“Don’t Miss the Second Wave of Disruption”

Frank Thelen, German entrepreneur, founder and CEO of the venture capital company Freigeist—as well as Lilium Aviation and Neufund—about the requirements of the new working world and the chances of disruption

Hierarchies are innovation killers

We need to trust people more and give them responsibility so that they can make decisions in their own working environment. I see more and more regulations in large corporations in particular. They are afraid because something once went wrong. So rules are drawn up, but if the legal department first has to approve something, then the finance department, nothing gets done. Someone is rewarded when no mistakes happen and money is not misspent. But on the other hand, there is no one who is the guardian of opportunity. We surrender to our desire for control instead of seeing chance. Only when mistakes happen do excellent things happen. And in Germany we have internalized the idea of avoiding mistakes; we have clean processes, lots of levels that decisions have to go through. But what we have forgotten is to trust individuals, to rely on them to make good decisions. Take Amazon, for example. A coworker there decided, “We need a complete server platform.” From it “AWS” developed, which is in the meantime a huge business. So the new working world goes. So people become empowered.

Without agility, everything is for nothing

Unfortunately, this subject is rather complex; we come from a nine-to-five mentality. The problem, however, is that it simply no longer fits in with our changed working environment— at least in the creative sector or the software industry. There are certainly jobs, for example when you deliver furniture, where fixed working hours make sense. But otherwise it’s all about getting the best out of people, from their creativity, their energy, their positive spirit. And that’s where you need flexibility. I also spend longer evenings in the office, sometimes even into the early hours of the morning, but I don’t always have to be there at nine o’clock. On the other hand, I also have to be available during my holidays, but to an extent that suits me and my company. And that’s the difficult part. If you create more flexibility, there are two extremes: firstly, people work very, very little, because they play football all day long, get massages, etc. The other extreme is that you are always available, you actually work around the clock, because conference calls can also be made while cooking and then you can no longer recharge your batteries. In other words, the big challenge is: how do we get it in balance? How do we create a flexible working environment for the working world 4.0, so that we don’t overtax people, but also avoid people resting on the performance of others? I don’t have a perfect answer to that. But I know that we need this flexible system.

More perspective with 360-degree review

You talk to team members and ask, “Who is the top performer? Who brings what? What are our OKRs?” It is extremely important for a modern company not only to define processes, but also goals. So say, “Where do we actually want to go as a company? What does the individual person contribute in order to bring this forward in an agile way?”

We have to digitalize everything

On the one hand, this creates efficiency and effectiveness, because good digital processes always—and I actually mean always—beat analog processes. At least I don’t know of any counterexamples. Digitalization, for example, brings exactly the flexibility you need in the modern working world. Digitalization is the prerequisite for the working world 4.0; it is the very first thing that makes it possible to work efficiently, effectively, and flexibly. It is amazing how many analog processes still exist. Even in startups. You have to digitalize consistently. I see that many people today still print out emails and then read them on the plane, make corrections, and then the assistant types them in again. It’s unbelievable! But this is only the beginning. There are so many tools, for example for efficient meeting management, which synchronize calendars and automatically find slots so that nobody has to do that manually anymore. Or collaborate on a document in real time via Google Docs instead of sending Word documents back and forth via email. It’s about establishing an efficient, digital system. Putting time and thought into a smart operating system is extremely valuable and always pays off in the end.

Don’t miss the second wave of disruption

Especially in the USA there are the classic lighthouses like Tesla or Amazon. You simply have to be aware of how progressively Tesla was built—in my opinion, it’s the best car company in the world today. This isn’t possible in Germany because we are too tied to our processes because people don’t trust each other. Elon—and I see the negative sides, there are enough reports about cases of burnout—Elon gives people responsibility. He says, “You are now responsible for production or for the IT system. And if there is a problem, we just build a tent.” Of course the world laughs at the tent, but in the end he built his cars and I think he will be successful in the long run. This DNA (I called it “Startup DNA” in my book), this easy-doing, always-finding-a-way, not saying, “I have to establish a process first,” is what we have to adopt. After the maiden flight with Lilium (in which I am invested), the first thing to be said from a Prof. Dr. Dr. Dr in Focus, “Wait a minute, if these things should really fly at some point, the first thing we have to do is talk about regulation.” That’s typically German. But that’s no way to get ahead, especially in a disruptive world. We cannot simply refuse disruption. The Chinese and Americans are moving forward, no matter what we do. The worst thing is that Europe has not participated in this development the last 20 years. No search, no social, no mobile, no cloud computing. On the other hand, there is now a new wave of disruption—that will never stop. That is AI, quantum computers, blockchain, robotics. And here we must seize the opportunity to rebuild a world market leader in Europe. We have completely missed the last major disruptions. We think too small, we think too late. But with digital strategy, we have at least made some progress. And yes, we must step on the gas. I do not know whether we can catch up. But putting your head in the sand won’t do any good. I believe we must see opportunities in the new technologies again and finally seize them. With Lilium Aviation, the air taxi, we have succeeded. We are world leaders in this field. This is a very large market, and such examples give me hope. And this is what we need in quantum computing and in the AI sector. We need internationally, well-positioned companies in Germany again. And to achieve that, we need a different work culture.

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