Crossover – What makes you innovative, and how do you stay innovative?
Innovation in the BORA – hansgrohe pro cycling team and in product development at BORA
Innovation. Over the last few years, this word has been on everyone’s lips. And when it comes to shaping the future, innovation is paramount. Anyone with competition needs to keep evolving: constantly updating, reinventing and, above all, improving. If only it were so simple. Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s well-established tradition, and it may already be history by the day after that. Undoubtedly it takes real talent to come up with new ideas and innovate, but there’s also a continual process of observing and learning that lies behind it. These provide the vital spark that makes innovation possible in the first place.
At least that’s the theory. But just what makes you innovative? And – most importantly – how do you stay innovative? So, who better to answer this than a Head of Innovations? We put the questions to two of them: Sigi Gößler, who oversees Research & Development at BORA, and Dan Lorang, who is responsible for Performance & Innovations for the BORA – hansgrohe pro cycling team. Kitchen appliances and cycling – two worlds that couldn’t be any more different. Or so you think. Their paths to continual improvement and development may not be all that dissimilar. Especially if you look at the personalities and approaches of both Sigi and Dan, you’ll find striking similarities.
BORA / Silvia Seebacher
BORA – hansgrohe / Christof Kreutzer
BORA – hansgrohe / Bettiniphoto
Fortune favours the bold – and the industrious
Sigi is a mechanical engineer and has been Chief Technical Officer at BORA for many years now. He’s been involved right from its inception. He supervises the entire life cycle of BORA products – from their conception and development all the way through to their launch and quality control. A keen cyclist, Sigi met BORA founder Willi Bruckbauer at a cycling training camp on Mallorca. What started as an idea discussed over a post-ride drink became a real success story. Sigi began his BORA adventure building up the company’s product development capacity, starting with just one single employee. Since then he’s not only expanded the product range significantly but the team too. There are currently 77 R&D employees, with BORA welcoming newcomers to the team all the time.
Hailing from Luxembourg, Dan Lorang studied sports science at university, specialising in competitive sports. For years he worked on triathlons, including a stint as the German national coach. As the coach for world-class triathletes Jan Frodeno and Anne Haug, he helped them to top the podium at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii at total of four times between them. But Dan hasn’t followed a strict plan in his training career. His first forays into coaching were with weekend athletes and people who just wanted to lose weight. He even started out coaching Anne Haug, who was his classmate at the time. It was going well, and he enjoyed it, but it didn’t earn him a penny. Dan’s wife eventually asked him: ‘How long do you have to keep doing this for before you’ll be confident that it’ll work out?’. This gave him the final push he needed to take his chance and turn his hobby – or rather his passion – into a career. With conviction came professionalism, and Dan set about making a big name for himself in the world of endurance sports. Confident that being bold pays off, he took another chance five years ago and swapped triathlons for cycling. He has since coached the BORA – hansgrohe WorldTeam and has taken up position as Head of Performance and Innovations.
So far, so successful. But which skills and talents do you need exactly? For both Sigi and Dan, it was their innovative spirit that sparked their career development. Now their day-to-day work involves leading an entire team and giving its members the tools and skills to innovate. Beyond expertise, innovation requires structure and a creative working environment, says Sigi, before Dan adds that the ability to listen and empathise are key too. The two share some personality traits: both are fairly quiet and exude an air of calm. You would definitely never think of them as being rash or over-impulsive. As is so often the case, still waters run deep. And Sigi and Dan are no exception. If you hear either of them speak, you immediately feel the weight their words carry and their careful consideration. They know what they’re doing, and they always have their goals in mind. Neither of them liked losing when they were kids. Well, who does? But they learned from their setbacks and developed a sort of inner drive to strive for perfection. It pushes them further after a win but even more so after a loss, as there is much more to learn from it. They both took these lessons on board quickly, taking them from their private and sporting lives and applying them in their careers. They don’t centre themselves, however – we’re dealing with real team players here. Both know that ‘teamwork makes the dream work’, whether it’s in pro cycling or product development. And the successes you have as a team are so much sweeter as you can celebrate together.
Teamwork makes the dream work
That all sounds so simple, but you can’t completely plan professional success, it’s a product of many complex ingredients. The urge to innovate isn’t the pair’s main quality. Sigi doesn’t at all see himself as a great innovator, more like an enabler. Neither does Dan constantly overwhelm his athletes with new ideas as they all react and develop differently: while one athlete may always be open to new ideas, another may require greater stability and need a little more time to adjust to changes. If you just look at the different characters of sprinter Pascal Ackermann, tour cyclist and climber Emanuel Buchmann and all-rounder Maximilian Schachmann, it’s obvious how creative Dan needs to be with his coaching. He’s working with individual personalities and their special x-factors, not just the technical aspects of racing. This is where listening plays a crucial role as athletes need to be given trust and breathing room to do what feels comfortable and to get the most out of themselves. For instance, Dan only discusses his initial ideas in a small group within the coaching team before fleshing them out carefully and then testing them with just the athletes who he knows will come with inquisitiveness and an interest in fresh ideas. As a coach, he frequently takes a step back and deliberately stays in an observer role to gather feedback from the athletes. This calls for patience as innovations are difficult to force. Especially when, as is the case with BORA – hansgrohe, the people involved do not work in one location, and much needs to be discussed remotely. Apart from training with the whole team at one or two training camps throughout the year, the athletes often train alone locally to where they each live or in small groups.
By contrast, people at BORA work differently, with in-person discussions par for the course. Although Sigi works on the technical side of the products, people continue to play the biggest role at BORA as they lay the groundwork for new technical innovations. What makes this harder is that Sigi’s team can only receive limited customer feedback during the product development phase. This then needs to be balanced back out with market intelligence and foresight paired with innovative methods. Having a highly creative imagination, such as to envision what tomorrow’s kitchens will look like, is part of the required skill set. ‘You just have to see things through your customer’s eyes,’ says Sigi. This helps you spot any shortcomings and issues for the customer earlier on so you can then determine what the user needs. Only then can you fulfil the customer’s requirements with the best possible solutions. Transparent communication within the team is especially important for this, and in day-to-day practice this is guaranteed by using digital and physical agile boards where you map out ideas along with their status. At the same time there is also an ‘ideas graveyard’ – a place for ideas whose time may just not have yet come. Dan is familiar with this kind of ‘idea recycling’ given that there are always a few old and new ideas knocking around in the desk drawer.
Not every idea is successful. Failure is a part of the process, and teams need to accept that. In any case, the notion of success is relative for Dan and Sigi. Of course athletes are measured by their victories, and new BORA products are meant to yield the best possible returns, but it’s not always about these objective wins. Sometimes it’s just the little, barely visible changes that can add another piece to the big puzzle, allowing key progress to be made.
Making progress by taking a step back
Dan and Sigi agree that just winning all the time is boring and is, on the whole, a real innovation killer. Or in Sigi’s words: ‘If I don’t have any failures then my work is not good enough’. Whether it’s sport or product development: you need to make the most of the freedom you have and fully harness the potential for innovation, occasionally pushing the boundaries and taking risks. Sigi says that there was once a BORA product that was too ahead of its time and was not quite ready for the market, so in the end it was withdrawn. But this did lead to even more thorough testing on the new product. One step back, two steps forward. That’s part and parcel of creating something new and innovative.
And it’s something Dan can wholeheartedly attest to: defeat, in sports or otherwise, is guaranteed to refocus the attention of all those involved, something that soon falls by the wayside when you’re on the road to success. Athletes frequently take it to the limits, which can have repercussions after the event even if they win. It’s not always because of external influences beyond your control; many factors can be consciously controlled during training. An athlete must be flexible so that they can stay focussed and not lose sight of their goal, regardless of outside interference. For Dan, it’s absolutely crucial to discuss this delicate balance with the athlete and make consistent decisions. Only by being 100% committed can everyone involved work efficiently and innovatively. You can see this when body temperature is measured during a stage race, for instance. This was only supposed to happen for testing purposes, and so a rider asked ‘why?’. If Dan had simply answered with ‘random testing’ then the rider would be suddenly much less accepting. Instead he took the time to explain everything, creating an understanding that brought the athlete on board and got them actively involved in contributing ideas. Dan says that this is the best outcome.
Setbacks do happen, on the other hand, such as when they misjudged the ramifications of the crashes prior to the 2020 Tour de France. What happened was that Emanuel Buchmann and Gregor Mühlberger crashed out, although neither sustained any serious injuries. They were back training again fairly quickly and said they felt okay. Despite that however, their bodies would have needed more time to recover, and they both had to contend with the after-effects during the Tour de France, meaning they couldn’t give it their all. But even this setback was a valuable learning experience, as Dan reaffirms: ‘I won’t make the same mistake again.’
Stop thinking, start innovating?
So just what actually makes you innovative? Where do you get the inspiration from? When do the ideas pop into your head? Of course an open and lively office atmosphere is important, and a certain amount of pressure also helps, but Sigi points out that his team come up with almost all their ideas during their leisure time, while out enjoying the great outdoors or while playing sports. Inspiration needs breathing room. That’s why healthy lifestyles and getting exercise in fresh air is actively encouraged at BORA. Occasionally taking a longer lunch break to play sport? That’s fine at BORA. Besides being struck with inspiration while exercising, switching off and unwinding afterwards at home with your family and friends is key to recharging your batteries so you can take on new challenges. Dan and Sigi like to learn from their sons because their two eight-year-olds usually approach things much more freely and come up with more original solutions. Dan also loves taking his dog for a walk or doing sports early in the morning so that he’s ready for the day.
Both need a productive mix of impulse and calm. Sigi describes it as: ‘Impatience is what drives you, but then patience is what gets you over the line. You need both.’ Dan agrees absolutely. This is where the two luminaries think almost exactly the same.
When they discuss how innovations are created, they also identify trust and respect as essential too. And the best way to earn these is through successes, such as when Dan, a trainer coming from the world of endurance sports, coached sprinter Pascal Ackermann to victory in the points classification (‘maglia ciclamino’) at the Giro d’Italia. Dan personally needs this trust for working remotely without the means to monitor his team directly. Sigi adds that trust also grows when the trust that you place in others is repeatedly validated, thereby building confidence. They have experienced this with managers in their own careers, and that’s exactly how they want cooperation to continue with their employees so that the whole team can develop. After all, it’s only with this commitment and buy-in that teams can be bold, self-confident and open in their approach to innovation.
They both agree that you also need optimism and courage to take risks as well as to have a resilient attitude to making mistakes. But even team members perceived as a bit pessimistic are productively involved in the innovation process by Dan and Sigi. This then helps them to reflect on and challenge their own ideas so that they can improve them.
Synergies that you can harness
What keeps striking Dan and Sigi are the similarities that they uncover when they’re deep in conversation. It certainly hasn’t been a dull Q&A exercise. Dan and Sigi constantly back up and add to what the other says, creating a nuanced discussion. While at first glance they work in completely different fields and environments, on closer inspection you find surprising parallels between their careers. Of course, they both occupy leadership roles and have to help constantly improve human and technical processes and generate new ideas. They delegate, facilitate team communication and spend a lot of time listening. They also routinely strike a balance between taking it slow and being patient on the one hand, and being motivated and driven on the other. At the end of the day, they are responsible for a number of employees, colleagues and athletes. These level-headed, but equally determined individuals are also constantly finding similarities in their interests outside of work and what they’re like at home. Usually all that’s left for them to say is just reiterating what the other has just said. Although not without taking inspiration from it and expanding on the topic further. Even when it comes to their approaches to innovation, Dan and Sigi feel validated by each other’s similarities and successes.
The main differences are in the activities themselves and the structures within which they work. There are pros and cons with both ways of working, with the centralised working environment at BORA and the decentralised structure inherent to the BORA – hansgrohe team, owing to the fact that its riders are spread out across Europe. And that’s exactly where the pair’s innovative spirit comes into play again. They are eager to gain detailed insights into how others work on a daily basis, to learn from each other regarding team leadership and managing innovation processes, and, if possible, to actively involve others. Occasionally taking a look in a workshop, attending a meeting in person, gathering greater in-depth insights into how others work. So we’ll be excited to see which innovations the two will be responsible for in the next few years. And you can be sure that this won’t be the last insightful discussion for these two innovation powerhouses of BORA and BORA – hansgrohe.