IAA Visionary Club: Startup Day

Design Thinking in the legal department: How innovations characterize the company culture in startups

Michael Schlotter und Nicolas March auf der IAA MOBILITY 2022

Design Thinking in the legal department: How innovations characterize the company culture in startups

When startups sound out the limits of what is technically feasible with their innovations, it impacts on more than just their development departments. The latest in the IAA MOBILITY Visionary Club series, from the VDA Future Tech Day, reveals as much: Working on new technologies calls for agile thinking right across the company – and sometimes a deliberate break with traditional structures.

Revolutionizing mobility with the product, but thinking and working traditionally in the corporate structures? That’s not going to work, says Dr. Volker Hartmann, Global Vice President of Legal and Governmental Affairs at Vay – at least, not in his area of responsibility.

The technology lawyer has extensive experience in the automotive industry and with major automotive manufacturers. Now, at Vay, he is working for a company developing a new approach to driverless mobility: Teledrive technology. “We want to contribute to solving transport problems in metropolitan areas,” says Hartmann. The mobility service Vay is looking to offer sees customers using an app to order an electric car, which is brought to the address requested using teledriving, and after the trip is parked up again via teledriving. 

Thanks to the technology, the vehicle can be steered remotely by a trained driver – Vay calls it “teledriving”. With it, customers no longer need to engage in the time-consuming search for a car-sharing vehicle and a parking space. The technology supplements the idea of autonomous driving with the human factor: The teledrive system is being designed to be “as safe as having someone in the driver’s seat”, according to the company’s website. The service is set to come to market in Hamburg this year – and already without a driver in the vehicle.

The future of mobility is also legally complex

The market launch of a new technology is a complex challenge, not only for developers, but also for the legal teams. They need to ensure that in the end a legally safe and reliable product comes to market. “We have a new technology here that is throwing up new legal questions and also impinges on many regulatory issues,” says Hartmann. “We simply have to approach many things in a different way to a traditional legal department,” says the lawyer, speaking at the IAA MOBILITY Visionary Club at the VDA Future Tech Day, which brought together SMEs and automotive startups in the Urban Colab in Munich. The aim of the event was to offer familiar and new players a platform for dialog and coming together. Because it is precisely cooperations between startups and established companies that can hold considerable potential for the mobility of the future.

The lawyer as translator

An ideal backdrop, therefore, for a discussion of how engaging with a future technology influences the work in a young company, well beyond the boundaries of the development departments and through to the legal department. At Vay, the legal department covers a broad range of responsibilities, says Hartmann. “We deal with commercial contracts and corporate law, i.e., things that will come up in every company, but also questions that are strongly driven by the product and by the technology. Accordingly, we have a lot to do with engineers and, in doing so, we have to translate between the specialist languages we each use.” For staff in the legal department, that means: “You have to be highly creative, and at the same time structured in your work. Agile in thought, but authoritative when it comes to your legal advice.”

The complexity of the product and the close collaboration with the engineers also influences how the legal department structures its own work – including modern ways of thinking, methods, and processes. “For example, we use Design Thinking in our legal work, together with a digital ticket system to enable colleagues in Development to ask us for legal advice, and a digital kanban board – tools that are common in the working world of the engineer.”

Agile working still the exception

This digital, agile organization is, admittedly, still unusual for legal departments. And evidently not only for them: For while many employees in German companies wish for agile working with modern methods and the flat hierarchies that are required for it, the reality is generally still far from that, as a 2020 survey of specialist employees and managers by the job portal StepStone and the consulting firm Kienbaum revealed. Thus around 71 percent of those surveyed said there were no agile roles in their organization. And 61 percent of the specialists surveyed wanted flat hierarchies, but just 32 percent were actually already working in them.

So agile methods do not yet appear to have been broadly adopted. It’s a challenge even for startups: maintaining agile ways of working and culture including when the company is growing and, at some point, the startup will turn into a sectoral leader. Hartmann sees that too: It would be desirable to preserve a bit of startup culture even while growing, to keep being creative – that is his wish for the future. Ultimately, agility in thinking is now a fundamental requirement for him: “I expect my colleagues to be at eye level with our agile engineering teams. To do that, you have to speak their language and use their tools. Because that is how they work.”

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