By Steven Melendez, Contributing Writer
To help its most promising employees build entrepreneurial skills and cook up novel solutions to customer problems, Daimler Trucks North America sent them to truck dealerships, on long-haul trips, and to improv class. The company organized horseback rides and banned PowerPoint presentations. It was all part of a three-month program modeled on the tech industry’s successful startup accelerators, which recently completed its third annual cycle.
“Our industry is very difficult, because it’s not super sexy. We have to find ways to be interesting, and we have to attract the best employees and get the most out of them,” said Lori Heino-Royer, director of the company’s Business Innovation and Program Management Office, in speaking at the World Innovation Convention in Berlin last month. Daimler Trucks is a subsidiary of $141 billion Daimler AG.
The program brings nine carefully selected employees every year from the 25,000-employee trucks division to Portland, Ore., its headquarters, where they spend three months effectively working as an internal startup. That means no conference calls or email with their regular teams and no going back for meetings, says Heino-Royer.
“The first month, the team basically spends an entire month getting knowledge,” she says.
Team members take field trips to Daimler truck dealerships to see what works and what doesn’t — often the first time many have visited truck dealerships. They visit with customers to see how they use their trucks.
“They actually go for ride-alongs on trucks, and they go on hauls,” she says.
At the same time, they’re also learning to work with each other. There are team activities like golfing and horseback riding, and visits from mentors across the company, often including the CEO and board members, says Heino-Royer. They have daily team lunches, and weekly team dinners, where the group shares failure stories from the week, she says.
“It’s an avenue for them to get out of their systems what are they frustrated with,” she says.
There are also outside mentors and facilitators who work with the teams: the company works with On Your Feet, an improv-based team-building consultancy, and with facilitators from the Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE), a startup accelerator.
“It’s also good to have people that are not directly related to the company [involved] so if they really want to gripe, or get something off their chest related to the company, that they have an avenue to do that,” says Heino-Royer.
The group works in a setting Heino-Royer compares to a living room — complete with its own rules of family-style etiquette, like no communicating in the living room through technology.
“They had to look eyeball to eyeball,” she says. “They had to work through all their ideas and their disputes in a face-to-face way which really changed how they interacted and how quickly they were able to get to new solutions.”
The second month of the program is devoted to ideation, she says—translating what the group has gleaned from site visits and research into potential projects. For example, one recent class built a national parts database, tracking vehicle parts available across the company’s network of dealers. (See the fifth slide, below.) Previously, Heino-Royer says, each dealer listed its inventory on its own website.
“There was no national database of where all the parts were,” until the project, which evolved into something live today on Daimler’s website.
In the final month, the group focuses on developing a prototype and practicing a pitch.
“In a high-tech accelerator, they pitch to VCs at the end, and they look to get funded,” she says. Within Daimler Trucks, “we pitch to the board.”
Since participants are usually only a few years into their careers at Daimler, it’s usually their first time in front of board members. And they’re allowed to use any presentation medium except PowerPoint, she says. “It teaches the participants how to better use analogies to tell their story,” Heino-Royer explains. “By removing PowerPoint, they have to think differently to get the message across. It also keeps them from reading a slide, so the presentations are much more authentic.”
The program isn’t just about building prototypes — it’s about building the participants’ relationships with each other, with the company and with its products and customers.
“Some of them end up saying, ‘I really have this great relationship now with a customer that I never understood before,’” says Heino-Royer.