis. It takes some time to accept the diagnosis, for example. Our project charter is really based on trying to emphasize the emotional side of our players as much as possible so we can align our goals to help them along the way.
Brett Harned: Absolutely.
Tim Leinert: Yeah. It's not as precise, I would say, as in a normal project, as it used to be before, for example. It's really trying to keep some things open in order to find it out on the way, how we do it the best way.
Brett Harned: Right. You're trying to invoke an emotion and making people feel supported, more so than, like you said before, getting them addicted to another game.
Tim Leinert: Exactly. Yes. That is quite challenging, right?
Brett Harned: Yeah.
Tim Leinert: That is so beautiful, too, because, for example, the way how we develop is we work very closely with our target group. We invite them over for testing. We even test copy, and we test visuals, and so on to really try to understand how people react to it.
We use the slogan "you're not alone" in the game, and that's so strong for some people who are in the target group that they were like ... This means so much to them, just that somebody finally says these words, because media makes people so much focused on, "This is your problem. Get over it." Mental health is still so new to address in a positive way. It's so rewarding to work on a project like this, and try to make it happen with the project management skills, of course. There's so much more to it. That's very beautiful.
Brett Harned: I bet. It sounds like a really interesting project. The subject matter alone, it just feels so important and impactful. I'm wondering how that might impact your team culture, or if you see that at all. Does the subject matter, and the audience, and the tone that you need to take, is it impacting the way that you work together as a team?
Tim Leinert: Yeah. I think that's a very good question, because I would also describe a little bit, me as the project manager or as the producer, I would describe my role very much as a strategic role. I'm responsible to not only write down the project charter or define, "What are we going to do?" But also bringing in the constant knowledge and experiences from our audience to make the team aware of what we're actually building. We are actually not the target group in the end, right?
It's so much more than just getting things done. It's about being part of contributing with a product to wellbeing. We define a team culture with purpose. People are motivated to think about new ideas in a empathic way. For example, if you do use testing people, I invite my team to listen in, to be part of those reactions when people look at our games, because it's so important to have a shared understanding. What are we doing? For who are we doing this?
I think this defines how we work together and how we define our culture. Yeah. Building something with a purpose. That gives all of us a purpose.
Brett Harned: Yeah. I think your use of the word "empathic" there is so important. I imagine that's at the center of your organization's culture, if this is something that you're working on. Curious about your day to day, though. What's it like working with a team who are moving on this really big project that's really centered in empathy, but I imagine you're still trying to ship something quickly? Things get stressful every once in a while. What's it like there?
Tim Leinert: Yeah. That's a very good question. I think for us it's very important to have some specific daily schedule. We start always ... We work with sprints, two-week sprints. Mondays, if we start a sprint, we have a sprint kickoff where we define what we're going to work on for the next two weeks. Then we have the typical daily stand-ups every morning, except for Fridays. We try to have Friday, for example, as a focus day where people can just focus on getting things done.
Then we try also to have all the meetings before lunch every day, so the afternoons are all reserved for focus time. Because it requires a lot of thinking, and it requires a lot of time to get things the way how we want it to be. We try to keep as much as possible focus time for the whole team in the way how we produce the game.
That also means that my day starts normally with ... I have a little daughter now, one year exactly.
Brett Harned: Nice.
Tim Leinert: I start quite early, just to the current day. Maybe 7:00 in the morning, sitting down, "What is going to happen the whole day?" Because my focus time is not really ... After lunch, I have meetings all day long. I need to really make sure that I have the time I need to focus, for example, talking with a patient or preparing interviews with patients in the upcoming week. I try to take a good coffee and think about what will happen exactly that day or the next day.
At 9:00, I meet the team for the daily standup, where we just briefly discuss what happened yesterday and what happened today. Are there any road blocks? That's quite important also for the team to meet, because we are remote. We have one office in Gothenburg, in Sweden, and one office up north in Skelleftea. It's also an opportunity just to meet, and just to see the faces.
We meet actually at 9:00 and five minutes in the morning so people can join already a bit earlier in and have a coffee together, just to start the day together. After that, normally some more detailed meetings will happen where we have a touch base, for example, for the UX team, or touch base with the creative director to showcase what happened, or "What are we going to do in the next week?"
Then after lunch, right now I'm focusing on what will happen next year already. I'm trying to plan ahead and try to identify a pipeline for the team that is manageable and not too stressful, because we are kind of a startup culture. It has a lot of time limits we're working with, as your podcast is about. But still, it's really important to keep the good spirit up, right?
Working on the game is even more messy, I would say, because there's so many creative ideas swirling around, flying around in everybody's head. It's very important to map out, "What we going to do? What's the outcome we want to achieve," for example, "at this milestone?" "What kind of behavior do we want to address?" And so on. It's a lot about ... I would say my day is 50% team management and 50% strategic work.
Brett Harned: I like the structure that you've put in place. I like the idea of a five-minute meeting in the morning, just for everyone to ... Especially for remote teams, right? It just feels like it's really nice to have at least one touchpoint in the day where everyone can come in and say, "Hello. This is what I'm working on," or, "This is what I need help with," or, "what I have an issue with." I like that idea of just a really quick standup.
I also really love the idea of having meetings in the morning and saving time for everyone so that they can actually have focus time and get work done. So many PMs will just load up schedules with meetings, and it's so detrimental to the team's productivity.
Tim Leinert: Yeah, exactly. Fridays, for example, we try to end the week with a walkthrough, so what we have created. I'm really working on also making the team feel proud of what they're working on, and want to showcase what they're working on. We have, Fridays, a walkthrough where everybody, if they want, can present what they have been working on.
Also sometimes we have inspirational Fridays where one of the team can present what they are working on as a hobby, or used to work on before. Or we even invite some external speakers to talk about a specific topic. Once I invited an artist who joined us by a Google Hangout, and did a concert for the team as a surprise. That was super cool.
Brett Harned: That's cool.
Tim Leinert: Yeah. Everybody just thought it was just a random meeting, but then it turned out to be a concert. It was so cool. I think even though that we are remote, we need to really be together as a team and have fun as well, especially when you work on a topic that is not so easy sometimes, right? Depression and bipolar, there are so many beautiful sides of it, but also sometimes it can be a difficult topic to talk about.
Brett Harned: Absolutely.
Tim Leinert: There are of course some dark sides of the experiences of our target group. It's also important to come together, and just see us be together and exchange the purpose, and then ... Yeah.
Brett Harned: Absolutely.
Tim Leinert: It's beautiful.
Brett Harned: It's cool that you're doing that work to help shape the culture to maintain that team culture. It sounds like your process is agile, for the most part. Are you doing ... You said that you're doing a show-and-tell type of thing on Fridays. Is that almost a sprint demo, or is that something that you've added in just to keep the communication and review and, really, culture alive on a weekly basis?
Tim Leinert: Yeah. That's a good question. I think it's more like a mix. It's, of course, we show what we have worked on, but it's more used as a cultural thing that we can discuss it on without inviting the stakeholders or something. It's more like we, as a team, look at it together.
Brett Harned: I see.
Tim Leinert: Yeah. Just share ideas and be open, and see it more as a coming together. "Hey, how was the week? Let's look at what we did." "Cool. That looks great." It's a mix, I would say.
Brett Harned: Okay. You mentioned that you schedule some testing. You maybe interact with some of the users. You also mentioned that you're more in a startup culture. It sounds to me, and I would expect this of a startup, that as the project manager, or maybe even product manager on some level, you are doing some more hands-on work with the team when it comes to research and documentation. Is that true?
Tim Leinert: Yeah. It's very important for us to share the, "Why are we doing this?" And, "What are they going to do?" And, "What are the experiences we are going to address?" The real life experiences.
For example, for us, it's very helpful to have patient journeys that are not just within the journey, how to use the product, and so on. It's more like, what is actually happening in the real world? Thinking about a diagnosis. What are the feelings people have, and how can we use that in some way to make the storytelling meaningful?
For example, in the beginning, we had the idea that the character inside the game's trying to go home again, like has crashed on an island and wants to go home again. But it turned out, through research, that for the people who experience a diagnosis within bipolar, for example, they're like, "But I will never go back to the place I used to be, where it was before."
We had to change the storytelling then. Like, "Okay, we need to have something that you get used to something." You build something up from ... Instead of going back, you need to move forward. Those things are so important for us to develop on a creative level that we understand experiences and do those qualitative research that helps us to develop the very targeted experience.
Brett Harned: That makes sense. You're taking part in research. You're doing weekly meetings where I'm sure lots of ideas are flowing around. I'm sure you're with a highly creative team. What are your methods for staying on top of those details and making sure that you're pushing and pulling the right lever, so to speak, and really making sure that the team is focused on the right thing in that moment?
Tim Leinert: Yeah. I think that's something ... It's not as easy, honestly.
Brett Harned: No, I'm sure.
Tim Leinert: I'm really one of those, I like just to start my day with a paper and a pen, just write down, "What are to-dos?" Really have a to-do list for myself. Like, "I need to follow up on this," or doing a conversation or meeting. I can write down, "Okay, I need to remember to ask, what's the status with this?" I have always my little book with me where I take of notes, but of course we have the backlog, and we use [Tira] where we define the backlog as best as possible.
We are also working with a larger ... It's a huge exit list where we have user stories defined and acceptance criteria. That also helps me to keep on track, "Okay. What did we actually imagine here to have as the delivery? How is it right now?" I think my day to day is really ... I love whiteboards, and papers, and Post-its. I'm the typical ...
Brett Harned: You, sir, are a project manager.
Tim Leinert: Exactly. Yeah. I'm working on a better strategy, but that's really the most useful for me, just to put it down for my head, on the paper. Have it on my desk so I don't forget it. [crosstalk]
Brett Harned: That makes sense. I do the same thing.
Here's a big question. Where do things go off track most in projects like the one that you're working on?
Tim Leinert: Yeah. I think they're all going well until we enter a critical phase before a milestone. Suddenly then you see, "Okay, there's a really big dependency that we haven't really touched." I think it's mainly really trying to ... I think it goes off if it was not really defined in, "What do we really want to get out of it?"
For example, from another agency here in Skelleftea where I'm located, we adopted a system. It's called functionality, usability, cosmetics, and [Swedish 00:23:24], like love. These are different layers of how we talk about the components that we develop, or features. We approach it like functionality and usability first, so we make sure it works and it's usable.
This helps us to overcome those big surprises, because we know, "Okay, this component needs to be functional and usability at this point in time." Then we can add beautiful graphics, like cosmetics. Or if you want to push it to the horizon, then we can add the extra level of love to it.
I think this is weird. Normally it sounds perfect in theory, but in reality, last things are like, "Yeah, okay. We developed it now. Functionality and usability, it works, but somehow it's not really fun to play, so we need to go back." That's the thing about games. You really also want to make it some kind of good experience. It's really hard to have it just in your head, and you need to have it in your hands to really find out if it's really fun to do, and this is the experience that we want to have.
Brett Harned: Absolutely.
Tim Leinert: I think those are the things that sometimes don't go as planned. But then these are also moments of opportunity, of course, to look at it and define it better. But coming from a traditional project management perspective, that's the moment where you're like, "Okay. Dammit, we need more time."
Brett Harned: Right. I imagine too, it's like, you do the testing. Things don't come back maybe the way that you wanted, or reactions weren't what you expected. You go back to the drawing board. But then what you're talking about could even lead to, "It works, but it doesn't look as cool as we wanted it to," which could then send you down a whole other rabbit hole around design, and animation, and stuff that costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time.
Tim Leinert: Yes.
Brett Harned: Yeah. Okay.
Tim Leinert: It takes a long time. Yeah.
Brett Harned: Then-
Tim Leinert: Really those kinds of things.
Brett Harned: How do you determine if the project's actually done, then?
Tim Leinert: Yeah. Right now we are still in the development phase, of course. We work towards milestones. Those milestones, we have specifications that we want to have in that game. For example, the character has this seven days content, or something like that. We define, we write a script for that, and map out what we want to have for the content. Then we develop those kind of things and test it out on the way. When we have that in place, then, okay, we can sign off things and move forward.
But I think, with a game, it feels like it's never done. It's really, you always see, "This we could do better," or, "This is an opportunity to implement some kind of, maybe, messages," educational messages, especially in our case.
Or from the use of testing, we thought, "Okay, yeah, this is something we really nailed." Then you do the testing, and "Okay, maybe we did not nail it."
Brett Harned: Maybe not so much.
Tim Leinert: Yeah. Exactly. It's really like, we try to sign off things, and, "Okay, this is good enough," right? That helps us also when we have to find, "Okay, what level are we looking at?" Is it functionality, usability, cosmetics, or the love layer? This helps us to sign off different layers, because they are dependencies, of course.
Brett Harned: Sure.
Tim Leinert: Because when everything works as it should, and it's usable, then we can hand it over to the art team. Then they can dress the level, or something like this. But it's rarely the case that it works so streamlined, because then suddenly there are changes happening from the UX perspective. I would say, we know when we're done when we really have good testing results, and feel like, "Okay, this is good enough for now. Let's move on." Yeah.
Brett Harned: Yeah. How was that for you, coming from more of a traditional project management role where you're working on something that really can change shape and really continue longer than a typical project? Is that difficult for you to manage and really feel like you're making an impact?
Tim Leinert: Yeah. I think so. I think when you come from a traditional ... I was working at an agency before where we had short projects or longer projects, but it was always very clear what you're working on and, what is the end delivery, right? Managing expectations was super important to have a good client relationship, and so on.
Here, in my project, I think managing expectations and communication is the most important things I'm working on every day. Really to have the team working on the goals that we want to achieve, and also having the communication between the team members, especially when they're remote, to identify roadblocks as early as possible, or even foresee them.
Yeah. Sometimes you have the feeling, "Yeah, I want to move forward with this now," this part, but then you need to be patient. Say, "No, maybe we are not there yet with this part. Let's give it some time more." That could be, of course, sometimes a little bit frustrating, but I think that's exactly where also the beauty is, to work on something that is more challenging, a little bit.
Brett Harned: Yeah. It sounds like your role is a little more strategic in that sense as well. It's that you really have a bigger picture view of the product, not just the project, right?
Tim Leinert: Yeah.
Brett Harned: You're managing the project and the mechanics of the process and getting it done, but you really have your finger on the pulse of what's working well, what could be shipped, what might have to be revisited. I think that's really interesting. It sounds like a really cool place to be within the PM space.
I'm sure there are a lot of folks out there who would love to get into the gaming industry. I'm wondering if you have any advice for folks who might be looking into getting into project management in that industry.
Tim Leinert: Yeah. For me, it was ... Definitely. I think ... I'm working with a very special field of game development. It's in the field of serious games, so games that actually want to make an impact in a positive way. I would love to see more people from project management coming there, because there are so many project managers like I was before.
I was working a lot with pharma projects and digital healthcare. I was a little bit looking for, "Okay, how can we turn something in an app into more like an engaging experience?" To use gamification or something like that in a good way. There's so many opportunities to actually bring that knowledge that you have from your previous projects into a new area or in a new field that really needs people with this knowledge.
That was the case for me, that I had the luck that I'm able to work with such a fantastic team and bring my previous experiences from working as a traditional PM into a new field. I think my suggestion would be to really look out, what are you interested in? What really would drive your motivation to bring your skills into the gaming industry? Is it a big game, or is it maybe some smaller startups that can really use some hands-on help?
For me it was the entrance through a startup and then grow with the startup, because you can shape so much things. You can shape the day flow of the whole team. You can define the goal. You can talk with the management, and you can really have an impact.
My personal advice would be, if it's hard to land a job in a bigger company, there are lots of great small studios that want to make an impact and who need help from project managers. It's a great place to learn as well.
Brett Harned: Yeah. It sounds like a great way to level up your skills, if you can start with your base experience as a PM and jump into an organization like the one that you're in. Really expand on your skillset and get your hands dirty a little bit on the project, right? Do a little bit of the work, so to speak.
Tim Leinert: Yes, exactly. I think for me it was very good to start an agency, because I think you had the same experience, that you work on very different projects, and you get a lot of insights how to ... You make a lot of mistakes, but you have the chance to do it better next time for the next project, of course.
Brett Harned: True.
Tim Leinert: Within working in a game, it's so interesting to ... When I worked in the agency, I felt I was far away from, actually, the creators. I was just making ... The box checker, a little bit, that you don't want to be. You want to be part of the vision. You want to shape things, and try to create an environment to help the people on your team to make the best work, to feel passionate about what they're doing.
I really felt like coming to a smaller studio who really hungry to do something good was the best decision. Because I can really use my talents or my passion as well and inspire people, and they inspire me. For me it was the best decision.
Brett Harned: That's great. I cannot wait to see this game.
Tim, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today, and for joining me on Time Limit. It's been really interesting talking about this. Your perspective on PM, how you got into this role, and some really good advice for people who are interested in getting into video game projects or even healthcare design. That space is wide open for change, and what you're doing is pretty exciting. Keep me posted on when things go live. If we can share it with our audience, I'd love to do that.
Tim Leinert: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. It was such a pleasure to be here.
Brett Harned: Absolutely. Thanks.
All right, folks, I hope you enjoyed the chat with Tim. I have to say, I personally feel so lucky to be able to connect with the people around the world to talk about our common challenges and approaches to our work as project managers. I also really appreciate Tim's approach to his work and even to his career. I'm hoping that someone out there is inspired by Tim's story, and really takes the opportunity to become a more strategic PM. I think it's pretty cool stuff, what he's doing.
Hey, thanks again for checking out Time Limit. Do me a favor. Subscribe to the show wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you've got a minute, give us a review. I'd really appreciate that. While you're online or even on social media, check us out at TeamGantt. We're sharing tons of new content, resources, and templates on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and even Instagram. I hope you'll follow along. That's where I'm going to be until our next episode. Thanks.