Freedom to fail – or managing to succeed?
Munich firm Ingman gave a team of young game designers free rein and an open-ended budget in a bid to liberate their creativity. What could possibly go wrong?
• A battered gaming computer chair stands as a reminder in an empty office. Seven young game designers used to work here. Morris Hebecker, who hired them, says: “It was an experiment of mine and it failed magnificently.”
How much freedom is possible, and how much supervision is necessary? It is a question many companies ask. Everyone wants to inject a startup spirit into their business, and giving young employees room in which to hatch new ideas is all the rage. Established companies, in particular, hope it will breathe new life into their routine. But few pursue this course as radically as Morris Hebecker did. He opted for freedom over supervision, and pursued it rigorously. Looking back, he says: “Complete laissez-faire doesn’t work, that’s something I learned.” And young minds are not necessarily a route to salvation, as his experiment shows.
Hebecker is the managing director of the Munich-based company Ingman, originally an automotive engineering supplier. The business model worked well until the carmakers started to award bigger and bigger contracts. A small company with a workforce of 15 to 20, they fell out of the running and instead became a sub-contractor to a firm that was itself a sub-contractor to a bigger sub-contractor. “This made our work very indirect, and our employees started wondering who they were actually working for,” says Hebecker. It also became difficult to hold the team together, because only a few were in the office at any time, while the others were on the clients’ premises.
Hebecker continued as an automotive supplier for some years, but he was already working on new concepts. Last year he sold the old part of the company with all the engineers to a larger competitor. Hebecker had thought about developing games since 2013. He had even set up his own publishing company, Morphicon Media. “So the new concept was not alien to me, but more a return to a field that I know very well,” says Hebecker.
A project at the College of Media Design in Munich attracted his attention. A group of students had an idea he liked for a new game. Others agreed and they won a prize. “I viewed myself as a mentor,” says Hebecker. He offered to help the graduates develop their concept until it was ready for the market and set up a limited liability company for them: Brighter Games.
Hebecker is sitting in Ingman’s trendy office in Munich as he describes what happened next. The walls are glass and a drone lies in one corner. An employee two rooms away can be seen putting on a virtual-reality (VR) headset, holding a control in each hand and slowly moving from side to side. Beside Hebecker sits Paul Kostolnik, who joined the company as its second managing director just over three years ago, when the experiment was in full swing. Listening to his partner, Kostolnik looks pained.
The young team were given as much freedom as possible by Hebecker, so they could express themselves creatively. He appointed one of them as chief executive and put him in charge of his former fellow students. He gave them free rein in terms of their budget and their first move was to buy gaming chairs. These ergonomic moulded armchairs, designed for gamers spending hours in front of the screen, cost €600 each (£550).
He deliberately refrained from monitoring the new employees, and they connected up their computers to play Counter-Strike, a multiplayer shooter video game. He landed contracts for them. One evening, before a deadline for an app they were supposed to be working on, he received an email saying they were not going to get it finished in time. Hebecker phoned the client, ate humble pie, obtained an extension and took the matter in hand himself.
Hebecker usually sounds sympathetic when he speaks of the developers. “They were just very young,” he says. “They weren’t ready yet.” But describing how he had to take the flak from the client for missing the deadline, he seems annoyed. “They did admit that of course things hadn’t gone too well. But afterwards they spent half the day playing Counter-Strike again. There was no learning curve at all.” Recently, he ran into a member of the team who has now realised what an opportunity he was offered and failed to seize, says Hebecker.
For three years, the entrepreneur trusted his team and for three years they produced no results. Then Kostolnik arrived. He and Hebecker drew up another new business model. “VR headsets had just appeared on the market at the time and everyone was wondering who could program applications for them,” Kostolnik recalls. “It was totally electrifying.” Hebecker wanted to hold on to the people at Brighter Games, but Kostolnik said no. So Brighter Games was wound up in 2016. Taking stock, Hebecker concludes they produced no appreciable output.
“I am the kind of person who clings to their convictions for a very long time,” he says, “perhaps I was a little naïve in this case.” His unshake-able belief that people work best when they are given some freedom stems from his own experience. A model container ship in the corner is a reminder of a previous career – Hebecker used to be employed by a large shipping corporation and loathed the way every idea was suffocated by bureaucracy. Corporations are about as manoeuvrable as an oil tanker, he says. He resolved to work differently, hence founding Brighter Games and his tremendous patience with the team.
If you ask Hebecker why his experiment went wrong, he has some self-criticism: he should have checked up on them more often, and asked for more frequent reports. He ought to have become sceptical sooner, when he noticed they had formed a close-knit community, from which he was largely excluded. Having made it clear from the start that he would thin out the team after a probationary period, he went ahead and gave notice to two of the employees. However, this took a great deal of effort and was only accomplished against strong resistance from the team. Perhaps Hebecker also made the mistake of expecting others to be more like himself: he is a founder, through and through; he takes chances and works hard. The game designers were in their early 20s and not interested in all the “business stuff”.
Kostolnik thinks they liked being able to say “I’m a games designer” over a beer. “How people work under extremely free conditions is, of course, a reflection of what type of person they are.”
Together, Hebecker and Kostolnik reinvented the company once again. They now develop software for VR headsets, allowing engineers to view a vehicle three-dimensionally, for example. Using remote-control units, parts can then be removed from a model until the place is reached where repairs are needed on the actual object.
Hebecker and Kostolnik thought long and hard about how they would manage their new team. They decided they wanted a flexible group again, one that would work independently. This time, however, they invested in experienced managers: a programmer in his early 30s came from a game-design studio and a physicist, aged about 50, joined from an IT service provider, where he had been in charge of 20 people. The physicist fully understands the analogy of the ship. “In my previous job, I spent so much time in meetings,” he says. “I could have done it myself in the time we took to discuss everything.”
Kostolnik says: “A team needs to have two or three people who have been in charge of others before. They are expensive, of course, particularly in the IT sector, but much as it may hurt, you should not economise there.” The more experienced workers take the younger ones in hand, so even interns can contribute productively. The team uses “scrum” project management, a method in which a large project is subdivided into lots of little steps. “This means the management can determine very precisely which tasks will be completed when,” says Kostolnik. “And if something is going wrong, that becomes clear very quickly.”
Although Hebecker and Kostolnik are being funded in their new business venture by the federal German Central Innovation Programme for small and medium-sized enterprises, the beginning was tricky. They hired the staff first and only then secured the contracts. VR headsets were new on the market, so the team had to think first about what they could actually offer customers. It was another risky venture, but this experiment went better. Because there is a lot of leeway between a gaming chair and that little model freighter.