Photo: Dr. Bernhard von Mutius

Interview with Dr. Bernhard von Mutius, Senior Advisor at HPI School of Design Thinking

How can companies develop new concepts for employees and managers in a world of digital change? There is hardly anyone better to answer this than the future thinker and management coach Dr. Bernhard von Mutius who gained a wealth of experience in Silicon Valley and at MIT many years ago. For the pioneer of “Disruptive Thinking” in German-speaking countries, it is not about emulating missionaries and machine enthusiasts but about pursuing an individual approach for your own culture. He will be presenting his ideas on this topic as keynote speaker at the exhibition PERSONAL2016 Süd in Stuttgart on 10 May.  We spoke to him in advance about “Disruptive Thinking” and the changes that digitalisation will bring about for employers.

Dr. von Mutius, we often hear the term “disruption” in connection with digitalisation. What do you understand by this term?

According to Clayton M. Christensen, digitalisation is causing radical changes in business models in more and more industry sectors, and to some extent in organisational structure. Everyone knows about the example of Kodak. The company was completely broken by digital technology.

But like many other thinkers, I take the term further. We are currently in a phase of fundamental, radical change in the economy and society. That has to do with digital transformation but the digital devices are only transmitters. Change also has social and cultural aspects. That’s why we need a creative revolution, a completely new way of thinking.

So how should we be specifically changing our thinking in these times of radical change?

Digitalisation and its consequences are not following a path of linear development. The current changes are quite difficult to control. That is why, particularly in the human resource sector, we should be rethinking the question of the skills of employees and managers:  How can we create a way of thinking that grows with these radical changes? Or expressed more graphically, a way of thinking that can adequately meet the challenges of the future? I call it disruptive thinking.

An example: “The more networking takes off, the more important the individual becomes”. Take the theme of Industry 4.0 – this revolution in the factories and production plants puts us in the position of being able to make one-off pieces for the individual. We are seeing a high degree of individualisation in mass production. Something similar to this needs to happen at management and employee level. It is simply not right that we treat machines in a more individual way than the people that operate them.

Human resource managers in particular are not exactly regarded as pioneers of digital transformation – is that justified?

People have been coming to terms with digitalisation in many organisations, also in human resource departments over the last few years. At the same time, I see a danger of uncertainty. It is then all too easy to run after any new trend. Many digital missionaries really go to town to get their point across. And what’s more, the entire IT sector will be overwhelming human resource professionals with digitalisation services over the next few years. Pure marketing. People will need to develop a new attitude of confidence and assurance to evaluate what they really need. They will have to look through the various offers and if necessary, then use them consistently. Always with an eye on the person.

In human resource development in particular, we should be asking ourselves: What human skills do we want to promote in the next few years?

Who do you see as being in the driver’s seat in the companies?

It might not be a bad idea for every company to have something like an advisory board on the subject of “Man and machine, new challenges, new skills”. That would be two or three people who know something about digitalisation and  the possible consequences and could help other people to gain more expertise in this field.

Many digital thought leaders are currently putting forward the idea of democratising leadership. Is that an empty promise or a meaningful approach, in your opinion?

This movement has become stronger and stronger in recent years because it is more difficult in a networked society, to control things from a central office. In the organisations I look at, it is not only the human resource professionals that are concerned with this topic but executive management too. We need more networked processes and structures  – in combination with all kinds of New Work. Many employees have skills their boss knows nothing about. It is an exciting question to think how much more agile we need to become and how much more self-organised.

You joined the teaching team of the Design Thinking School in Potsdam as Senior Advisor a few months ago. How can this method support the process?

This is a powerful method with many different features. The common feature of all these different approaches is that they are “human-centered”. The players handle the digital devices with confidence but they deliberately focus on the human element in the networking. This is a good point of reference for the time to come: man and not machine should be the focus.

Design thinking aims to promote creativity and innovation by putting yourself in the position of the customer and then creating plenty of ideas in a structured manner  – without evaluating them. This should eventually in an iterative and practical process, result in the development of tangible solutions. A key element here is interdisciplinarity. We try to take several perspectives into consideration to develop a broader solution spectrum.

To what extent is the method used to find new management principles for a company’s own organisation? Or does it only apply to product development?

Design thinking is not a cure-all. Management needs to be looked at separately. But the method supports a collaborative understanding of leadership. Classic organisations often have the problem that well trained individuals, who enjoy working in teams, enter a problematic meeting culture. A large part of their creativity then falls by the wayside. In such cases, design thinking is a way of making collaboration more productive.

You said, we need to think more about the qualifications we will be needing in the future. What skills could be helpful here?

There is a veritable explosion of digital tools which is why we need to focus on developing the experimental approach and appropriate ways of handling them, for example by working with start-ups.  A key skill is also how to handle complexity and uncertainty – and not just for managers, but for all staff. We need to be in a position to develop really good simple things – a surprising simplicity.  Everything that is too complicated – and that doesn’t mean complex – won’t have a chance. That refers to products and services but also to processes, for example in the human resource sector. In my leadership seminars, we sometimes look at quite different areas where we can learn these sort of things, for example design in the Bauhaus tradition.

Another skill that will become increasingly important in the future is effective transformation capability. We need to manage the transition from an old world to a new one – and in such a way that both worlds do not enter into a divisive conflict. We need a translation between both worlds. And then the ability to handle contradictions is particularly important.

Why will that be more important?

In his book “The Innovator‘s Dilemma”, Christensen describes the typical conflict of a manager in a properly run classic company. Management is really doing everything right. The company is customer-oriented, has good products, keeps an eye on efficiency and the value development of the organisation. Just because it does that, it is bad in considering the new, disruptive aggressors that develop something in another market segment at costs that are too low. The dilemma is: Either you do one or the other. But the trick is to be able to do both. On the one hand, we have the classic silo-mentality organisation, the functional organisation, on the other hand the new, network-style, agile teams. It won’t always be possible to solve it with an “either-or” solution.

Let’s take another example: How can agility and speed  be compatible with a long-term human resource development plan?

That is a good example because it shows that many advisors are biased. They say for example: “Focus on speed and agility! The fast will eat up the slow.” However, the current radical changes in digitalisation also make the stakeholders yearn for sustainability, for social responsibility. I am also seeing this as a strong movement in the USA. Even among the super rich, even at Goldman Sachs. They say: “We definitely need to focus more on the long-term view. The horrendous profit explosions of recent years are tearing our company apart and ultimately endangering our business.”

So you end up going round in circles…

It is all about the debate of Joseph Schumpeter who said that creative destruction is only possible in a company that can contain it, so that at the end of the day, the system does not destroy itself. That is why it is so important for the human resource area to influence the strategic development of the company so that the themes of sustainability and social responsibility as values do not fall by the wayside in this accelerated development over the next few years.

The great danger is that our willingness to change wears thin on the way or we become completely awestruck. We often seem to be paralysed by fear at the speed of the developments we are confronted with. But we really need to make the effort to develop future skills.


Event tip

Keynote presentation by Dr. Bernhard von Mutius
“Disruptive Thinking”
Tuesday, 10 May, 11.15 a.m. to 12 noon
PERSONAL2016 Süd, Messe Stuttgart, Hall 6, Forum 4

About Dr. Bernhard von Mutius
After studying Philosophy, History and Political Science, Bernhard von Mutius first worked in teaching and then moved to consultancy. He has been an independent researcher and consultant since the mid-1980s  – focusing mainly on future and innovation, leadership and transformation, with coaching and consultancy mandates with the top management of German and international companies. Interdisciplinarity has always been important to him, for example when he established the Bergweg Forum “Denken der Zukunft e. V.” (Thinking for the Future) in 1989, gathering together philosophers and practitioners. In 1994, he launched the now largest Corporate Citizenship Network in Germany, “Unternehmen: Partner der Jugend“ (UPJ) – (Companies: Partners of Youth). He is founding member of the “New Club of Paris”, co-founder of the “Denkbank” and has recently taken on the role of Senior Advisor and member of the teaching team at the HPI School of Design Thinking. He also works on many other committees and regularly publishes articles on network thinking in business and society.


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