Revving Up Innovation

The Road Explorers Journey at Volkswagen Digital Solutions
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About VW Digital Solutions

Innovation is like the North Star guiding us toward a horizon of endless possibilities and untapped potential. It’s not merely about generating concepts, but about orchestrating breakthroughs that revolutionize how we live, work, and connect with each other. In a world where things change so fast, being innovative is not an option, but rather a way to stay alive in the digital transformation era.

I’m Marcelo, a former Product Manager turned Engineering Manager at SDC, a Tech Unit at Volkswagen Digital Solutions. I’m also passionate about innovation, and I’m here today to kick off a series of articles about how we foster innovation inside our company by conceptualizing and launching an internal competition to provide our people some time to solve internal problems: thus The Road Explorers is born!

Since joining VWDS back in 2020, I’ve been blown away by our team’s gutsy spirit, always ready to revamp VW’s processes, with a strong mindset of “Build, Measure Learn”, and always supported by top leadership. With that, we managed to foster a culture where people feel empowered; everything is about our well-being, growth, and development.

One thing I always emphasize is our commitment to being people-driven—it’s a core value I’ve held dear for years. When we put our focus on supporting and uplifting people within our team, we create an environment where creativity flourishes, collaboration thrives, and extraordinary achievements become the norm. It’s a blast watching the product teams and all these amazing individuals tackling real-life problems, diving deep into the nitty-gritty, and coming up with the wildest solutions.

But then one day it hit me: we have a flaw. It was there right in front of me. We’re great at being creative problem-solvers, indeed we are, but we are always only solving problems of Volkswagen’s business areas; while we know our processes could use some improvement, we’ve got tools underutilized, and there’s a whole bunch of knowledge floating around waiting to be harnessed.

We’re not blind to our own shortcomings; we’re just swamped with our day-to-day grind. So, at the start of 2023, I made a decision to flip the script. I had the idea sort of formatted in my mind: an innovation competition, where people could pitch their ideas to solve internal problems, and the winner would get time and a team to develop it into reality.

After a meeting with the leadership in February, I got the first green light and a strong sponsor. The second step was getting the agreement of the other Tech Units’ Leadership as well as the Central Teams, and we made it happen, around March we got the second green light and we were good to go!

Now was the time to write down the process that I had in my mind and draft the plan. But, as I said in the beginning, we empower people, enable them to shine, and that was the motto from the start, It would not be me hands-on, making it happen, we had to empower the others! And we had to have a great team!

In April, we had our rock stars drive the gig, after sharing the idea, vision, and the draft of a plan, I handed over completely and stepped out, acting only in the backstage to unblock and support! And they made it happen!! It was beautiful, like a dream come true!

Of course, it was not all sunshine, rainbows, and butterflies. We hit some bumps along the way, right at the first deal-breaker moment when people had to apply their ideas, by the last day of applications, we had just one idea registered. We had our fair share of second-guessings, “maybe people don’t get excited about it”, “maybe they don’t care that much”, we even thought about a Plan B for pivoting the challenge to something else.

But guess what? Against all odds, it clicked. Embracing the good Portuguese culture, everyone did it at the last minute, and when the bells rang to close the applications in August, we had 12 ideas to assess. Right there we thought “We did it, we made it happen”.

At the beginning of September, we had the mentors that would be the judges for the Pitch day, and all of them were internal people, Product Managers, Agile Enablers, Product Designers, and Developers. Each mentor would score each of the ideas based on some criteria, and among the 12 first applicants, 10 moved ahead to the pitch day, and only the top 5 would move to the last step. Then, the top 5 would pick one mentor among the ones interested in the idea to help them improve the pitch for the last round.

In the last round, the judges were the top leadership representing each Tech Unit and the Central Teams, and it was a hell of fun!!! Just to remember the excitement and the effort that everyone put into the pitch gives me chills. I was amazed by how much people cared about solving our issues and how they engaged in the challenge!

Besides the people fighting for their ideas, seeing the mentors judging with such clever questions, really brought an aura of entrepreneurship and innovation to the room. Our top leadership were challenging the decisions and arguments brought by the pitchers and starting a conversation. Again, I was amazed!

The inaugural season of Road Explorers, our VWDS Innovation Challenge, turned out to be a great success. Over 10% of the company jumped in on the action, from applicants, organizers, supporters, mentors, and judges, making it the hottest initiative in 2023. And it ended up giving the spotlight to those who deserved it.

As in any competition, there is only one winner, and by the end of September, we had the victor decided, and a well-deserved one. But truth must be said, at the end of the competition, I felt that everyone ended up winning something. From feeling more confident by speaking in public, to having a better understanding of how innovation is perceived, to putting their brains workin together, creating a connection with colleagues that they may have never spoken before, strengthening the connections and fostering a sense of collaboration. Literally building bridges across all the Tech Units, again, I was amazed for the 3rd time!

Road Explorers was born with a simple yet powerful mission: to carve out the time and space for people to dream big, conquer the everyday grind, and above all, let them know the company’s got their backs when it comes to cracking the code on their challenges. And as soon as we announced the winner to the whole company, at the company event in October, I was filled with a sense of accomplishment; we ended up 2023 fostering what we believe in!

Without further ado, see you in the 2nd season! Bye!

This is an opinion article and doesn't necessarily reflect the Volkswagen Group view.