An interview with Alexandra Rudl, Managing Director of bwcon
Working in networks offers many advantages to companies, not least the chance to exchange views and discuss experiences with like-minded people, plus the opportunity to learn from others. But how do you set up and maintain a successful network? That’s probably best answered by Alexandra Rudl, Managing Director of bwcon and initiator of the Blue Ocean Group, one of 17 working groups belonging to the bwcon network. Rudl spoke to TRANSFER magazine about the working group, which consists of roughly 50 specialists responsible for innovation. She also talks about its goals, how it’s developing, and offered tips on setting up a successful network.
Hello Ms. Rudl. You’re the initiator of the Blue Ocean Group. Where did the idea come from and what’s the goal of the group?
It all started in 2015 after a conversation with an innovation manager at Festool, which is a member of bwcon. We were talking about introducing business models beyond the core business, how to find like-minded people who are also interested in certain topics, and how to regularly exchange ideas with them. We then approached people in our respective networks and invited them to a meeting at the Festool innovation lab in Esslingen.
At the beginning, we had a group of about ten people. This kind of spirit started to arise at the first meeting, and it still characterizes the group to this day – a spirit of complete openness and authentic discussion on exploring new fields of business. This includes methodologies just as much as questions regarding corporate culture or innovation management. Everyone’s aware of the fact that the tasks they work on often involve entering new territory or transformation, and no one has a standard recipe. The way I see it, that’s exactly what the DNA of the Blue Ocean Group is about.
Our group has evolved over the years and today it’s a network comprising around 50 people, all working on innovation and transformation at their own companies. It’s a mixed bunch. Lots are in special roles at their companies, for instance as innovation managers, so part of their job profile is to tackle new areas and introduce new thinking to the company. One thing the participants really appreciate is that they can exchange ideas with others as part of a group and talk to people in the same role at their company. Another important feature of our group is that it transcends different sectors of industry: among others, the members of the group come from the healthcare industry, manufacturing, and software development. One thing all the companies have in common is that they face similar challenges, but they’re not competing against one another, so they can be particularly effective and open when it comes to advising each other.
Another topic people often try to skirt around is addressed quite openly when we’re together: failure. We’re interested in talking about our experiences; this quite often covers failure and how to learn from those experiences. It’s important that the Blue Ocean Group offers a “place of trust” – what’s discussed with the Blue Ocean Group stays with the Blue Ocean Group. That allows our members to be safe in the knowledge that they can be honest and be open about things.
What would you say have been the most important milestones in the development of the Blue Ocean Group?
The next step after the first meet-up was that we see ourselves as a group, find a name for ourselves, and meet regularly. We always kicked off with one person from the group inviting us to his or her company, and that provided a stepping stone for seeing how innovation is dealt with there. We’ve kept using the same format to this day. The group members then take part in a discussion and share their personal experiences, so that by the end a kind of consulting session takes place for the host company – it’s very intensive consulting, peer to peer.
During the initial period, I coordinated the Blue Ocean Group by myself, acting on behalf of bwcon. So the second step in moving things forward was for me to invite other people to take on the coordination role. That resulted in Dr. Claudia Roth from Vetter Pharma and Christian Bell from iteratec joining the leadership group; both of their companies are members of bwcon.
The three of us are now working on ways to move the Blue Ocean Group forward. We’ve come up with a three-stage plan. The focus since the beginning has been to exchange ideas and consult one another. Since the middle of last year, we’ve successfully completed the second stage, which was to encourage people to share their knowledge of different methods and approaches with the other members of the group, for example by offering mutual training. For the third stage, we want to set up value-adding partnerships between group members. We’re currently about to embark on the third stage, so for example we’re putting a series of seminars on the market to offer training to become an innovation manager. The program was developed together by a number of members.
Networks are also about working together – what criteria have to be met for this to work, and how important is the working culture to this?
It’s important to have or establish a basis of trust. There are certain principles for doing this in every network, and networks also have a certain working culture. We put time aside at every meeting to remind ourselves of our guiding principles – openness, a place of trust, and authenticity. That’s also important for anyone new joining the group; it gives them a context for taking part.
We also spend a lot of time working in small groups. For example, we have our Blue Ocean “Predicament Workshop,” which is a format we use for small groups to work together intensively on a particular predicament – separate from our meetings. That also offers a place with a basis of trust.
What do you need to think about when you’re setting up and coordinating a network?
Based on my experience with the Blue Ocean Group, I’d say it’s particularly important to find out what the participants need and what they want. At the beginning, I used to draft a detailed agenda for our meetings, but I soon worked out you don’t really need one. Our members want to meet up, share their thoughts, and seek advice.
That could be because innovation people are more likely to work together and get creative rather than just stick to the agenda. But the underlying idea that networks should revolve around people and what they’re looking for applies to every network. So my advice would be: Listen to the people.
There was no big plan when we started out, and then we developed a strategy based on the wishes and ideas of our members, and we come back to that again and again as a group, and if necessary, we adapt it. I think this step-by-step approach is an important prerequisite for a network to succeed – keep listening to the network, keep evolving, and don’t just blindly pursue a predetermined goal.
The Blue Ocean Group
The Blue Ocean Group is a circle of around 50 innovation managers who meet regularly in small groups to learn from one another as equals. Are you responsible for innovation and transformation at your company? Are you also interested in joining the bwcon Blue Ocean Group? If you are, simply drop Alexandra Rudl an email by writing to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alexandra Rudl (interviewee)
bwcon GmbH (Stuttgart)