The little white apparatus does not show the story of its origins. The sprayer, which is somewhat reminiscent of a shower head in terms of size and structure, facilitates the even distribution of sunscreen on the skin. The idea for this came from Valentin Langen, who until recently worked in the marketing department of the coating specialist Wagner Group. He had noticed that a lot of sunburns are caused by applying an uneven cream. In 2013, he only pursued his idea as a project at Wagner, which later gave birth to the start-up Ioniq.
And that’s where the problems started. For example, when an independent institute was supposed to carry out the first product tests. Thomas Jeltsch, who is responsible for the technology and development of the sprayer at Wagner, wanted to commission the Stiftung Warentest. “But he didn’t even include sales and marketing in his decision,” says Christof Rink, responsible for product development at Ioniq. He packed his anger into an email to Jeltsch – and put Ioniq boss Valentin Langen in CC. A “means of escalation”, as Rink himself says, who relied on the support of his superior Langen, an internal nickname: bulldozer.
Wherever people interact with each other, they sometimes quarrel. Disputes like those at the Wagner Group are therefore not uncommon, the example even shows that there is a positive force in them: only conflict creates innovation. “Innovations are driven by different perspectives. Without them there will be no new food for thought and no creative problem solving,” said David Antons, Director of the Institute for Technology and Innovation Management at RWTH Aachen University. Conflicts only become a problem when they are dealt with. When arguments are kept under the covers, they escalate and eventually become a personal feud. The positive dynamics fall by the wayside. Mediator and labor lawyer Frauke Biester, who has been moderating conflicts in family businesses, medium-sized companies and corporations for eight years, says: “With increasing hierarchy levels, conflicts are more likely to be denied.”
A series of prominent examples show what covert up discrepancies can do. The internal indications of excessive emissions of diesel models in the Volkswagen Group were deliberately ignored for a long time before they led to a major scandal. The steel company Thyssenkrupp decided against all internal critics in 2005 to build huge steelworks in the USA and Brazil, and later broke up due to the bad investment. Even where the worst comes to the worst, disputes are expensive: they distract employees. You demotivate them. Sometimes they even make them sick.
For this reason, companies should not cover up conflicts, but should uncover them, says management author Reinhard Sprenger: “In economic history, companies have always died of unsettled contradictions, of pressure to conform.” On the other hand, innovation and future viability need conflicting ideas. Companies should therefore deal with them constructively. If 3M employee Arthur Fry had not stuck to his idea against the resistance of the management, there would be no post-its today. If Steve Jobs hadn’t repeatedly offended his employees with his impatience and attention to detail, Apple might not be one of the largest tech companies today.
The Ioniq team and Jeltsch were initially able to settle the dispute over the test institute. Rink made it clear to the head of development that the actual target markets were not Germany, but Great Britain and Switzerland – the Stiftung Warentest was therefore unsuitable. Since then, they have been looking for an institute that can withstand the technical requirements of Jeltsch. But the conflicts did not end there, they are too deeply anchored in the confused organizational structure itself. This is how the know-how for the small spray heads from Wagner comes, the knowledge about cosmetics from the Langens Ioniq team. The start-up is located in an open-plan office in a wing of the Wagner headquarters in Markdorf on Lake Constance, accounting and human resources take care of both companies, and six Wagner developers are there for Ioniq.
So it was only a matter of time until the next escalation: The necessary samples did not work properly when the first product test with customers was due. The sales team was frustrated, the developers helpless in the short time. Jeltsch defended his employees who had limited capacity – Langen his sales team, which finally wanted to move forward. They couldn’t agree. Finally, Wagner managing director Guido Bergman intervened: he listened to both sides in a joint conversation and decided to carry out the test with the samples that were not fully functional. “Even so, the test subjects gave us helpful feedback,” recalls Bergman.
It is a matter of course for the managing director to mediate between the start-up and the established team from time to time: “As a managing director, you always have to be vigilant in the event of conflicts such as when boiling water on the stove, because the water must not boil over, but it must not cooling down.”