Agile Management in Innovation Projects: Best Practices of Rehau AG

In fast-moving markets, a company’s ability and speed of innovation will increasingly determine its competitive ability. Do speed and innovation really go together? Dr Martin Watzlawek, Head of Strategy and Innovation Automotive at REHAU AG & Co., may have some answers. Details in the interview below.

If there is less and less time for innovations, does that not put us under enormous pressure?

Dr Martin Watzlawek: In my view, it is not the time available that is the problem. Much more important is how we organise and manage innovations to be able to continue innovating successfully at the speed required. In agile projects we do not have less time in general, we just use the time in a more focussed way and thus, at the end of the day, we may not reach our goal faster, but we do so more accurately. I think that agility is less about quickly trying out a new trend than about a changing the culture and the values within which employees and managers operate. If they are created, we will not get stressed either. Then everyone enjoys their work – staff and managers alike.

How can innovation succeed?

Watzlawek: These days, innovation requires faster response cycles to market changes and higher levels of complexity than was the case ten or twenty years ago. It is no longer just a matter of developing a new product – we need the appropriate business models and marketing concepts for it. This can no longer be achieved with classic innovation methods. Our job in innovation management is above all to ensure the work of the agile project teams and to provide necessary competencies and resources. Given these conditions, however, I very much believe that agility leads faster to the goal.

You say: Personal responsibility and self-organisation lead to more fun in projects. Do they also lead to more success?

Watzlawek: In an agile context, employees concentrate exclusively on the common goal of their project. In the classic project set-up, on the other hand, development engineers, marketing staff and sales people are often involved in several projects simultaneously. This means constant disruptions. Agile project team members do not implement directions given, they say on their own initiative: “That’s great, we would like to work on this.” There is no distinction by formal role or by division of a company. Much more important is the question: How do we manage this now? Achieving a goal together creates a sense of achievement and makes projects more successful due to perfectly organized technical expertise. For managers, on the other hand, it is a pleasure to look at tired but proud faces during the sprint reviews, when the agreed work packages have been successfully completed.

When innovation requires a new culture, it means change. Who can handle it better: staff or managers?

Watzlawek: In my experience, employees are finding it easier to venture into new processes and to leave previous comfort zones. After about three months, the majority judge the new approach positively. Managers often find it a little harder. They have been successful with their established approach, so why should they change it? The basis of past success is suddenly no longer the basis of future success. This understandably leads to uncertainty.

In your opinion, what is the best way to convey an agile understanding of leadership?

Watzlawek: In the REHAU Group we are taking an approach that is not necessarily ideal: we convince more and more colleagues from the bottom up of the meaningfulness of what we are doing with successful projects. In the end, it is the managers who, if they have properly understood their roles, confirm their confidence in and support to employees. So that they can say with conviction: “We trust you. You will find the mode, organise yourselves.” The agile initiative at REHAU thus gives equal consideration to both staff and management.


Short biography

As Head of Strategy & Innovation Automotive, Dr Martin Watzlawek is responsible for strategic development, the innovation pipeline and the development of new business areas at REHAU Group worldwide. Previously, he was in charge of strategic corporate development and the technology management of the organisation. Before joining REHAU, Dr Watzlawek, who holds a PhD in Physics, worked in chemical industry and a large OEM in automotive industry.

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