Open Space – Daimler Takes a Unique Approach to Engaging Employees and Igniting Innovation

Michael Kanzleiter
Michael Kanzleiter,
Senior Manager Marketing,
Mercedes-Benz Financial Services

What do you get when you send nearly 100 employees from across U.S. and Canada – representing a wide range of divisions and sectors of your organization – to a two-day workshop where the only item on the agenda is to brainstorm about the future of digital technology? Oh, and by the way, not all of the attendees are tech experts. Just ask the Daimler Group – one of the biggest producers of premium automobiles, the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial vehicles, and a provider of financial services and innovative mobility services – because that’s exactly what they did in October 2013.

Here’s what the company’s senior marketing manager, Michael Kanzleiter, had to say about the untraditional meeting:

The format for the workshop was the Open Space concept, a structure that was invented by Owen Harrison several years ago in response to being frustrated with traditional meetings where the best conversations seemed to happen at the breaks. The goal was to create an engaging environment where employees from all over the organization could come together to collectively brainstorm new products and services ideas under one specific topic – DigitalLife@Daimler. We looked to include people outside of the IT space, as we wanted a fresh perspective. This particular topic was selected because Digital Life impacts all aspects of our business. It’s a passion for our brand and culture, and a differentiator for our customers. We are committed to leveraging the best advances and ideas to make our business, products, and customer service better and better each year.

Daimler Open Space Event

We held successful Open Space events in 2011 and 2012 at our headquarters in Germany and wanted to bring this large-scale brainstorming session to a new region. After all, the topic of Digital Life is universal. So, with the desire of bringing Open Space to North America, we began looking for a local partner to help plan and execute the workshop. After reviewing a few companies, we selected Root for two reasons. First, Root had created a successful leadership program at the end of 2012 for our financial services sector, so we knew they understood our core values and approach. Secondly, as a U.S.-based business unit, we trusted Root would address the cultural nuances of the North American market and ensure that what worked abroad would also work stateside.

Bringing Open Space to Life

After traditional event planning action items were accomplished – identifying a date, securing a venue, etc. – we embarked on an untraditional invitation process. Getting on the Open Space RSVP list was not as simple as sending in a confirmation. Instead, interested employees were required to answer three questions to demonstrate their interest and enthusiasm for the topic of Digital Life:

  1. Why do you think Digital Life is important?
  2. Why should Daimler be engaged in Digital Life?
  3. What is the one idea you would want to discuss at the workshop?

Attendees were selected based solely on the quality of their responses – there were no processes to make sure certain divisions or titles were represented. Those at Open Space were brought to the event purely based on their energy, passion, and creativity about the event topic and their willingness to contribute unique ideas.

But it wasn’t just the invitation process that was out of the ordinary. The event itself had no defined agenda. Daimler and Root were committed to keeping the workshop as organic as possible, which meant no structured seating and no planned presentations. Instead, attendees received a rough timeline that alerted them to the three phases of the workshop: agenda setting, idea generation, and group discussion.

Root team members served as workshop moderators and oversaw an icebreaker exercise, which was as simple as including an image of a technology symbol or gadget on each person’s nametag. Individuals were asked to mingle and inquire as to why each person had selected their particular image. The meeting began with the facilitator in the middle of the room, with the 80+ people forming a circle around him. Since attendees had submitted a specific idea to discuss during the invitation process, it was quite easy for the brainstorming to kick off. Participants could then step into the circle, nominate issues to discuss, and place them on a big agenda board. More than 70 ideas were generated, and the group rapidly narrowed them down to the top 40 to discuss over the remainder of the meeting. Whoever nominated an issue would lead a discussion group, and participants self-selected which topics sounded most interesting. No one was tied to a specific group and could join another discussion at any given time. This is another example of the true organic nature of the workshop – we wanted employees to have as much freedom as possible in order to encourage their best creative thinking.

After nearly 40 workgroups discussed the most relevant issues, the group then narrowed the ideas down to the top seven through a presentation and voting process. After the workshop, the DigitalLife@Daimler team took the final ideas back to headquarters and divided them up among our technology experts to own from that point on. However, even though the Open Space meeting ended, participants didn’t have to stop sharing their passion for Digital Life. The leadership team truly appreciated the participants’ time and energy, so they set up an online community where interested parties could continue to their conversations and keep sharing ideas.

Daimler Open Space Event

After the workshop, we asked attendees to complete an online survey to share their thoughts on the event. Overall, the response was very positive, with attendees writing in support of the unique no-agenda approach, gratitude for the opportunity to be creative among colleagues, and with accolades for Root’s contributions. Specific comments included:

  • “Top-notch facilitation!”
  • “I loved this lack of strict structure of the meeting; it was very helpful for the right idea flow.”
  • “I enjoyed every minute creating and talking about ideas and visions.”

The culture at Daimler is focused on leveraging the knowledge of our workforce. We have the talent in-house, so it’s something we do often – we discuss topics and listen to our people. But, Open Space is unique in that people from a variety of levels and business units have the opportunity to work together and generate new ideas. It’s a progressive way of brainstorming; we find for some specific topics that it fits with our organization’s way of working and has been very successful thus far. We will definitely continue to use the Open Space approach, and we’re already looking forward to our next no-agenda workshop. Without an agenda, you can get very creative – and you never know exactly what you’ll get. And we have learned that can be a very good thing!

Michael Kanzleiter has been with the Daimler group for more than 11 years and has worked in various areas. After graduating in Business Administration at the University of Augsburg, he started his career with Daimler in 1997 as a trainee at the Mercedes-Benz Lease Finanz in Stuttgart. This was followed by various positions in Sales and Marketing at the DaimlerChrysler Bank. In 2003 he became Head of Wholesale Financing Germany at DaimlerChrysler Bank before he moved to the United States in 2007 to be the Operations Business Lead during the de-merger activities of Daimler Financial Services in Detroit. Currently he is a Senior Manager in Marketing at Mercedes-Benz Financial Services in the United States, responsible for all physical and digital Marketing Communication channels.