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InfoQ Homepage Articles Smashing Silos: Scaling up an Energy Tech Disrupter Remotely

Smashing Silos: Scaling up an Energy Tech Disrupter Remotely

Key Takeaways

  • Growth at pace is hard(!) and it’s all too easy to form silos and stretch too thin. Organisational structure is key to mitigating this - form highly aligned teams by sharing your company vision and immediate goals, and keep all teams loosely coupled with teams formed around product modules with clear end-to-end ownership of the tech stack.
  • Always put your people first - treat individuals as adults, and ensure everyone has the tools needed to have open conversations and give effective feedback. Give everyone as much freedom and self-directed growth as possible, to unleash their talents to drive your mission forward.
  • Never stop communicating, with teammates and across the organisation. Ensure key messages are given in various forms: in person, in writing, and even by video recording! 
  • Smash the silos - allow space for free movement between teams, making upcoming opportunities visible to all and double down on guilds as a way of sharing knowledge across teams and empower individuals to drive cross-organisational learning. 
  • Pay down “social debt” by making room for remote interactions that would happen naturally if you were in an office environment. Make the effort to reach out for a 5-minute debrief after a challenging meeting, or embrace the “organised fun” of team games!

Being a small EnTech disruptor in a rapidly evolving market can feel a bit daunting; add in an acquisition, a rebrand and twice the team members that you had a year ago and you have a recipe for growing pains. Here is how we leaned on our strengths and pulled experience from all directions to allow for team member fulfilment during a breakneck growth spurt.  

The impact of fast growth

Manchester-based KrakenFlex, previously Upside Energy, was founded in 2014 and acquired by Octopus Energy Group in 2020. Now part of the award-winning Kraken technology platform, KrakenFlex connects with a whole host of clean energy technologies, allowing it to control, dispatch and optimise those devices to match real-time energy demand and supply. This allows technologies like batteries to charge when prices are low and discharge when prices are high, as well as participating in services to help balance the electricity grid. 

At the end of 2020 we had 227MW capacity supported on our platform and 26 people working at KrakenFlex. Less than 18 months later, our capacity has grown sixfold to 1.3GW, and our headcount has nearly tripled. It’s an exciting journey but has certainly felt like a rollercoaster at times! 

We’ve struggled in a few areas over the past couple of years: how to grow sustainably without stretching ourselves too thin; we’ve fallen into silos occasionally where one hand does not know what the other is doing; and we’ve seen our “veteran” and team lead level people spinning many plates. Following the acquisition by Octopus Energy Group and the rebranding to KrakenFlex, we rapidly scaled the business by forming teams around product modules, improving internal communication and giving people the space to lead their teams. Since then we’ve minimised silos, replacing them with greater collaboration and responsibility for every team member. 

A key initiative that has driven this forward has been to be really clear on our business goals; the key performance indicators (KPIs) that we track to see how we’re progressing towards them; and setting quarterly company Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to drive progress on strategic items. Our implementation of this hasn’t been perfect, and we’ve gone through a number of iterations to avoid teams independently coming up with their own OKRs that don’t align to the wider strategy! We’ve found that by focusing on company-level OKRs and sharing these widely and often with the team, we’re able to pull everyone together, and then let teams discuss and align on how their work is contributing towards our wider goals. 

We have a fantastic team of talented professionals who have stepped up to every challenge we’ve thrown at them and deliver a fantastic product and service to our customers every day. We’re proud of our culture of learning.

On a human level, one thing we focus on is supporting the team as everything changes and grows. When we were a small startup, it was quite natural for everyone to be involved in everything; but that approach doesn’t scale. The journey to more focused work is uncomfortable as it often involves letting go of work, work that you feel is important to your place and identity within KrakenFlex. We coach team members, showing them that we always have their back and that there are many opportunities for them to grow and try new things within the company. A key component of this is visibility for the team on where we’re headed as a company, what our product roadmap looks like and how we think our team structures may evolve in the coming year to keep pace with demand. Our product roadmap is continuously visible to the whole company using our shared planning tools, but we also talk through highlights at our fortnightly showcase once teams have demonstrated new functionality they have built. A forecast of our team’s structure for the coming quarter is also shared at each of our “all hands” town hall meetings and published on our intranet.

Keeping growth sustainable

Sustainable growth is all about our people - hiring fantastic folks who are passionate about our mission and want to take responsibility; creating a supportive environment with lean structures and processes to ensure everyone is working together; and continually listening and iterating on what we can do better.

Communication is key to all of that - we’re on a huge and important mission to create a new energy system for a better world and we’re growing very fast, so it’s going to be bumpy at times! We use programmes like Slack to allow seamless communication and community building both as individuals and across the whole company. No matter what you’re interested in, someone in the 3,000 strong global Octopus Energy Group team will have created a slack channel for it, building bridges across teams and improving inter-team relationships. Charity fundraising, creating custom emoji keyboards, sharing good news or simply recommending dinner spots - it’s all available in one place.

As individuals, we do that through encouraging a continuous learning culture, regular company-wide Q&A sessions with our CEO, and an accessible structure which means anyone can speak directly with the leadership team whenever they want or need to.

Bringing people along on the journey makes growth sustainable. In our industry there’s always going to be more opportunities than we can handle, and the current climate change reports published highlight the need for immediate global change. We found we were repeating the mantra of “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” and encouraging everyone to find a pace that means they can perform at their best and do the job they like the best. One of the key parts to this is allowing managers to source the training and development that they need; this can come in the form of learning from business mentors, attending short courses on specific business administration or simply following the tracks of a manager before them. This increases the sources and points of learning for different approaches - which may be stronger than a monolithic approach.

Much like our parent company, Octopus Energy Group, we also allow free movement between teams. If there is something specific that you are working on that is really getting you excited or pushing your professional buttons, it’s encouraged to seek that speciality out and foster it, allowing colleagues to adapt and experiment to find their calling.

Build bridges across siloed teams

As a fast-growing scaleup, one of the decisions we made when building our teams was to copy what small businesses do and make managers the HR, general manager and go-to person for their team. This gives our managers space to learn and progress, and often means that colleagues are happier because they have a strong relationship with their managers. Plus, team members “go find” the support they need, building bridges in the process. This has lots of benefits - it aligns teams directly to the value they’re building for customers and gives new starters a smaller footprint to onboard into. 

To ensure that siloes didn’t form, we took the time to bring everyone together as one KrakenFlex team, and talk about our mission and our goals for the year. We encourage teams to think about what success looks like to them and how it feeds into the wider goal, and how what they were building linked back to our shared company objectives. 

The other key thing we did was to double down on our guilds - communities of practice focused around specific technical or practical topics. In keeping up with our guilds we found cross-team relationships and knowledge sharing has strengthened which has helped to reduce silos.

Onboarding newcomers and collaborating remotely

Before the pandemic struck in March 2020, we had around 26 people in the business, all working out of our small office in the Northern Quarter in Manchester. Collaboration between teams was easy as everyone was sitting next to each other and had direct lines into senior management.

One key challenge we found as soon as we started hiring and onboarding remotely during the pandemic was that new people got to know their team and their part of the system really well, but didn’t have much visibility of the rest of the company. 

By bringing teams together at every company town hall meeting and work showcases - both online and onsite- we’ve been able to combat some of that. Weekly all-hands meetings with the teams and even the whole Octopus Energy Group give a taste of different parts of the business. We also record everything and make it available on internal systems and Slack, along with lots of guidance on how we work together. Anybody can ask questions and speak up when given the opportunity and it helps make new members know their opinion is always appreciated and considered.

We are big advocates of radical candour, a feedback approach developed by Kim Scott that encourages you to care personally and challenge directly. It provides a framework for people to give honest feedback built on a foundation of mutual respect and caring for each other. We ran a cross-company book club with Kim’s book and had great engagement from the folks who joined. We met weekly for six weeks while we read the book a few chapters at a time and captured notes and insights on a Miro board, with the discussion focused on how we could take the ideas we’d read about that week and implement it in our daily work. Although it’s not easily measurable, we have seen an increase in the number of “radical Candour Feedback Moments” across the team. 

Putting people first at KrakenFlex

A big one for our team is “social debt”. We work in an industry where there are many different solutions to a single problem, and we encourage discussing potential solutions and approaches and working together for a solution. When we were all in the office, occasionally these discussions could become quite heated, with folks gathering around a whiteboard arguing the case for one technical solution over another. This “constructive conflict” is often essential in order to come to the best solution to a problem! However, once the dust has settled, we’d inevitably go for a coffee or beer together to decompress and laugh about the tense technical arguments of the day. Paying down this “social debt” and restoring balance in the relationship after a good debate is far more difficult when technical discussions happen remotely. 

Tackling this remotely requires carving specific time out for things that would “just happen” if we were face-to-face in an office. It can feel awkward to reach out for a quick call just after leaving a big meeting, but those one-to-one debriefs can make all the difference. 

Nothing makes professionals shudder more than “organised fun”, but it has to be done! Here’s a couple of things we found work: leave five mins at the end of a meeting to allow natural chance encounters to take place after a group meeting; online board games were a big success (I’m a big fan of Sushi Go!); and encouraging office visits to our various other Octopus Energy Group sites on the occasions when it makes sense. 

By building trust in managers and creating micro-communities among teams and across functions, we’re able to produce the strong bonds that enable you to disagree, discuss and work collaboratively safely. While this is more applicable to Octopus Energy Group, this approach has been so successful that it has allowed the operations team to scale at breakneck pace. One Team Leader looks after a ten-person team and is their IT, HR and administration support for the most part; once the team starts working successfully and becomes a high achiever, the team splits in two with a new team leader managing the second team and both teams hiring five new starters, combining experience with learning- a sort of cell replication structure. 

Our people are central to everything we do at KrakenFlex - we can’t continue providing excellent service to our customers, or drive forward our mission to transform the energy system without them!

We make this real in a number of ways. 

As we mentioned, we love to take tips from the Octopus culture, and how we bring this to life in KrakenFlex. We hire fantastic professionals and give them the freedom and responsibility to run with ideas and take ownership of their work. A fantastic example of this is our unlimited holiday policy - we expect folks to work hard and trust them to make responsible decisions with their team when they’d like time off. This mostly means making sure that whole project teams aren’t all off at the same time, but if by some force of nature they do need to be, how can we support everyone’s needs for time off? Where we might need to bring in externals or ask another team to step up to support?

Another area we’ve really focused on, particularly since we’ve been remote during the pandemic, is gathering feedback. We use a tool called OfficeVibe to help us do this. Every week it sends five brief questions out to everyone in our team over Slack, and maintains a dashboard showing us how our team is doing across 10 themes, and gives an overall employee engagement score. It also has a feature whereby people can send us feedback (anonymously if they prefer) which has been invaluable in staying close to what people really think and enables us to act quickly on their ideas.

Through collaboration and replication we have become an altogether more organised and scalable business. Already at KrakenFlex we are well on the way to reaching our initial target for the year: management of 100,000 devices and 6,000 MW of energy capacity by 2023. This wouldn’t be possible without having taken a real look about how we were currently doing things and how we wanted to do them moving forward.

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