Mayden: Managing the Work, Not the People

In: BlogDate: Nov 29, 2019By: Billy Burgess

Alison Sturgess-Durden is the Director at Mayden, a software business based in Bath with a staff of 80 people. Mayden’s software is specifically created for health professionals and patients. Their most prominent achievement is the creation of a patient management system that’s favoured by most psychological therapy services in the NHS.

In 2013 Mayden became a self-managing organisation, comprised of autonomous teams. In this video from the 2019 Happy Workplaces Conference, Alison explains the reasons behind the switch, how they did it and how it works (and some of the challenges they faced along the way!).

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Mayden: Managing the Work, Not the People

So I’m Alison and I’m one of Mayden’s Directors, but don’t let the job title mislead you – a bit more on that in a second.

So who is Mayden? We’re a software business, we’re based in Bath, there are 80 of us and we’re all about changing what’s possible for clinicians and patients. We’re best known for our patient management system that’s used by the majority of psychological therapy services in the NHS. So if any of you or friends and family have had anything to do with the national psychological therapy programme that runs across England, IAPT, then it is highly likely that Mayden will be holding your clinical record. Don’t worry, we have lots of security in place, but that’s the main thing that we do.

We then also have a version of the software, which is used by single-handed therapists and counsellors around the country called bacpac. Because both of those products generate a huge amount of data as to how patients are doing on different types of therapy, we provide an analytic service as well.

We then have a couple of slightly weird products in our product set. One is Orbit, which is our own home grown CRM system, which we rely on heavily to work in the way that we do at Mayden. And finally, a shameless plug, we run our own software academy. As a software business we couldn’t recruit software developers for neither love nor money, so we set up an academy to grow our own. Now you, if you need software developers, can come and be a hiring partner and basically get first dibs on our graduates as they come out. It’s quite an eclectic mix of things that happen at Mayden.

Let me start by asking you a question, or three questions in fact. Put your hands up if you have a manager? That’s most people in the room. Put your hands up if you manage other people in your organisation. That’s a lot of hands again. Put your hands up if you need a manager to get your job done. [Laughter]

So there seems to be quite a lot of people management going on when people don’t seem to need that much management. Ah but, I hear you thinking, ‘that’s me, I don’t need managing, but you should meet some of the people in my organisation.’ Sure, there are people. When I talk to people in the NHS about this they say, ‘what about the bully? What about the person who’s not performing?’

Well unless your recruitment processes or your organisational culture are not particularly great, surely those people must be in the minority? In software they’re what we would call edge cases. So why do we organise our organisations as if all of us need managing, as if all of us are in that minority? And why do we manage work by managing people? Why don’t we cut out the middleman and get on and manage the work, because we’ve demonstrated most people can manage themselves.

When our direct reports leave the office every night, they go home and they manage themselves perfectly well. They have families, they run cars, they own homes, they book holidays. So why do we think as soon as they walk back into the workplace the next morning they need us to manage them?

The world of work has vastly changed. Management as a discipline, as a profession, as a science, an area of inquiry is actually reasonably young, and in that time work has changed massively. So it’s from the kind of tailor-ism, those ideas of the production line and trying to force efficiency out of people as much as possible, to the workplaces that probably most of us recognise today, which is highly collaborative, innovative, creative.

And yet one organising principle seems to have endured through all of that – the idea of people hierarchies. And it would seem that we indoctrinate our children at the earliest opportunity that it is the only way of organising. So, I was slightly horrified to find this in my local science museum in the pre-school area and it showed me that not only could only men work on building sites, but also that people hierarchy is the only way of getting stuff done. But those of us who worked in hierarchies, including myself, we know that it’s not that simple. People hierarchies are no panacea.

Research has shown that the lines on the organisational chart have half of the impact of the relationships off the chart. So peers have twice as much influence over what you do and how you work as your manager might do. So if this enduring organisational principle of people hierarchies is what you might call management version 1.0, what I’m talking about this afternoon has in various ways been referred to as management 2.0. You might’ve heard of some of these catchphrases about flat, autonomous holarchies and that kind of thing.

When I started my career at the age of 21, I went into the health service. Hands up who works in the NHS. Very hierarchical, right? Those relationship lines off the organisational chart [are] incredibly influential. The politics are quite something. In my first year in the NHS I was really fortunate to go to a big conference and hear someone called Ricardo Semler speak, who’s written a book called Maverick, which I highly recommend.

He spoke about how he was organising his massive Brazilian conglomerate with tens of thousands of staff without any managers. I was completely blown away and I fell in love with Ricardo, I have to confess. I got home from the conference, I printed off his picture, I stuck it on my office wall. He was my inspiration. In fact, I cannot believe I haven’t put a picture of him in my slide deck.

Then I got stuck into my NHS career and I got stuck into the hierarchy and through one office move or another Ricardo’s picture came down and it never went back on my office wall again. And I forgot all about him and this way of working.

Fast forward 16 years, I found myself working at Mayden as employee number 20. We had three line managers. We were growing fast and we slipped into having three middle managers, as you do, because that’s how work is organised, right? And then through one reason or another we lost all three of them. One went on maternity leave, one emigrated to Australia and one moved to a different role in the business. Our founder, Chris May, at that point confessed to severe misgivings about line management and about middle management and said, ‘Is there another way?’ and that’s when I remembered Ricardo. From that date in 2013, that’s when our journey into ‘if it’s not hierarchy, it’s something else’ began.

The first few years were OK, we were growing, but we kind of had this explicit strategy to not talk about it. Everyone would just get it, wouldn’t they? The culture would do the work and everyone would just understand how to work without managers. Fast forward three more years, we got to 2016 and everyone was feeling the pain. We probably had about 50, 55 people by this point. People were really struggling. People didn’t know how decisions got made and that meant that more decisions than ever were going up to the three directors of the business. So we ended up being more hierarchical and more of a bottleneck than ever before.

We then had our worst staff survey results that we’d ever had. They weren’t terrible, but for us they were pretty terrible. That really gave us the permission to start working consciously and deliberately on, ‘if it’s not hierarchy, what is it?’ And we realised if you don’t have the scaffolding of hierarchy, you still need scaffolding, you still need to design that structure and process.

So this is our organisational chart. This is the best way that we’ve come up with for representing how it works at Mayden, how we’re organised. So across the top we have our autonomous self-managing teams. So each team will have an embedded coach. Some of these are agile software teams so they will have a scrum master. Other teams work in a different way, but they will still have a team coach. The team coach is not the line manager, they are not the decision maker, they are not the supervisor. They are literally there to coach the team and make sure that it’s functioning effectively and functioning well with other teams.

Then across the bottom we have a series of cross-cutting groups. So a couple of years ago we decided to disband our executive management team and our operational management group because they were inherently hierarchical. In their place we put these functional groups. So the strategy group for example has got a mix of people from across the teams who are our best strategic thinkers, and it includes one of our receptionists.

Then we also spin up and spin down a whole load of Task and Finish groups. If something needs doing in the business, even around how we’re working as a business, then we’ll spin up one of these Task and Finish groups.

And this is me. So the Director’s team is just another team alongside all the other teams. We have our own work to get on with. In fact, in terms of the role of the Director, we’ve had to give this a lot of thought and it really boils down to these three things.

The first is to set the direction. We’ve talked about clarity of purpose today and that is our role as Directors. Now, clearly, in a really flat organisation we will only do that having heard all the voices within the company, done the analysis, taken external advice as well. But at some point someone needs to decide which direction we’re going in and that’s the Director’s role.

Then our role is to assure ourselves that that direction is being pursued and is actually being realised in the way that we imagined.

Then finally, and mostly, it’s to get out of the way, because as these sailing boats show, if you get in the way of someone’s wind they’re going to die; it’s going to take the wind out of their sails. So if you do that you might find yourself having to generate an awful lot of wind to get them going again. (And I’ve just realised how rude that sounds!)

A question for you on your tables: how do you manage your organisation without managers? How does this not descend into complete chaos? Just spend a few minutes at your tables thinking about what things you’d need in place to make this work.

What kind of things did people come up with? Guidelines, yep. Clarity on objectives. Empowerment, yes. Accountability. Clear roles and responsibilities. Collaboration. Trust. Recruiting for the right mindset. Clear ways of recognising and appreciating people’s contribution. Brilliant. Those are many of the things that you need to think about.

What I want to do to finish with is just go through four particular things that we have had to work really, really hard at to make this way of working work. The first is that you need a really clear and robust way of managing work, of getting work prioritised, done and shipped out to customers.

I have a colleague called Rob Cullingford who came to us as an experienced software developer and his first impression of coming into Mayden was how quiet everybody was. We had software developers working on their own particular thing by themselves. Dave at the back worked on reports. When Dave went on holiday, the work on reports stopped. So everyone was working in their silos.

One of the things that we did was we introduced Agile development frameworks, which basically gave us a very heavily codified way of prioritising and getting work done. That was lesson number one.

The second really important thing is you need a really clear decision making process and with it a really good challenge process. One of my favourite sayings about where things can go wrong at Mayden is ‘Somebody thought somebody was doing it because anybody could, but actually nobody was.’ You need to be really clear on who is owning this, who is the decision maker on this thing, and also making sure that decision maker has great clarity about what you’re doing as a business.

We have uber transparency. Apart from confidential HR matters, there is very little that remains confidential within the organisation. Our Managing Director regularly gives updates on the financial position and all sorts of things. He is an extremely open book.

Then you need a really good challenge process, which is all about meeting with people face-to-face, asking lots of questions about the decision they’ve made and within that you have in-built accountability.

Thirdly, and this really is the water around our fish, and it’s so important and yet we overlook it and forget to talk about it and that is our genuine, authentic, no blame culture. So retrospectives were mentioned earlier – this is example of some of the thoughts that were generated in a recent retrospective. We had a big information governance issue happening within the company and the first response is to get on and fix it. The second response is to then have a retrospective afterwards to learn about what worked, what didn’t work, how can we make sure this doesn’t happen in the future.

All the time you are instilling a culture of ‘we need to learn not blame’, and within that comes a strong culture of giving and receiving feedback as well.

Fourthly, coaching, which has been talked a lot about. We’ve literally stripped down the role of the line manager and worked out how each of those elements of the role, the responsibility, is addressed in an organisation without those managers in place. One of the things we replaced it with was coaches. We have a cohort of about 16 coaches at Mayden. Any member of staff can access a coach. They can choose their own coach and they use that person as a sounding board to deal with their own issues as they use a team coach as well.

The lady in the photo is my colleague Michelle. I mentioned earlier we had three middle managers at one point. She was one of them. She was the one who went on maternity leave and while she was on maternity leave her team decided to go self-managing. So, bless her, she had to return from maternity leave to find she no longer had any direct reports. You can imagine the impact on her status and her sense of self, but she was absolutely incredible and she’s effectively reinvented herself now as a coach.

I’ve just got a brief testimony from her that I’d like to read out:

‘I’ve been genuinely surprised by what I’ve learnt about coaching and by how it can change people and company dynamics, as well as by how much I’ve enjoyed shedding my manager label and taking on a new identity as a coach. I still get to do the people stuff I loved as a manager. It’s just that now I use a whole range of different techniques to support colleagues to find their own solutions and run with their own ideas. It’s liberating.’

So here are some of my lovely colleagues. In the last few minutes chat on your tables about what you think you could do to move towards this way of working. Some of you will have massive misgivings about it. Philippa will testify, there are days where I’m like, ‘For goodness sake, should we just put line managers back in place?’ It was said earlier, it’s simple but it’s not easy. This is your moment to reflect on is there any of this you would like to take away.

Thank you so much for listening to me. I know that 99% of my job is about getting out of the way - so thank you very much!

It’s Alison’s belief that while most of us either have a manager or are responsible for managing other people, people don’t really need all that much management. She asks the 2019 Happy Workplaces Conference crowd this question: “Why do we manage work by managing people? Why don’t we cut out the middle-man and get on and manage the work, because we’ve demonstrated most people can manage themselves?”

To illustrate her point, Alison points out how the average employee does a fine job of managing their life outside work, paying the rent or mortgage, getting the kids to and from school, shopping and cooking with their partner. And yet organisations still deem it necessary to manage individuals as soon as they walk through the office doors.

Management was installed as an essential tenet of workplace structure in a time when workplaces more commonly ran as production lines. The contemporary workplace, by contrast, is highly collaborative, innovative and creative. So, has management evolved accordingly? In short, no.

Alison points to research that suggests the influence of peers and co-workers is double that of managers in terms of employees’ performance at work, and so she introduces the concept of flat, autonomous holarchies as a response to conventional people hierarchies.

Alison’s perspective on the futility of traditional management practices was inspired by Ricardo Semler and his book, Maverick, which recommends doing away with managers altogether. Although massively inspired, it took nearly 20 years before Alison would see Semler’s ideas implemented at Mayden. In the interim she had witnessed the various defects of people hierarchies.

Stripping away management wasn’t smooth sailing, however, and after enduring some strenuous growing pains, the team at Mayden discovered even if you “don’t have the scaffolding of hierarchy, you still need scaffolding, you still need structure and process.”

What they’ve since developed is a system involving autonomous self-managing teams, each in possession of an embedded coach. Crucially, the coaches aren’t analogous to decision-making line managers or supervisors. Rather, their duty is to coach the team and make sure they’re suitably and healthily positioned to complete the work and get along well with other teams.

They’ve even got rid of the executive management team and operational management group, replacing them with a series of cross-cutting groups. “The strategy group for example has got a mix of people from across the teams who are our best strategic thinkers,” says Alison, “and it includes one of our receptionists.”

Alison belongs to the Directors group, which focuses on making three major contributions. Firstly, to set the direction and provide clarity of purpose; secondly, to be assured that the direction is being pursued in the agreed upon manner; and thirdly, to get out of the way so that people can simply get on with the job.

Resources and related content

  • 16 Companies That Don't Have Managers — It's not just Mayden that have got rid of the managers. Henry Stewart lists 16 companies that are self-managing, including Gore, Medium and Semco.
  • Dear CEO: Let Your People Choose Their Managers — If you aren't ready to get rid of your managers just yet, why not consider letting your people choose their manager instead? Henry Stewart explains more in this letter, originally written for Thinkers50.

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About Alison Sturgess-Durden

Alison, once an NHS manager, is now, as Director of Mayden “changing what's possible for clinicians and patients with insightful information technologies”. Starting as a management trainee in the NHS, Alison held a number of operational and strategic management positions, in acute and community sectors before moving into management consultancy with Finnamore (now part of GE Healthcare), one of the UK’s leading healthcare consultancy firms. She completed an MSc in Strategic Management at the University of Bristol. Her research was in the relationship between organisational identity and strategy, including in the particular context of a spin-off from the NHS to other organisational forms such as social enterprises.

“Because of how we are choosing to work at Mayden, I have a particular interest in 'flat' organisational structures and practices.”

Mayden is a software company based in Bath, which is exploring how to become a self-managing organisation. “Together, we’re building the kind of company we want to work for. For us, that means an agile, open working culture, a flat structure and shared responsibility."

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