Going viral with Cultural Change Dieter Zetsche | 30th May 2017

These days everybody’s talking about the re-invention of the car. Granted, I do that too.

But to get there, it’s not enough to change our drivetrains – we also need to re-think what drives us. That’s the scope of our “Leadership 2020” initiative at Daimler. Just recently, we’ve held our “Leadership 2020 Summit” to push ahead the probably biggest change process within our company’s history.

Our goal: a new corporate culture. We’re re-thinking the way we motivate, cooperate, and lead at Daimler in the future. The first ideas are already being implemented. So, let’s focus on the next logical step: How do you spread substantial change across a company as large as Daimler? Or, put differently: How do you go viral with cultural change?

When I say “viral” the image of YouTube videos might be the first to come to mind. So, here are our four factors for making cultural change a viral hit – translated from social media to the corporate world.

The first is: Don’t copy and paste! Nobody wants to see yet another “Ice Bucket Challenge,” right? It was cool when Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates did it three years ago. It’s not anymore. The same holds true for our culture: for real change it’s not enough to imitate others.

Instead, we have to find our own way. And since there is no such thing as a blueprint for cultural change, we designed the whole process to be open-ended. There are many ideas on the table – but we don’t know yet exactly where it will take us. And to us, that’s a great thing!

Viral hits on YouTube are typically not created by big corporations that spend billions on high-gloss productions – but rather by some weirdos in dorm rooms. In that sense, the second factor for going viral is to truly understand that cultural change is nothing the upper one percent can simply dictate down to an organization. It needs to be bottom-up.

You most likely know from personal experience: Great ideas exist at all levels – that’s true for Daimler just as for any organization. And that’s most apparent when it comes to digitalization. Because in the upper levels of big companies you typically don’t find many digital natives – just their parents. And their biggest digital success so far was to make Facebook uncool.

Some might remember seeing a video back in 2010 of a random man who completely lost it over a double rainbow he spotted in his yard. How could this ever become a viral hit? To put it briefly: American Late Night TV host Jimmy Kimmel shared the clip on Twitter. And it went from a few lousy clicks straight to several million.

That’s exactly what we need to make a new culture spread: We need our big guns and yea-sayers to share and promote the new spirit. We need our very own Jimmy Kimmels! That’s how we make Leadership 2020 resonate.

We started off with those 144 colleagues. Recently, we had more than 1,200 participants join our “Leadership 2020 Summit” from all hierarchy levels and 50 different nations. You don’t have to study network theory to know: This is a promising starting point to spread change.

The tricky thing is this: Right now Daimler is doing well. And those numbers have some saying, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” I probably don’t have to tell anyone on LinkedIn that this would lead to a dead end. But I’m sure you all know one or two colleagues who live by the motto, “Everything was better back in the old days.” But that’s proven to be bullshit. A Swiss journalist did a whole book packed with facts and figures to prove the nay-sayers wrong: Youth crime is declining, forests are growing, the panda is no longer endangered, and believe it or not: working hours are shrinking.

Bottom line is: Here and now, these are the good old days. And it is only getting better!

So, how do we get this message out? My suggestion: The same way people do it on YouTube. We show something nobody wants to miss out on – something that replicates itself.

At Daimler, we might not have double rainbows, but we do have something far better: some of the most exciting products in the world. Don’t take my word for it. As Travis Kalanick, the Uber founder, said last year when visiting one of our plants, “You are building magic here!” And I think he hit the nail on the head.

Groundbreaking innovations demand both analytical and creative strengths. As an engineer, when I look at Daimler I can say without reservation: We‘re outstanding at doing analytical work! But to recognize the trends of tomorrow and beyond and turn them into fascinating products, we need even more creative strength – and the guts to go for it!

For me, one of the most important lessons learned from Leadership 2020 is this one: If you give people instructions, then ideally you will get the results you had expected. However, if you give them greater freedom you can get ideas far beyond expectations. And that’s what we need for the future of our business. We have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invent Daimler for a second time. I’m proud to be part of it – and to have 282,000 co-founders on hand.

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