“We don’t need another founder, we need a manager.”
It’s been an “enormous process”, say the two founders of the OFFCUT materials market, Simone Schelker and Tanja Gantner, in an interview at the Dreispitz-Areal in Basel. After a successful launch, they are about to found an umbrella organisation and further OFFCUT locations are set to be opened in German-speaking Switzerland. Project Manager Dominik Seitz and Project Assistant Salome Thommen joined OFFCUT Switzerland in the last few months – the team is suddenly twice as big. How do you deal with that kind of restructuring? And more fundamentally: how can founders hand over the reins to a project manager without too many missteps
What may sound simple brings pitfalls with it in reality. We zoom in on a key moment in the project’s development.
Simone Schelker and Tanja Gantner, your project is now entering the next phase: you have expanded the OFFCUT idea and enlarged the team accordingly. How did you approach this?
Simone Schelker: It quickly became clear that we needed a project manager to build up an OFFCUT umbrella organisation and expand the idea beyond the Basel location. We asked ourselves: What would a project manager have to bring to the table? And how would they need to complement us?
Tanja Gantner: During the applicant interviews, we became clearly aware of the fact that we didn’t need yet another founder. The project is now entering a new phase that demands different skills. We need a manager who approaches things strategically.
S. Sch.: Tanja and I cover the founding spirit. We needed someone who could organise complex situations in a structural way and plan them meticulously, set up and coordinate the collaboration with new teams, question existing processes and also bring new ways of working to the table. As an experienced project manager, Dominik was a perfect fit.
How did you experience this cognitive process, Dominik Seitz?
Dominik Seitz: The job advertisement already impressed me. Then, during the interview, we immediately had a basic understanding, my expectations were confirmed and it quickly became even more clear what I would need to do. I didn’t notice which requirements of me existed before the interview and which manifested themselves during the interview. It was just a very comfortable and inspiring discussion, which made the task even more interesting for me.
How important is an outsider’s view when you are setting up structures?
T. G.: It was very important to us to have an outsider’s view, because at some point you get too stuck in your own ideas and there’s the threat of just spinning your wheels.
D. S.: This is what I experienced in an especially positive way with you: this curiosity regarding the outsider’s view. Being challenged in terms of content. You absolutely demanded to have your ideas, processes and the whole business model tested inside and out. Because that is exactly what I find interesting: taking over projects during their early, unclear phase and making them concrete. Turning creative complexity into a functional structure. That is where I am completely at home.
Salome Thommen: When I joined the team a few months later, I was of course able to really profit from Dominik’s introductory phase. Each one of us brings their own backpack full of experiences and background knowledge with them, which can be nicely woven into the project. And it is exactly this openness and this outsider’s view that is giving this project the necessary push during its current phase.
So you had no difficulty in finding a suitable role for yourself within the team, even if you came along later?
D. S.: No, I never had the feeling of being a bull in a china shop. At the very beginning, we talked about how I wanted to handle Simone’s and Tanja’s “baby”. I would see my role as more of a “godfather”.
What do you mean by that?
D. S.: I believe it’s also a question of respect. I am not the founder. If I join an ongoing project, I assume that much consideration has already gone into it and in-depth decisions have been taken. It was important to me not to question everything on principle, but instead to build on the foundation that was already there and to profit from their experience.
But a godfather doesn’t have much to say in terms of child rearing.
S. Sch.: In our case he does, because while Dominik certainly is the godfather of OFFCUT Basel, he’s more like the father of OFFCUT Switzerland. We clicked very quickly, discovering a great level of trust already during his job interview. Dominik is very active, also as a godfather, scheduling one workshop after another during the first few months so we could become organised.
T. G.: Which did surprise us a bit… We almost had the feeling of not being able to get any work done because of all the workshops. But his demands were worth it.
D. S.: And it was necessary. What was important to me was reaching the level where they both already were, so as not to work on approaches that had already been looked at and scrapped years ago.
It’s also about hierarchies – suddenly you bring a new boss into the nest. How did you discuss and set this up?
T. G.: Before we placed the job advertisement, we had long concerned ourselves with the hierarchy issue and the subject of self-organization. What options are there other than classical structures? How can we take advantage of each person’s potential for innovation? The idea of Holacracy resonates with us – it’s a form of self-organisation that places responsibility with each individual. There is no clear boss, because everyone takes on management responsibilities in their own position.
S. Sch.: Everyone has the same amount of power, everyone starts off with the same prerequisites. This idea immediately ignited our imagination – how can you really activate all members of a team?
D. S.: Exactly, the idea is not to limit individual potential through strict hierarchies.
T. G.: During the applicant interviews, we wanted to find out whether they were open to this form of organisation. For Dominik the case was clear.
D. S.: Yes, I was already familiar with the idea and had already dealt extensively with agile project organisation and self-organisation in teams before I came to OFFCUT.
“It’s about the project, not about pandering to egos.”
So far, so good. But there must be moments when you aren’t all in agreement. Who has the last word in that case?
D. S.: Honestly, that hasn’t happened; we’ve always found a consensus. Of course we have heated discussions now and then, but sleeping on it normally helps. And then we just discuss the issue until we find a solution. It’s about the project, not about pandering to egos.
T. G.: And it’s not the one who holds out the longest who wins. Everyone should stand behind big decisions, they should be supported by everyone. That’s why it’s important that everyone is equally convinced an idea is good. But when it then gets divided among us, we don’t need to scrutinise every comma, because everyone is responsible for their own part and acts independently.
S. Sch.: We constantly question this form of organisation and take a fresh look at it in discussions – and we don’t follow the so-called “Holacracy Constitution”. We take whatever tools we can use, those we think make sense. It’s about flat, distributed hierarchies, that’s for sure. But how exactly they are organised is not set in stone.
T. G.: Holacracy makes great demands on every employee. The high level of self-responsibility doesn’t work in every business. It is imperative that the tasks are distributed according to each individual’s strengths and that everyone works autonomously – but of course you still need feedback from the others.
How do you make sure the idea will be passed on in your spirit, now that OFFCUT is expanding to other cities? Have you written down certain regulations?
T. G.: We are currently discussing that extensively: How can you set down conditions and still give the idea free rein so that it will inspire others? Because of course our goal is to have OFFCUT markets in as many other cities as possible.
D. S: We are aiming at a model that gives each location as much leeway as possible to foster the creativity and motivation of its teams. Guidelines from the umbrella organisation are meant for places where they will strengthen the brand and identity, or take the load off the individual locations through central services.
How do you organise yourself to set up a future-proof project? How do you manage the transition from a stirring project idea to a solidly structured organisation? All pioneering projects face these questions sooner or later. Engagement Migros offers itself as a sparring partner to its project partners and supports pioneering projects as needed with individual coaching in its Pioneerlab.