How WACKER is reinventing the way they innovate with only 19 people and 4-weeks at a time.

Yes, we’ve heard it all before: the world has changed and continues to change, dramatically. But what’s actually changed? And what does it really mean for us as entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs? Consumers are still consumers; they want the best bang for their buck. Meanwhile, companies still strive to increase their margins. This is nothing new.

The real change we’re seeing can be described as 1) Changing consumer behaviors (we’re all consumers by the way…even in our work lives); 2) new technologies that continue to be developed at an exponential rate; and 3) new competition. These are all uncertainties…which to most larger, older companies (and even some smaller, newer ones) are scary. Of course, within these uncertainties, innumerable opportunities exist. If only you’d dare to change your modus operandi and answer the call to this great adventure.


Finding new future proof business models.


Setting up a multidisciplinary team, getting them out of their usual work environment and bringing them over to Silicon Valley.

Take the call (to adventure).

Most companies, unfortunately, leave the “future proofing” activities (searching for opportunities, changing the course of their strategy) for the very end, just before certain death. Why go spending resources if all seems well? Why broaden the scope beyond tomorrow, when it would seem that everyone likes what we do today? Our current business model and strategy works perfectly well! So, says…GE, Blockbuster, etc. etc.

But our tale is not about companies who have taken the wrong path and died (or are dying). This story is about WACKER, a multinational chemical manufacturer with a little over 14,000 employees and annual sales of around 4.99 billion Euros (as of end 2018), that operates in a highly competitive market with low margins. It’s within this context that WACKER, our hero in this story, felt it was time to act before there was a dire sense of urgency.

In early-2017 WACKER’s senior leadership and the board began to ask, “What might our future look like? What are future business models haven’t thought off? And, how might we enable our employees to find interesting, new business models while also teaching them how to continually innovate?”

In order to answer that question, the board and executives clearly understood that whatever they were planning to do, they would likely only find the answers outside the building, where the world turned free from WACKER’S priorities, attitudes, internal politics, current KPI’s, and nay-sayers. And, if WACKER was going to look outside for answers, they would need to free up people who — for a set period of time — would work solely on new business models, learn new (design) tools, and acquire new skills, in an inspiring, challenging and engaging environment, with a plethora of different approaches…far, far away from the corporate structure. They realized that this is something that could not be accomplished as a side project next to “business as usual”, or as an extracurricular activity. So, where better to do this than the land of (start-up) opportunity, Silicon Valley?!

With this question answered in their minds, WACKER’s leadership decided to explore what it would take to send a group of employees to Silicon Valley for an extended period of time (up to four weeks) to work on those business models, cut off from their daily responsibilities (including their phones and email).Besides the potential business models that they would bring home, WACKER leaders envisioned one more goal for this venture to be successful. The people they would send to Silicon Valley would eventually become innovation change agents within WACKER. By infecting their colleagues with their newfound skills, the new tools, and a different mindset, the change that WACKER is looking for would take place slowly but surely. While revolution is a great way to change, sometimes evolution is just as effective and suitable for a big corporate organization like WACKER.

Meeting the mentor.

Before committing to this, WACKER’s leadership decided to first do some precursory scouting themselves. During some short trips to Silicon Valley, they began to better understand what Silicon Valley (and the Silicon Valley mindset therein) is all about and would it might mean to “get out of the building”. During these journeys, the board began to understand what’s happening in the world outside WACKER…and outside the chemical manufacturing industry as a whole. It was during these trips that Business Models Inc (BMI), was introduced to the board, and was invited to organize an innovation deep dive, via a chalk talk.

After the second visit of exploration and soul searching, they’d gathered enough insights, had enough conversations to have a clear point of view on what it would entail sending a group of employees to Silicon Valley to explore, create, and learn. With our San Francisco office as the anchor, BMI was chosen as the local strategic Sherpa, to help guide, teach, and mentor the WACKER employees, in what was to become WACKER’s first-ever Silicon Valley Challenge (SVC).

What is WACKER’s chemistry?

Is WACKER different from other companies? Does WACKER have superpowers unreachable by other companies that make it more daring? Why did the board dare to take this adventure, that for so many other companies would seem an indulgence? Or to put it differently, what were the prerequisites, the ingredients that would allow WACKER to be successful in this venture? After all, this should not be a story about WACKER alone, as there are many companies who may want to do the same but have never dared to get out of the building for long enough to try.

The ingredients that enabled this journey of discovery and ultimately made it successful were the following:

  • The board went on a discovery journey to understand the bigger picture, to get a grasp of what’s out there, what would be interesting to research further and what the (insightful) challenges employees might encounter during their stay in Silicon Valley

  • WACKER has strong design thinking ambassadors in their ranks. Amongst them is their Chief Information Officer, Dirk Ramhorst, and Chief Digital Officer, Axel Schmidt. Both are fervent ambassadors of an agile way of working and design thinking. Both understand fully that, in order to change, you need a different approach. Doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome was not an option here. They were both ready and willing to create the foundations for change…outside of the building.

  • Instead of selecting and sending a group of WACKER employees to Silicon Valley, Mr. Ramhorst convinced the board of a different and more impactful approach: a challenge was sent out to all WACKER employees (globally), asking them to articulate the reason why he or she, in particular, should be part of that journey. The result came in the form of over 300 videos and emails describing why individuals would be perfect for the challenge. In the end, nineteen motivated people were selected.

  • WACKER understood perfectly (partly informed by their earlier trips) that going to Silicon Valley is more than “watching monkeys in a zoo”. In order for this employee journey to Silicon Valley to be successful for WACKER and its employees, WACKER onboarded BMI as their local strategically. Together, with WACKER, BMI designed a 4-week process tailored to their needs and the end goal they had in mind. This process consisted of a number of sprints, loosely based on Google Sprints mixed with the Design a Better Business double-loop process, supported by coaching sessions, workshops, inspirational meetups and DIY moments.

Crossing the threshold and emerging victoriously.

The nineteen people sent to Silicon Valley were divided into three teams, blue, green, and orange. In order to plunge these teams into a controlled freefall of uncertainty (unknown, environment, unknown process, unknown outcome) BMI designed a strategic flow for the 4-weeks they lived and worked in Silicon Valley. This flow consisted of weekly sprints (loosely based on Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Google mavericks Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz), combined with business model innovation (using the Design a Better Business double-loop process) and team coaching sessions. Each week kicked off with a workshop and ended with a 5-minute presentation per team to home base and each other.

Image: A “normal” flow of a workday in any “normal” corporate organization (execute)

Planning and organization can and did function as a support system during WACKER’S roller-coaster ride; though, to be clear, a deep dive like this is never linear. With this way of working, one can certainly decide on the flow, but not predict what will happen along the way. This also caused a ton of uncertainty, especially where new business models were concerned. But, just like anyone facing a seemingly impossible task, this is when people become resourceful. The clarity in this uncertainty comes from the realization that what you think you know is nothing more than assumptions that need to be validated. And that was WACKER’s task.

There was also quite a bit of personal uncertainty. In this case, the 19 SVC participants were thrown into an arena with totally new rules as compared to their corporate environment, where their (temporary) new workflow in no way represented their “normal” day-to-day workflow.

Although the end goals were (semi) set in stone, the journey that would help them (the teams) reach their pre-established end goals were certainly not. In fact, depending on the cadence of the teams, there were parts of the flow that BMI had to design along the way. This is not a design flaw; this is how the game is played.

Allies and enemies. (going forward)

So, how did this all come together in the end? And what were the results?

Firstly, in running something like WACKER’s SVC, there only guarantee is that people’s perspectives will be changed. But, to do that it takes a lot of resources and time. In WACKER’s case, it was important to have people within the company, including the board, funders, and supporters, onboard, supporting the SVC participants. These are people who take the long view, rather than requiring immediate results. The trust and support exhibited by WACKER’s board and senior leadership motivated the SVC participants to explore way beyond what they were set out to do.

Of course, it was equally important to continue the momentum after they had returned. Internal commitment and continuous (mental) support helped these change agents to continue using their newfound skills while becoming ambassadors within their teams. No one is going to change their behavior for a neutral or unsupported outcome. But, when everyone sees that there is support (and even cheering) from the top, it’s understood that there’s something special and new that should garner attention.

There was also more to do than continue new ways of working back at “home” as well. What the amazing team of explorers did while in Silicon Valley, was gathering assumptions (partly validated on the spot), based on different insights, by talking to outliers, looking at markets that would normally be out of scope, and by prototyping different options. Adding all of the detail to Business Model Canvases was really just the start; there was real work ahead.

To welcome the teams home in a different (combustible) way, WACKER’s leadership designed a Shark Tank-style afternoon where the entire WACKER board and senior leadership team were the sharks. Not only was this an amazing crescendo to an intense 4-week journey of exploration. But, it validated to everyone involved, including the board, that this was time and money well spent. The concepts were big and audacious in many cases. And all were future-focused, yet anchored in customer needs.

At the same time, with everyone back at “home”, the biggest enemy here would be to execute these premature concepts. This is also why it was important for WACKER’s leadership to be willing to play the long game while continuing the momentum of search versus execution. Only, after having validated the crucial and riskiest assumptions of the business model, including tangible numbers and figures (e.g. total available market, serviceable available market, serviceable obtainable market, investment costs, indicative production costs), could they start scaling/executing their concepts. And, this was reinforced by the board during the Shark Tank moment. What the board and leadership team was investing in was time and resources to continue validating and continue the search for scale.

Luckily, a deep dive journey like this came with a practical set of tools and a process of short sprints to guide these WACKER rebels along the way. By using this arsenal, they were able to generate measurable milestones, which allowed them to make clear decisions (or pivots) during their journey and express those to the Sharks. By diligently adhering to this method during and after their journey, the outcome and value of their journey were increased immensely. In fact, some of the WACKER teams pivoted no less than 10 times…in only 4-weeks! This wasn’t because their ideas were invalidated by internal (WACKER) customers, but because they validated with actual (future) customers.

Returning home with the elixir.

This is a story about a company with the guts to send 19 people out of the building for 4-weeks, have them learn, experience and come back home with validated concepts….concepts that are way bigger and bolder and perhaps more future-oriented than what they would have been able to build (and validate) with an inside-out perspective at “home”.

Hopefully, this story can also serve as an aspirational hero’s story for your company. This is not a story about executing strategy — what most corporates do every day. Rather this is about mustering the courage to get out of the building and take an outside-in perspective in service of searching for your next business model. And, in doing so, this is also a story about bringing home the ingredients of that outside-in, startup-like, search mentality and getting others to want to do it with you. This, in many ways, is the story of the Phoenix: how any company can begin to reinvent how it invents and innovates for the future.

What and who would you bring on such a journey? What would you hope to get out of it and how would your company benefit?

*You might have noticed that the structure of this blog closely follows (part of) the hero journey by Joseph Campbell. Because, not unlike the protagonist in this hero journey, I feel that the 19 WACKER employees who went on this Silicon Valley Challenge for 4-weeks, are real heroes. They actively and purposefully answered the call for this (uncertain) adventure. Their stay in this other world might have started with excitement. But, in order to emerge victoriously, they all had to face hardship, setbacks, and doubt. And they did. Because they all strongly believed in the value of this journey, supported by WACKER. That’s the real secret behind a successful outcome: what you bring as a person.

“Today, we got to see a glimpse of the future of WACKER”

Board of WACKER

“I will never forget about this. It was really kind of life-changing. There are so many things I will do differently when it comes to developing the business and collaborating within my team.” - SVC participant

“I learned that pivoting your business model is not failing (although it first felt that way), it helps to make your story better.” - SVC participant