Releasing critical human faculties
Dr. Manfred Wittenstein, founder and currently Supervisory Board Chairman of WITTENSTEIN SE, the world market leader in the field of mechatronic drive technology, celebrated his 75th birthday on September 2, 2017.
Dr. Christian Abegglen, Board President and Director of St. Galler Business School, took the opportunity to interview Dr. Wittenstein in person. WITTENSTEIN's corporate philosophy is based on five values: responsibility, change, trust, innovation and openness. These values served as mental starting points for the following five questions.
Christian Abegglen: You could easily get the impression that we live in a world of organized irresponsibility - political, social and economic. There are far too many companies where everyone - from top management to the humblest employee - does everything in their power to shirk responsibility for the results and consequences of their actions. Admittedly not everywhere but on an alarming scale and increasingly often. Is that an accurate impression? If so, can you offer any explanation?
Manfred Wittenstein: I don't believe that impression is mistaken. In fact, I share your view that there's a dangerous trend to be observed in precisely that direction. One hypothesis that could help to explain this phenomenon might be the increased momentum, complexity and interconnectedness which is becoming more and more characteristic of the value chain - especially when it comes to knowledge-intensive, innovative global players. In today's world, cause-and-effect relationships are less certain and less visible than they used to be, and it's easy to lose sight of your own contribution to the whole. It could be that orientation, motivation and a sense of responsibility are victims of this development.
It is a central management duty to counteract these negative forces in some way or other and to establish common ground regarding the vision, purpose and values that accompany thinking and actions. In my opinion, maximum transparency of processes, maximum opportunities to shift perspectives and frequent personal communication are just a few potentially effective approaches. And one thing is certain: management always inherently implies an unconditional responsibility to set an example.
Irresponsibility on the highest level is quickly evident and spreads throughout the company like a virus.
Responsibility extends far beyond the limits of individual companies and must be seen in a wider social context. And it doesn't stop at the point where you yourself are liable to get hurt.
Christian Abegglen: Momentum, interconnectedness and complexity are not new phenomena in themselves; however, their intensity and their force have presented daunting challenges for some time now, not least due to the rapid advance of digitalization. How does a company like WITTENSTEIN, which is traditionally highly dynamic and a technology leader, shape the necessary changes and what aspects are particularly vital?
Manfred Wittenstein: At first glance, WITTENSTEIN appears to be constantly changing. Technology-wise, geographically, in terms of organization - the complete system is continuously evolving because we're committed to being a world class global partner for the customers of our mechatronic drive technology. The opportunities created by networking and digitalization are indeed giving rise to a new dimension in complexity and dynamics. At the same time, this holds enormous potential for us to develop intelligent products and totally new business models. On closer inspection, however, it's by no means the case that all things old are being torn down and everything now has to be done differently. On the contrary, our aim is that what has already been tried and tested in the past should be intelligently complemented and adapted where necessary. The so-called digital transformation is a prime example here. Digitalization makes sense wherever it generates added value or reduces the burden on your own value chain, on your customers or on society as a whole. If there's no prospect of this, my advice is to steer clear of digitalization gone mad with the watering can! The basis for this differentiation is always a sufficiently deep understanding of your own business model, of your customers' business models and of the needs of society in general. Incidentally, in any company of a certain size there will inevitably be employees who tend to think and act defensively and conservatively alongside the more progressive colleagues who are positive and open to change. This isn't automatically a bad thing; as I see it, the challenge for managers lies in assigning the right roles and tasks to each employee and in ensuring that these two worlds - "change" and "continuity" - are suitably dovetailed. "Both / and" is my guiding principle here, not "either / or".
Christian Abegglen: It's become more and more difficult over the years to keep track as a manager - to provide orientation and convey confidence. The world is flat, the pace is rapid, everything somehow depends on everything else and the system which is relevant for decisions and actions has become arbitrarily large. As influences and alternatives increase, it's only logical that the demands on management to analyze, interpret and decide according to the context - and ensure that decisions are implemented successfully - should also rise. The rightness of these decisions, and the effectiveness and efficiency with which they are implemented - is to a growing extent fuzzy and relative. The context is forever changing, so that derivations, interpretations and definitions vary relative to one another over time. How can management provide orientation, reliability and trust in spite of this?
Manfred Wittenstein: To begin with, the management must itself have a sense of direction and confidence in the rightness of its objectives and strategy. The St. Gallen management approach - the concept of integrated management - which has been taught successfully for years at St. Galler Business School, provides a suitable and reliable conceptual framework for this purpose, especially at times like the present. I'm convinced that, today more than ever before, employees need to be intellectually engaged on this solid base from the outset. Communicate, explain, participate - these are key management tasks and highly personal ones. The whole thing must be driven by a stable and reliable set of values and geared to powerful and meaningful future scenarios. Only then will employees actually be able to develop trust in the management. And only on the basis of a shared understanding can the management have trust in their employees - trust that they really will fulfill their responsibility in their job to the benefit of the company as a whole. Only then will these employees cease to be followers and instead become accomplices who are needed to achieve ambitious goals.
Christian Abegglen: WITTENSTEIN is characterized by a passion for innovation. Innovation not only in the sense of technology. Processes, business models, marketing and much more besides
can be developed creatively and profitably. However, let's focus for a minute on product innovations, which in WITTENSTEIN's case are mainly in the field of mechatronic drive technology. Irrespective of what exactly needs to be improved compared to existing own or third-party solutions, how can we sum up the requirements for a new product idea in just three words? What conditions must be met?
Manfred Wittenstein: That's a difficult question to answer. Let me try it this way:
1. Controllable: Technology often has something intimidating about it and indeed the threat can sometimes be real. Our customers must therefore be able to rely on even the most innovative products still being controllable by people and on no account the other way round.
2. Supporting: Technology has a supporting function in that it is designed to serve people - it helps them rather than driving them apart or simply letting them drift. Technology for people - that's always been my number one priority.
3. Meaningful: Our technological inventions must make a meaningful contribution towards meeting socially relevant needs and challenges. Nutrition, health, security, mobility, resource efficiency, environmental protection - these are just a few prominent examples that spring to mind.
Christian Abegglen: Let me quote from WITTENSTEIN's corporate philosophy: "Nurturing relationships and forming networks with all parties that are fruitful and valuable". It also says: "We act in an open way (...)". Is openness a central element of your corporate strategy?
Manfred Wittenstein: Absolutely. For one thing, intelligent networking creates additional options for engaging in dialog; existing know-how and ideas multiply and innovation efforts are placed on a broader footing. Parallel to this, openness and an intellectual exchange of views help release critical human faculties, cultivate respect, trigger essential changes and subject our own thinking and actions to constant observation and a critical assessment. We have to accept that complex systems like companies will never work perfectly. What matters is the way we handle mistakes, the lessons we learn from them and our willingness to expose imperfections. Our ability to endure all of this is paramount - after all, success is the biggest enemy of success. It makes you inert and negligent and it obscures your view of opportunities and risks. I also believe that, particularly with technology based companies, it's important to be open to all sectors of society. It has to be a two-way street. Only then can we promote connectivity and mutual understanding and only then can true public spirit ultimately develop. This seems to me to be more crucial than ever as the cracks in our society grow bigger and bigger and the centrifugal forces increase. A critical dialog and openness as answers to uncertainty, conflicts and future issues - for me, there's no alternative.
Dr. Christian Abegglen (right) in conversation with Dr. Manfred Wittenstein (left) in the foyer of the WITTENSTEIN Innovation Factory, admiring a work by German photographer Michael Najjar. Source: WITTENSTEIN SE
Dr. Christian Abegglen (right) in conversation with Dr. Manfred Wittenstein (left) in the World Garden at the WITTENSTEIN headquarters. Source: WITTENSTEIN SE