Creating Magic through Technology: Gini, and the Long Road to Excellence
Gini is an information technology business based in München, Germany that aims to support humans in their everyday lives using smart software packages. Their products streamline and automate the process of extracting information from paper and digital documents: for example, enabling a user to pay an invoice by taking a photo on their phone. These products offer sensible solutions to common problems, make customer experiences simpler and faster, and allow business owners to spend more time working with their teams.
Gini’s product mission is not to create more effective software or maximize profits, but to dissolve communication barriers, improve everyone’s quality of life, and create a world that puts people first. This mission has led to Gini operating by a set of core values that guide decision making, uplift team members, and help them select the right customers and business partners. These values are known as the Gini Way, and have set Gini on the path towards achieving their BHAG of one hundred billion uses of their products by 2030.
But Gini’s journey towards success hasn’t been universally smooth. Several challenges in Gini’s early years led the fledgling business perilously close to a schism that threatened team morale and productivity. It was only through a lengthy process of reflection and internal change that Gini was able to become the success story it is today.
CREATING MAGIC THROUGH TECHNOLOGY
To understand Gini’s evolution, it is important to begin at the company’s inception.
Gini was founded by Holger Teske, Steffen Reitz and Fabian Stehle in 2011, based upon an idea the three had while studying at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. The business was established immediately after graduation as a small and flexible team of three, but further investment led to rapid growth, and Gini quickly acquired full time employees and swelled to a team of forty.
Holger’s angel investors helped establish Gini’s early structures and goals. Much of their advice was based upon traditional methods of working, and so Gini was initially built around a strict hierarchy of leadership. Holger was Gini’s CTO. Below him were the VP of Engineering, followed by Team Leads, and finally their IT team. This simple style seemed to work well enough. Individual employees enjoyed the challenges before them, and clients were satisfied with the quality of Gini’s groundbreaking products.
Despite this traditional structure, Holger always aimed to run a positive and fun workplace that employees would look forward to working in. Their offices were welcoming, employees always had free snacks and coffee on hand, and when they needed to wind down, there were always foosball tables within reach. Everyone was involved in regular team building activities, like movie nights and weekly team cooking.
And yet, something was amiss.
After a few years, Holger noticed that team morale was suffering. Friction between teams was slowing output, and nobody really knew who was responsible for major decisions. Team members weren’t sure what was expected of them at any one time, which naturally led to frustrations between them and their leads. Teams had all the tools they needed, but communication was slow. As a result, deadlines were missed and projects weren’t shipping on time.
Holger was often unable to assist with these problems. He found it difficult to position himself within the company – was he a hands-off founder, a direct manager, a problem solver, a values-based leader, or a mix? He did his best to support and encourage his team to work according to what he felt were the core values of Gini, but these values were ill-defined and didn’t provide the direction or ethos the team needed.
In an attempt to better understand his employees, Holger organized a company offsite where everyone had the opportunity to discuss the problems Gini was facing, what they believed the current Gini values were, and what they thought they should aspire to be. This turned out to only be a band aid: after returning from the offsite, the company values were never truly lived or implemented.
BUILDING A ROADMAP
Holger and his team identified three primary problems standing in the way of Gini’s evolution: inefficient team structure, ill-defined values, and confusion over Holger’s true role inside Gini. They knew these problems needed to be addressed fast, but diving directly into solutions without a framework in place served only to set the company further back.
For example, they targeted the problem of company structure and began experimenting with multiple business models, including matrix organization and role-based approaches. However, while each of these changes were approached with the best of intentions, they were only ever half-implemented as band aid solutions to larger problems. As such, the team quickly grew fatigued by the rapid switches between operational models.
With the frequent changes beginning to cost the team, Holger was faced with a hard choice. He could either tighten the screws and double down on a classic hierarchical structure in order to get what the board needed out of his team, or swing rapidly in the other direction and free the people by allowing them to build their own teams and operational methods.
Holger needed a solution, fast. He formed a circle with his core team and turned to numerous books and lectures on office management, motivation, and self-determination. In particular, Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux, helped this core circle see the potential in autonomous, market-driven teams as a solution to issues of leadership and morale.
The stage was set for true change.
The first and most pressing issue were the inefficiencies in team structure. The many technical teams – including a mobile team, semantics team, and so on – were all highly specialized. Advancing critical projects required significant collaboration between teams, which resulted in heavy dependencies and hierarchies of approval. The result was slow decision making, halted projects, and demotivated employees.
These chains of dependencies had the secondary effect of making teams more insular. As each team blamed others for delays, communication suffered and inter-team communications were reduced to chains of emails.
Many potential solutions were trialed, but without definite success. For example, to ease the convoluted planning processes, teams experimented with Planning Poker, where each employee received cash they could “invest” in different projects to express which ones they believed should be prioritized. Despite this experiment, the final decision for which projects were actioned was still determined by a hierarchical structure. The result was that employees didn’t feel enabled to make decisions and deferred responsibility to their immediate superiors.
Another early trial saw the team swing from a classic hierarchical system to a grassroots democracy, in the hope that this would provide everyone with the agency they needed to make tough decisions and forge onward without oversight. This was, unfortunately, a failure. It became clear that if Holger were to be overruled by the team, it would introduce instability into the workplace and erode confidence in the direction leadership had charted.
Something had to be done.
Holger and the Gini team dove into the process of organizational evolution in 2016. They hired a full-time Agile coach to help them develop their plans for change, and began consulting with other companies who had gone through similar difficulties. Organizations such as Trivago and Spotify had successfully deployed autonomous teams and were eager to share their knowledge. One clear point of similarity emerged: in these other organizations, management invested their time and energy directly into company culture, as opposed to delegating to HR.
Many potential structures were proposed, such as an inverted pyramid: instead of standing atop Gini, Holger would act as a foundation, supporting and balancing his team. While aspects of this structure were incorporated into Gini’s restructuring process, it became increasingly clear that the solution couldn’t be borrowed wholesale from another organization. It had to be tailored to the teams, the attitudes, the people inside Gini’s walls. It had to be the Gini way.
Two questions that had been asked of the team before was, “How do we want to work together?” and “Who makes the calls?” These discussions and decisions had always been limited to the leads or VP. Now these same questions were directed to the team at large. To find their answers, the Gini teams had to step outside their domains and have productive dialogues with people who they may never have interacted with before. A consensus was eventually reached: team members wanted to take ownership of their projects and to work directly with the people who would help them bring those projects to completion.
With this in mind, Gini’s org group examined the chain of dependencies built up between their divisions. The easiest way to remove them, they decided, was to disassemble the entire team structure and create autonomous teams. This decision was met with no small amount of skepticism – change fatigue had set in, and some employees felt they were spending more time adapting to structural changes than they were actually doing their work. Even so, there was an undercurrent of relief at Gini. Many employees had the feeling that, of all the trials and experiments thus far, this would be the one that stuck.
Holger and his organizational team supported the smaller teams as they chose their members, created their own ideal structures and underwent team building exercises. The Agile coach assisted with the transition by providing advice on how to shuffle teams and create relationships that would avoid interdependencies and chains of communication.
It took around a month for Gini’s teams to settle into new forms. These autonomous teams were dubbed academies, which reflected how the smart assistant Gini itself was also in a constant state of learning and growth via an academy. Each academy contained all the team members it needed to bring a project from inception to launch. Team members also joined faculties depending on their specializations. In these faculties, they could share their learning, align on projects, and coordinate projects that required cross-academy work.
The new teams began regular daily meetings to ensure alignment was maintained, and to smooth over any kinks in communications. If an individual ever felt isolated inside their academy, they were immediately able to step out and meet with others from their faculty who shared their specialization. Likewise, when a team member found a set structure blocking their route to success, they were able to negotiate with others in their academy and find a path around it.
Each team had a clear goal, market, and method of achievement. Nothing was standing in their way.
VALUES AND ETHOS
The second issue facing Gini was confusion over organizational values.
Deciding what Gini’s values would be moving forward was not a simple process. All Gini team members held an off-site and collaborated on creating a set of shared values. The result was a list of eight core values that were convoluted and contradictory. To simplify, Holger, along with the other founders, met with their Agile coach and wrote down all the values they felt were important to the organization. These values were then crossmatched and collated before being presented to the company as a whole.
In short, these four core values were: to strive for excellence and to always do a job properly, to fight for the team’s visions and goals and to always be committed and take responsibility for outcomes, to pursue bold ideas and see opportunities rather than risks, and to treat every Gini team member with love and respect.
The response from the Gini team was muted. They agreed with all the values, but couldn’t see that there was any difference between those values and the ways they had already been working. What was missing was a whole-company approach to the implementation and upholding of those values.
This set a new wave of discussion in motion. Once presented with the list of values, team members were better able to articulate the gaps between the values and their ways of working. The question evolved from “what do we believe?” to “what paths do we need to take to live by our beliefs?”
What followed was a slow and steady process of internal questioning, experimentation, and self-reflection. Team members began to consider their actions and motivations in the context of the new Gini values. They became more open to discussing approaches to problems and how the four values could guide their solutions.
This growth in dialogue also led to a change in internal character. Team members that had formerly been shy and reticent to voice their opinions began speaking up in meetings. Specialists who had initially felt disempowered in their new academies found that their expertise could be leveraged to lift their team to higher heights.
This growth in agency was most clearly expressed when the wider Gini team was debating a major proposal. Many of the most vocal team members were opposed to the proposal, but unexpectedly, a cohort of new voices joined the debate. These were employees who had never demonstrated an active interest in the larger structures of Gini before. Now they had an investment in the functioning of the organization beyond their specific domains, and could express their concerns through the lens of the four key values. Their insights – which may never have been voiced before the introduction of the four values – were crucial to resolving the debate.
The teams had been unshackled, and had been given the boost of energy they needed to demonstrate their commitment to the new Gini values.
A LEADER, OR A FOUNDATION?
The final, but no less pressing problem facing Gini was that of confusion over the roles of Holger and his cofounder.
Were they direct managers, or hands-off leaders? Should they give their team members free rein when it came to attacking new projects, or did they need to lean over their employees’ shoulders? Holger and his co founders didn’t want to be direct managers, and yet even during the restructuring process, their employees were looking up the chain for decision-making and leadership. The more the leaders tried to remove themselves from the equation, the more desperate the team became for clear decisions and the assurances of authority.
What became clear was that even organizations with autonomous, self-management structures needed leadership… but in a different form to the traditional, single-point-of-failure CEO model. Holger’s true role in the organization didn’t exist at either pole of absolute or zero oversight, but rather in the middle. The best contribution he could make to Gini was to work with his organizational team to consider larger strategies and set directions for Gini. His job was to think about what Gini was doing, why they were doing it, how he could best enable his teams to autonomously reach those goals, and how to do it all while embodying the values agreed upon by the team.
Holger now acts as a guide and mentor who supports his team and helps them find a way through difficult issues. When a team hits a roadblock, he digs in to find solutions. When he sees teams drifting away from the core values, he stands as a pillar and role model. He guides Gini’s ethos without issuing direct commands, and steps in to gently push a team or individual back onto a productive path without being overbearing.
In addition, by taking the burden of large decision-making off the shoulders of his teams, Holger has allowed employees to spend their energy making smaller decisions, knowing that they have the backing of their organization.
Holger’s exact role at Gini will always be in flux. There are times when he needs to step in and take a more hands-on approach to management, and other times when giving his team space to work independently is better for both them and the organization as a whole. By staying flexible, he can provide the right sort of support at the right time.
After significant changes in structure, values, and a re-examination of the roles of leadership, Gini is a changed organization.
Teams now work autonomously, delivering effective products to clients without bottlenecks or communication delays while Holger helps his teams work and prosper according to Gini’s core values.
As in every organization, there are still points of friction within Gini. However, there is a markedly different attitude to the office now. The mood and energy are brighter. People feel enabled to take control of their projects and deliver great results to their clients without feeling the hand of a team lead on the steering wheel.
There have been tradeoffs. Some efficiency has been lost in the time academies spend choosing their projects and working methods, but this is more than compensated for by gains in effectiveness due to the elimination of communication roadblocks. Likewise, there are still occasional conflicts. However, these are now viewed as opportunities to learn and grow as an organization. Conflict resolution begins with a private discussion, and if a solution isn’t reached, a colleague will be asked to act as an impartial mediator. One example of where conflicts have arisen is in resource allocation – as developers can contribute to multiple projects across academies, they are sometimes torn between where and how to allocate their time and skills.
The most important part of conflicts at Gini is that the process allows everyone to have their voice heard, to hold colleagues accountable for decisions or failing to act upon commitments, and to consider the way a dispute resolution can move the organization forward as a whole. The overall attitude at Gini towards conflict is that, while discussions are often uncomfortable, having these productive discussions is a responsibility that comes hand in hand with freedom.
Other positive changes at Gini include increased transparency, in both communication, decision making and salaries. For example, in order to ensure salaries are not unfairly affected by an individual’s negotiation skills, Holger has instituted annual mandatory performance evaluations which determine salaries inside salary bands. Holger and the organizational team take part in the same evaluations. This ensures everyone on the team is completely clear on what they have achieved and how they can push harder, rather than comparing their salaries to those around them.
To ensure team satisfaction, Return on Time Investment is measured during every retrospective and team event. This helps teams analyse how they spent their time, and ensures that they feel their projects are continually productive. While a ROTI score of 6 is cause for concern and introspection, most teams regularly record scores of 7.5 – 8.5.
The culture at Gini continues to grow and evolve, and Holger takes pride in that growth. A strict hiring system is now in place where prospective employees must meet the company’s values and culture before they can join the team. From their first day on the job, those employees are trusted completely to take over major tasks, while being stewarded and supported by internal coaches. The extent to which they lean on those coaches is up to them.
HELPING PEOPLE GROW
With the departure of Steffen Reitz and Fabian Stehle, Holger has become the sole remaining founder and CEO as of mid-2019. Despite Holger’s position and technological expertise, his true passion remains watching people grow. Seeing his team members unearth new potentials, drive their own solutions, and become invested in their work is the greatest reward he could have imagined.
Similarly, Holger loves helping people outside the organization grow and thrive. Gini is committed to sharing everything its team has learned about non-hierarchical structures and autonomous teams. Select members participate regularly in an org exchange where ideas, trials, structural approaches and more are debated and shared. This org exchange often meets in person at the headquarters of a single company and work together to discuss and suggest solutions for a single problem. This org exchange has contributed significantly to Gini’s own practices – for example, when it came time to make final decisions about salary setting and performance evaluation, the exchange was ready to provide their insights.
Gini also shares their own processes and discoveries publicly via the Gini Handbook, a compilation of Gini’s policies and values regarding structure, decision making, personal growth, accountability and communication.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
After a process of self-reflection, internal discussion, and iterated experimentation, Gini has transformed itself. It’s no longer a strict, classic, and ineffective hierarchy. Instead, Gini has become a dynamic organization where autonomous teams adapt their structures, resources and working methods to the projects at hand. Their active engagement with other organizations keeps Gini on their toes as they seek to continually improve, both as an organization and a collective of individuals.
The first line of Gini’s organizational mission states that “Gini was born from a desire to make people’s lives easier, less complicated, and happier.” By staying flexible, responsive, and committed to their company values, Gini continues to exemplify their mission statement by putting people first as they continue to grow, change, and improve from the inside out.