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As TechEd is closing its doors and everybody is heading home with lots of new impressions and learnings I find myself sitting in my hotel room reflecting about it all. One of the most memorable moments for me this year was the 'Embracing Inclusion to Drive Innovation - Design Thinking Workshop.'

Why? Let me tell you... but be warned - it's going to be a very controversial blog!

Setting the Stage

So when I got aware that Marilyn Pratt was organizing a Embracing Inclusion – Driving Innovation : An Introduction during this year's SAP TechEd conference(s) it immediately caught my interest. Having been a (not so secret) admirer of Marilyn and what she does for the SAP community day-in/day-out I was both flattered and excited at the same time when she reached out to me asking whether I'd be interested in helping out as a facilitator. Of course I jumped on the chance for many reasons.

First I had heard many good things about the importance of design thinking in general and about the great work of Heike van Geel in particular and so I was really eager to learn more about it and give it a try (= learn from the pros!) Just watch her session from SAP InsideTrack 2011 to see what I'm talking about.

Second, as someone who is very passionate about technology, innovation and software development AND being a social animal (oxymoron?) I really wanted to get a crisp on embracing inclusion as diversity & international collaboration has become one of the things I enjoy the most working for SAP.

Last, but not least... how could I ever turn Marilyn down? (Apparently I'm not the only one feeling that way! [link])

As such I came to the event with high (in retrospect maybe inflated) expectations.

Marilyn kicked it off by welcoming everybody and then setting out the rules for the event. The ones that stuck with me where:

  • Don't sit with anyone you know & team up with people who look different than you
  • Leave your title behind
  • Every opinion counts and is valued

She then handed it over to the sponsors of the event: Vishal Sikka and Sanjay Poonen. As Vishal unfortunately couldn't make it in person we watched a video of him in which he highlighted the importance of design thinking (he has been promoting it as part of timeless software principles for years, remember?) He also shared how embracing inclusion affected his own life as he became the first Indian CTO of a large enterprise software vendor. After that Sanjay got on stage and captivated the audience by talking about his mother, how she affected his life and shaped his understanding of strong women. Both speeches were very inspiring and down to earth.

Next on the agenda was the panel... and oh my, what a great line-up we got here!

Introducing The Panel

So from left to right the panel consisted of the following people:

Originally, fellow SAP Mentor Vijay Vijayasankar was supposed to be part of the panel as well, yet unfortunately he had to attend an important customer meeting. However, he took the time to write a very good blog post about his point of view, so make sure to it check it out to get to know his stance on the matter. Based on what he wrote I'd say he would have added great value to the panel discussion. Marilyn surely felt this way, too! [Ref.]

So, then the panel got on stage to dig a little deeper on how embracing inclusion could be cultivated more strongly in the enterprise. Unfortunately, that's when it started to go downhill from my perspective...

"How come?", you may wonder, "what could go wrong with such a fine panel?"

Well, here's the thing: as the panel started to introduce themselves I got the impression that they were violating one of the rules we had set up for ourselves. For some reason I felt that almost all of them were pitching to the audience about how important they are, emphasizing on their individual achievements, whom they know or interact with on a daily basis (C-level executives) etc. For me, that clearly violated the "leave your title at the door" attitude, which was meant to put everybody on the same playing ground in the first place. I not only found it completely out of place, but also completely unnecessary - I mean being on such a highly-decorated panel already speaks for itself and underlines your entitlement, so why would one feel the need to list all their accomplishments I wondered. (As I found out later I maybe wasn't the only one feeling that way. This sarcastic (?) tweet from Thorsten nails how I felt. Gavin Heaton also captured Lisa Leslie saying it out loud.)

At first I tried to play down my growing frustration as I've gotten to the understanding that this is one of the areas where cultural differences come into play. During my year at College in the US I had realized that in the States it is generally more socially accepted and encouraged to proudly talk about one's achievements and putting them on the wall for display (e.g. in the living room or office space) than it is in Europe, where such behaviour is quickly regarded as bragging or showing-off.

Especially in the given context I found it out of place and contrary to my expectations in regards to coming to an inclusion event organized by Marilyn Pratt, who probably is the most humble and modest person I have met (which I believe is one of the reasons why she has so many fans all over the world.) Later I found out that I wasn't the only one feeling that way, but at the time I started to feel a disconnect with the panel. But there was more than just that, which added to my feeling of being "excluded from the inclusion event."

Feeling excluded from the Inclusion Event*

So for example when Shaherose Charania started talking about start-ups and VCs and how important designers are in the process of getting a start-up up to speed. All fine with me, but saying "nowadays everybody can code" at a developers conference is both a slap in the face and just plain wrong! Believe me, I've been into this business for more than a decade now and I'm fighting on a daily basis to get the people to understand that software development is a craft (as any other) that needs to be mastered. Maybe she wasn't thinking about how the audience would feel about it or maybe she didn't mean it the way I got it down that moment. (I admit that I probably had set my mind about her by then and from there one I may had been very biased towards what she was saying.)

Another thing that added to my growing discomfort was that the panel seemed too narrow in focus on the topic for my taste. They solely kept talking about Women in IT (WIT) and what could be done to get more women in leading positions in the enterprise. Now, please don't get me wrong now - it's a valid cause! But just turning it into the single topic, when there is soo much more to it,  just made me feel like a lonely nut in the crowd as I couldn't relate to any of it the way it was discussed. As I found out later on I wasn't the only one thinking along these lines either: link.

See, as I said already I'm very passionate about technology, innovation and software development and as a father of three girls of course I'm interested in seeing the status quo improved and making sure that my daughters will get equal rights in their professional life regardless of what they will choose to do. However, I also truly believe that 'positive discrimination' doesn't do the trick either! If would be looking for someone to hire - I'd pick the one best suited for the job regardless of gender.

Another thing that didn't go too well with me was when suddenly all men in the room were asked to stand up. I certainly did and do understand the intention behind it - yet being singled out is rarely a pleasant moment (Gavin handled it with humor!) and the time we had to keep standing was way too long for my liking.

And while I was sitting there, fighting my inner frustration and disappointment about how the event had developed, I probably started to look out for things I could pick upon to self-assure myself that my opinion was right. Especially since everybody around me seemed to really enjoy themselves, the discussion and the event. That's when my inner conflict grew stronger. A part of me simply wanted to grab the mic and confront the people with a completely different mindset, the other just wanted to get out of the room as fast as possible. At that time I was not in peace with myself and that made me too insecure to stand up and tell the people that "they got it all wrong in my book."

As it was such an intense experience I felt the need to talk about it with people close to me in order to get over it (of course Marilyn was one of them) and during these follow-up discussions Thorsten Franz (who apparently shared similar feelings) was able to put my feelings into words by saying: "As the panel had violated the first rule (no titles) right away all the other rules (e.g. every opinion counts and is valued) had been negated as well and as such the secure atmosphere they wanted to create was lost!"


Well, I surely didn't see it as clear then as I do now. I just felt a complete disconnect with all the people in the room. And then it dawned to me that maybe it's just the fact that I'm coming from a completely different background than all the other people in the room.

I surely have enjoyed a very privileged upbringing and life and therefore I may not be able to relate to the topic that much. I mean we have a female chancellor leading the country I live in... most of my role models are women and they are doing equally well in both their professional and private lives. Being a young Caucasian middle-class male living in Germany I've never encountered discrimination myself nor am I aware of it being a major problem where I live(maybe that's because it is ensured that each generation does not forget about our dark heritage!)

Due to all these things I opted against standing up and letting my voice be heard. I just didn't felt like the appropriate thing to do, after all, I am "just" an SAP employee and got here to help run the event - not to crash the party!

On top of it all, I have gotten the impression that the panel wasn't really interested in hearing any other opinion as comments from the audience were quickly discarded in order to keep up with the agenda. Maybe it was the fact that Vijay was missing, but as it was, there was barely any contradicting ideas being discussed. Patty did try to incorporate some of his ideas into the discussion, which just made me feel like they were violating yet another rule for panel discussions: the moderator should not have that much talking time, nor keep commenting on what has been said, but rather simply dispatch between the panel members and have them play it back and forth.

Now, I've never moderated a panel myself and as such it's easy to criticise. I truly have the utter most respect for Patty and any other panel moderator that dares to do it. It surely seems very challenging to be moderating a discussion aiming to surface all angles in a structured approach while keeping it flexible, agile and spontaneous at the same time.

About Leadership & Feeling Insecure

After the panel ended there was a quick bio break before the attendees where supposed to get started with the design-thinking workshop based on what had been discussed. During his break I approached Marilyn as I wanted to tell her that I would like to leave and and why as I felt bad about letting her down.

Of course she argued that I should have stood up and addressed my point of view and so I explained to her how I felt, the struggle within me and that feeling of being insecure and not entitled. I know that as a SAP Mentor I should have done that and defended my stance, others probably would have done so right away! Yet being both an SAP employee and an SAP Mentor at the same time comes with its own challenges and maybe I've just gotten used to doing my part behind the scenes. It certainly was a very intense, but valuable experience, which got me thinking again on what it takes to be a true mentor/leader, about entitlement and feeling insecure. 

But fortunately Marilyn had been able to convince me to stay as otherwise I would have missed out on a great workshop and a fabulous time afterwards!

The Positive Side - The Design Thinking Workshop

After our talk I joined one of the groups and teamed up with Patty, Anne Hardy, Gail Moody-Byrd, Bala Prabahar  and fellow Mentorette Karin Tillotson (as facilitator) who were working on the question of what a company could do to attract/hire the best talents. (I know that by joining this team I violated the rule stating I should team up with people I don't know, but as many people had left after the panel I pretty much knew at least one person at every table...)

What can I say - we had a really vibrant and intense discussion at our table as we were following the guidelines of design thinking. I also got to know all these people on my table so much better and even had a very deep follow-up discussion on entitlement afterwards (thank you soo much Gail about being so honest with me and for approaching me!)

It may sound strange after having written so much about what I didn't like about the event for most part of this blog post, but let me tell you - I really enjoyed the event (well, the post-panel part that is) and I encourage everyone going to Bangalore or Madrid to try to get in (space is limited!) It's been a great learning experience in more than one way, I got to have many great discussions and to meet some very smart and genuine people...

Before I call it a day (and get started on my general TechEd blog) let me refer you to the SAP TechEd Live interview we conducted about the event.

After having watched it now I feel a little embarrassed for not having been able to get a single straight sentence out 😞  What I can say to my defense? Only that it had been a long TechEd with very little sleep the days before.

And then ... if it's one thing I have learned from all of this it's that every opinion counts (even it this person is a non-native speaker and barely understandable :)) And who knows... maybe it helps in making others feel more comfortable to step up (e.g. those who may not have been feeling comfortable with speaking in public) - I sure hope so!

One last thing: it surely wasn't my intention to rip the event apart - far from it! I just wanted to share how I felt (and why) in order to provide feedback (hopefully the constructive type.) I just hope that the people behind this event (organizers and sponsors alike) will apply this fundamental principle of design thinking: fail often and early! [Ref] and take it from there... to new heights!

Further Reading

Credits and Remarks

* mouth-byte stolen, aeh borrowed from Jon Reed (he said it in a completely different context though!)

Images courtesy by Eventrix (usage approved by Chip Rodgers) and Karin Tillotson