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A management structure that provides autonomy and empowerment

Launching a brave, new product meant taking a long hard look at Decoded’s management structure and practices 

Decoded’s management team tends to draw a lot of its inspiration from tech companies and the startup culture. In building and launching a new product, it was no different.

Starting off, no one in the team had any preconceived idea of how their first online version of the company’s services would look. They did, however, want to pick a specific team to lead the way.

At the start of 2016, this team embarked on its pilot digital project – a chatbot platform designed to teach users cyber security online, through autonomous hands-on training. They gave the platform a name – Hacksy, created a Hacksy logo, and even produced Hacksy t-shirts. The team were empowered to feel like a separate internal startup, set free to shake off the traditional expectations of the wider business and given complete freedom in how it tackled its brief: could it scale cyber security education?

With that shift in thinking, management now had to change how it related to its teams. The new group would still need support, but that would have to come in a less hands-on, day-to-day way. While the leaders gave clear briefs, setting the creativity within clear boundaries, they had to then let people get on with it.

John Ridpath, head of product at Decoded, soon learned that the most effective thing he could do was simply walk around the office checking in with people. “It became a lot more about listening,” he noted. “No project is perfect from start to finish – in the process people may lose sight of where they’re going – so I just made myself available as a resource if they needed it. The most effective thing I could do was ask people what they’re up to, and take them for coffee for some one-to-one time.”

Decoded is a relatively young business, having begun life in 2011 running workshops that aimed to demystify the digital world for staff at large corporations. It was those same clients that started approaching Decoded with a broader remit – to help them learn how to operate as nimbly as a tech startup – so the nimble business moved into assisting these corporates strategically as well.

“We looked at the online provision for education that helps businesses to digitally transform to a different type of company, and we saw that no one had quite got it right,” explained Ridpath. “We realised we could compete with global platforms like Coursera and Lynda, even though we’re a smaller, if plucky, UK business. But we also saw that, to walk that walk, we’d need to create an environment where something innovative and creative could begin to happen.”

Improving your capabilities

“It was important for the managers to do a certain amount of letting go,” Ridpath commented. “As a manager, you’d usually be the one signing things off, or going over a new product and writing a big document of your feedback. But in the innovation space, if you’re too vision-led or trying to centrally coordinate everything, and you bring your weight of experience and previous knowledge of the company, you could find yourself in trouble. You need to give people the freedom and space to experiment, and that’s a different thing from the management point of view.”

Structuring the approach

There was, of course, some structure. The team had deadlines, for example, but they were tangible and short-term. At the end of every two-week period there would be a demo day where the team presented its progress. Again, this wasn’t a case of the team creating onerous PowerPoint presentations to justify how they’d spent their time.

“Management could appear, but the demo days were also open to anyone interested in coming along,” Ridpath added. “And, as a manager, it wasn’t about being judging. It was a chance to ask questions, but we had to have an air of detachment, and give people the freedom and permission to really explore. It’s about finding a way to encourage people to do stuff, but also to really validate what they’re working on, and to kill an idea themselves if they feel there’s not a real market for it.”

In the case of Hacksy, the opposite outcome happened. After a process of iterations through spring and summer, Decoded beta-launched the chatbot in October 2016. It couldn’t have proved more of a hit: the very people who conducted the penetration testing on it to check it was cyber secure ended up pre-ordering a host of Hacksy licenses directly after – such was their faith in the product.

It’s ok to fail

Decoded has continued making good strides towards its online provision. But, while Hacksy was an instant success, the company soon learned that things don’t always work that way. Ridpath and his team followed up Hacksy by piloting a chatbot that could teach storytelling. The team killed the idea after beta tests showed users weren’t interacting with it in the way they’d expected. Management has had to learn that, when it comes to these experiments, success or failure simply isn’t the point.

“You’re not telling your teams that they have to crack it. It’s more about stating the ambition, acknowledging that we don’t know how we’ll get there, and giving them the space to explore. A musician may try to record ten songs in a day. That’s not to have ten good songs – it’s done on the understanding that something good may happen. But, of course, maybe it won’t. And we have to be fine with that.”

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