Exponential Thinking

25 CIOmovers visited Allianz on April 7. CTO Axel Schell gave them a difficult task: Try to think exponentially – although our brains are limited to linear thinking.

The “Deutsche Luftschifffahrt-Aktiengesellschaft” (DELAG) was the world’s first airline in 1909, founded by Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin for his airships. DELAG transported about 34,000 passengers between 1910 and 1913, and according to the Visual Capitalist website, it took airlines a full 64 years to break the 50 million passenger barrier. But it didn’t continue at this pace: it took the automobile another 62 years, computers only 18, the internet a whole seven years and WeChat just twelve months to reach the same number of users. PokemonGo, one of the first immersive games, did it in just 19 days.

The simple graphic by Visual Capitalist was one of the most impressive slides Axel Schell, CTO of Allianz Technology and host of the CIOmove in Munich in April, showed us, because it documents: History, and with it technological progress, does not develop linearly, but exponentially.

That in itself is not a problem, but it becomes one when we bring people into play: Hardly anyone, said Axel Schell in his presentation that evening, can imagine the massive and disruptive changes of our time. And this is exactly what leads to people underestimating technology at the beginning of its development and not understanding it later when it develops exponentially.

There is only one point where the curves of linear and exponential thinking meet, but as a point it is not only mathematically without value. It simply means: we are not able to keep up with exponentially growing technologies!

This may still be tolerated by consumers; whether someone uses a smartphone or not does not stop progress. It becomes critical when looking at companies: If they do not manage to keep up with technological progress, then opportunities will remain until others take advantage of them who are able to think exponentially.

But what is the consequence of this? Axel Schell was smart enough not to answer this generally in the form of calendar slogans, but to derive it concretely from his own company, Allianz Technology, which, as a globally operating shared services company of Allianz SE, deals with its 11,000 employees around technical progress in the present and the future.

Axel also sees his company as the “innovation and technology radar of the Allianz Group” – with the task of keeping his ears and eyes on technical progress, understanding tomorrow’s technologies and anticipating their use. It is his job to think big and visionary when others are still rubbing their eyes in amazement because they have discovered something new.

Axel Schell and his teams follow these principles:

  • Mindset of cracking business problems with technology
  • Bottom up driven experimentation and innovation
  • Delegation of autonomy
  • Technology craftsmanship
  • Global sharing community

The bottom line is that Axel Schell is creating the basis for an exponential understanding of technical development: a TechCulture that makes this possible. But does that mean that his teams are getting faster and faster and developing more and more in the exponential age? No, it doesn’t mean that. It’s all about getting better and better and setting the right priorities: a strict focus on customers, interdisciplinary teams as well as short development cycles and a focus on generating value.

Forget it!

Exponential thinking is a strategic, but also a mindset. This includes not only thinking and acting with foresight, but also – forgetting! Axel has introduced the term de-learning for this: If you want to shape the future, you have to finish with the past and have the courage to stop doing old things. Only in this combination will we be able to approach the ability to think exponentially.

We hope that at CIOmove in Switzerland we will have the opportunity to talk with Axel Schell and with you about this exciting topic as well! For more information about our agenda click here.