How to kill a great organisation?:

„Keep doing what you’re doing!“

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What does it take to really make an idea a success?

In this episode of our podcast series „How to kill a great organisation“, Markus Petz spoke with Christoph Pasching, Head of Digital Solutions at Brantner GmbH. Brantner is an international, innovative company in the waste management sector with 2700 employees.

Out of necessity, the company has integrated modern, technological means such as AI and robotics into work processes. This subsequently even developed into a separate corporate division that is active beyond waste management and specialises in innovative, technological solutions. Pasching talks about the belief in one’s own ideas and the courage to stand up for something new in the face of resistance.

When you have to rethink

In 2021, the family-owned company based in Krems won the Iceberg Innovation Leadership Award with its „Hawkeye“ project. In „Hawkeye“, image recognition and self-learning systems are used to detect disruptive substances in waste in order to optimise the disposal and further processing of the waste. Contaminants are becoming more and more prevalent, which has become a problem for composting. Through the use of technology, it is possible to filter out even more valuable resources from waste streams and feed them into targeted recycling. In a nutshell, it’s about a contaminant scanner in the organic waste sector, which uses image recognition and artificial intelligence (AI) to scan the contents of the brown organic waste bins for so-called contaminants such as PET bottles, batteries and residual waste.

Breaking new ground

Pasching explains how the „Hawkeye“ project was the impetus and pioneer for further innovative developments at Brantner: „In addition to this interfering material scanner, we have also implemented almost the same technology with other detection methods in our plastic sorting plant.“ He elaborates on the challenges of successfully applying modern technologies such as AI , sensor technology and robotics to a traditional sector such as waste management:

„With technologies like this, you always think of clean rooms and everything runs great and the processes are all very clear and mapped out. And of course, in the first step, that was not at all compatible with the classic waste management concept.“

Keep at it – with communication, perseverance and persuasion!

Pasching cites the importance of sticking to one’s ideas and one’s belief in them and not letting oneself be dissuaded as an essential component of success:

„But you must not give up under any circumstances. And that is also a message that I would like to pass on, that you stay behind and persistently try to overcome resistance. With a lot of communication, with a lot of persuasion.“

He also believes that a certain „undercover mentality“ is crucial for the implementation of innovative ideas, daring to tackle things even if you are sometimes „fighting windmills“. Pasching cites the balancing act between innovation and required effectiveness as the biggest challenge in a corporation:

„Out of ten different ideas, you have to be ready for four, five to possibly come to nothing… Everything you do has to be 100% reflected in some business case, because otherwise it’s not effective. Innovative forces are willing to put a certain amount of energy into something.“

For Pasching, competing in awards is not only public relations, but also helps to give the innovative projects the right status within the company: „The prophet in your own country counts for nothing, but the foreign prophet then does. That’s what these awards are.“

How to not kill a great organisation:

  • Do not miss the moment when it is necessary to rethink and go new ways instead of continuing with old patterns.
  • Think „out of the box“ and dare to imagine something new.
  • Don’t let yourself be stopped, but try to dissolve resistance persistently and empathetically. If you let yourself be stopped straight away, you will fail!
  • Dare to make changes even if you do not have supporters for every action.
  • Be prepared for possible setbacks. Not every idea will hit the mark at first. Transformation is always a process.
  • Use all opportunities to convince people of the effectiveness and success of the new approaches.
  • Make an effort to find the right people for your project, who have the right mindset and the right motivation to make the new things work.
  • Avoid unnecessary tensions through communication and concepts that include all existing resources.

The full-length interview:

Markus Petz: Welcome to the new episode of our „How to Kill a Great Organisation?“ podcast. We talk to people who are crucial to the long-term success of their organisation. My name is Markus Petz. I am one of the founders of MetaShift and today I would like to welcome Mr Christoph Pasching, Head of Digital Station at Brantner. A warm welcome to you all!

Christoph Pasching: Welcome! Hello everyone!

Markus Petz: Yes, dear Mr. Pasching, perhaps we could start by inviting you to introduce yourself briefly and give us a bit of an idea of where you are in the Brantner company and what your responsibilities are.

Christoph Pasching: With pleasure. Well, my name is Christoph Pasching, I am Head of Digital Solutions within the Brantner Group. Brantner is an innovative company in the waste management sector. We are a family business based in Krems in the third generation. We now have 2700 employees and are an international company, operating not only in Austria but also in the markets of Romania, the Czech Republic, Serbia and Slovakia. Yes.

Markus Petz: Yes, it’s like that now. I became aware of you because I saw that you have received a number of awards. One that caught my eye was this iceberg award. It was Innovation Leadership 2021 with the Hawkeye project. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Christoph Pasching: With pleasure. We submitted our Hawkeye project to this award because we were of the opinion that we had created something absolutely innovative and new, which we naturally also wanted to make available to an independent expert audience and have it evaluated. And we won first place in this award, which of course confirmed our work. In a nutshell, the Hawkeye project is a contaminant scanner in the organic waste sector. We are, we are also collectors. As a waste management company, of course. Also collectors of organic waste, the classic municipal organic waste. That is the brown bin, more or less from every household. And we increasingly have the problem that the quality of these organic collections is getting worse, especially in urban areas. And for us it is eminently important to know how good this is again and again through these individually driven tours with the individual dumps of the bins. Before they come to us then to a compost plant where we produce premium soil among other things. Why do we need to know how good the quality of these tours is? It makes a huge difference what kind of contaminants are in there, and you can’t imagine what we’ve come across. Besides car batteries, Barbie dolls, PET bottles, entire residual waste bins, also construction waste, etc. But to find everything in there that ends up in our lorry, where we can’t really make a forecast, we can’t really say how good this tour really is that is driven by this lorry on this day in this area.

Christoph Pasching: With the scanner or Hawkeye project, we needed six weeks from the idea to the first prototype and we made a 3D-printed and -constructed holder for the truck, put a mobile phone camera in it and can use it to take sufficiently good pictures of the area where the barrel is then poured into the truck and take a status photo there and, with the help of an AI and a neural network, objectively and above all in real time, identify the substances that are found in the photo. The detection of the interfering substances is then categorised by us afterwards on the basis of a matrix between one and five. That is school grades. System one is good, five is bad. As a stark example, perhaps to illustrate: A car battery is more harmful than a PET bottle, but 100 PET bottles are more harmful than a baby doll. So in a way: the dose makes the poison. But also referring to what has been found and how dangerous are these substances? Together with two biologists in the team, we have created this matrix according to which we are now evaluating.

Markus Petz: Now the keyword was artificial intelligence. And as far as I understand it, that was only a first step into innovative digital activities around artificial intelligence in your entire company. It’s not just this project, Hawkeye, that you’re pushing ahead with, but there are already other developments. Have I understood that correctly?

Christoph Pasching: Correct. The Hawkeye project was the first of its kind, if you want to put it that way. The necessity of waste management has made it necessary to rethink, to rethink things and to no longer continue according to the classic pattern of today. We needed an objective analysis tool that helps us to collect data and evaluate it so that we can better plan our tours and, above all, know in advance what qualities we will encounter. And the Hawkeye project was, as I said, the first of its kind and was also the trigger for further innovative developments that we at Brantner have now been able to initiate.

Markus Petz: What direction did that take? What did you initiate?

Christoph Pasching: In addition to this contaminant scanner, we have also implemented almost the same technology with other detection methods in our plastics sorting plant in Wölbling. There are now twelve cameras there that analyse the input stream from this plastic collection, i.e. what is classically yellow bin and yellow sack, and we are trying to fulfil the collection quotas even better there with the help of our AI and the use of robotics, i.e. with delta pickers…. PET bottles, for example, are a very important raw material in this material stream and the more PET bottles that are lost at the end and that end up being incinerated, the worse it is and we have just tried to roll this out or are in the process of doing so. Successfully how our AI can support within a very classic environment such as a plastic sorting plant, for example. Another example is that we robotise a tractor indoors in a composting hall. That means we teach it how to locate itself inside a hall with no view to the outside with centimetre precision, so that in the future it will be able to carry out these tasks inside, which until now have been carried out by a machine operator, completely autonomously.

Markus Petz: Up to now, waste management and artificial intelligence and robotics are perhaps not immediately associated with each other at first glance, but for me at least, waste management is also a very traditional business. How did this development come about in the first place? How did this innovation begin?

Christoph Pasching: That is a very good question and a good point. As with many things, the innovation naturally started with an idea or a lead that said, we have a problem, how can we best solve it? And then there were currents in our department, actually in Business Development, where we looked for the best way to solve the problem. Which was not always very easy because, as you said, it is of course an absolutely classic area where high technologies such as AI, sensor technology and robotics are still rather poorly represented at the moment, let’s put it that way.

Markus Petz: Now I also imagine it like that. Everything that is new, there are definitely tensions or reservations. Even more so if, as you said, the machine then perhaps takes the place of the human who previously worked as a machine operator. What experiences have you had there? With reservations or also with tensions when it comes to bringing something new into the world?

Christoph Pasching: Well, I would say that people are creatures of habit. Everyone has a comfort zone. And wherever you have to move out of something and open your focus a bit, people are usually always sluggish. That means that the tensions you have just mentioned have of course also taken place here. There are always a few innovative forces that are also very quick to implement. The classic start-up companies have a high speed, high implementation rate. And today that is in an international group. The way Brantner is, that was also a novelty with the corresponding problems. Of course, there have been currents that have said: We’ve always done it this way until now and it won’t work because the environments on the Hawkeye project – now that the scanner is in the truck – the conditions are so difficult. You’ll see that it won’t work. There we have always changing light conditions, the temperatures are a problem, there it’s dusty, there it’s wet. You have pretty much the most horrible environment you can imagine. Which is not really in line with such high technology as artificial intelligence and neural networks in the first instance, I would say. With technology like this, you always think of clean rooms and everything runs smoothly and the processes are all very clear and defined. And of course, in the first step, that was not at all compatible with the classic waste management concept.

Markus Petz: How did you make progress there? How were you able to dispel these concerns and convince people to embark on this adventure?

Christoph Pasching: I believe that several components are necessary. One component is that you absolutely stick to your idea and your belief and don’t let yourself be dissuaded immediately. It’s a bit like tilting at windmills. But you must not give up under any circumstances. And that is also a message that I would like to pass on, that you stay behind and persistently try to overcome resistance. With a lot of communication, with a lot of persuasion. Stakeholder management is certainly a term that has to be lived very well. And it’s also familiar from project management. So you need all these things to really bring an idea to fruition. If you let yourself be stopped right away and give in to the first resistance, then you will fail. So that’s clear.

Markus Petz: What other components are there? There are several components that make success possible.

Christoph Pasching: Another component would be that at the beginning you certainly have to work a little under the radar, maybe even where you have to work in advance. Especially with such innovative and novel solutions, the of probably not necessarily looking at the on the time account how long do you work? And so on and so forth. A classic start-up mentality. You have to be committed to the cause and be prepared to pay for it in advance so that you can prove afterwards that it worked. So in addition to stamina, you also need, visually speaking, a bit of an undercover mentality to push things forward. And not necessarily, how should I put it, yourself. I don’t want to call for a refusal of orders. But you have to dare to do things, even though you don’t have a supporter for every single action.

Markus Petz: So you could say that you are a kind of lateral thinker or a bit of a rule breaker?

Christoph Pasching: Yes, exactly. Rule Breaker is a good, is a very good term that has been fitting since.

Markus Petz: What kind of people do you need to make progress? From your point of view, from your experience, what kind of personality is helpful to effectively take such innovative steps forward in a traditional company?

Christoph Pasching: People or persons who do not have blinkers on. People who are also open in their private environment and try to apply new things that they see and discover to professional things. So this is what I mean by my example now. When I read something where I think to myself, well, if this works in such and such a way, then I could also imagine that it would work in such and such a use case within our company. For example. So I try to turn things around and think out of the box, to be open, to discuss things, but also to be prepared to make a mistake, to try things out and to admit that at some point you will say: OK, that didn’t work. Out of ten different ideas, you have to be prepared that four or five might not work. And that is, I think, the biggest challenge within a company like this, where the classic way of working applies, that you have to be effective and effective is not necessarily compatible with innovative. Effective means you have to be. Everything you do has to be 100% reflected in some business case, because otherwise it’s not effective. Innovative forces are willing to put a certain amount of energy into something. Of course you want, you pursue, every idea that works out and that it becomes something and that the business case behind it also works. But it can also happen that that doesn’t happen. And then you need this openness and understanding to say, okay, I tried it out and now I know that it doesn’t work for this or that reason and I’ve learned something new.

Markus Petz: Well, the Brantner company has already decided to found an independent company that has been established outside of the conventional corporate world, so to speak. How do you deal with this? How welcome was the new company that was created and how successful was it with the existing units? How can I imagine that?

Christoph Pasching: Well, for me personally it was of course an appreciation and a success that we even founded a spin-off from the innovative solutions we created, where we continue to operate these AI technologies and robots and sensor technology things in our own unit in our own limited company. Completely independent of Brantner’s basic waste management concept. That was of course extremely great. All the efforts paid off and that was more or less the reward and the appreciation, that what had been developed for a year before, with hundreds of working hours, thousands of working hours, was more or less appreciated. Within the Brantner company, i.e. within the group, it was of course not always so smooth, the whole thing. It wasn’t open enmity in the sense of that, but one does look at this development. Is that right? There are still, or have been, doubters who have said. Well, what do we suddenly have to do with AI and so on. We are actually from the waste management sector and it really has nothing to do with us now. Yes, that’s right. On the one hand, on the other hand, it is another mainstay for a group of companies that could possibly give us additional support or opportunities in difficult economic times. How to react as quickly as possible to the challenges of the future.

Markus Petz: Now it is still relatively young. How do you assess it? Is it, so to speak, already so consolidated that there will no longer be a relapse? What is your assessment of the future of this newly founded company?

Christoph Pasching: Well, we are doing great. We already have a positive cash flow and can also report our first customers. This means that the distribution of our carry solutions is working. They are also very well accepted outside the waste management sector. We already have some well-known customers who have nothing to do with waste management at all. This means that our concept of AI works as simply as never before and is very well received by business and industry. So the future prospects look very good. We also already have an expansion into Slovakia and Switzerland, where we have also been able to win our first customers.

Markus Petz: What dynamics are there in terms of existing employees, for example, who were initially very sceptical in the core business, now saying, „Wow, there are completely new opportunities opening up. That’s where I want to go, that’s where I hear, that’s where I want to join in“. What is the dynamic there?

Christoph Pasching: There is this dynamic. And of course there are such awards. And that is also the ulterior motive why we submit to such awards. The more you can prove to the public that you are successful with an idea. There’s a saying: the prophet in your own country counts for nothing, but the foreign prophet does. These are the awards. They are also very helpful in convincing the classic currents that this is something and that it really has a future and will bring success. What I can observe very well myself is that younger colleagues in particular are of course much quicker to jump on our bandwagon from their mindset and say: Ma, that’s cool, that’s really great, the modern technologies, I’d like to work on that too. We also have a very young team and it works really well. They are 1,000 % ready to fight for the cause and you can get everything from them without any grumbling or complaining and they help wherever they can and do any kind of work that is necessary to push the overall Brantner Digital Solutions project forward.

Markus Petz: Now you’ve said that there are many young people who are easy to inspire. What role does diversity play? Diversity plays an important role in people’s considerations to promote such innovative activities.

Christoph Pasching: Diversity in the sense of? That’s where the question has to give a bit back.

Markus Petz: In the sense of diversity. So to really say: How can I bring something new into the world by creating a certain amount of tension and not through uniformity, but through difference. And if all the young people were there, so to speak, then it would be homogeneous again. So to what extent does it play a role that you consciously say: Okay, I’m looking for someone who has a greater background of experience or someone who brings a technical focus. And at the same time, we also need people who care about shaping relationships, because that also plays an important role. So that’s the difference I meant. To what extent do you make sure that there is room for different personalities in your environment, in your team?

Christoph Pasching: I understand. At the moment it is extremely difficult to get resources in the sense of employees on the market. That is the basic problem. We don’t yet have the luxury of thinking about diversity, but we are rather handicapped by the fact that we can’t find anyone who hasn’t already been scoured by other large companies. At the moment, I have to admit, we are even deepening our efforts by supporting diploma theses at universities of applied sciences and technical colleges and trying to help the younger people, to transfer knowledge, to give them an outlook. The Brantner company also organises its own Innovation Challenge every two years, and now in October it is happening again, where we are trying to inspire young people with ideas for this cause and to find out where their future focus might lie. So the topic of diversity in the sense of: I have different people who bring different tasks. And enlivening the whole thing in a different way. Because I don’t have that luxury or that problem yet, I have to admit honestly.

Markus Petz: Okay, what about women? It’s always the topic of women and technology. That’s rather exotic. Do you also succeed in winning women for this artificial intelligence, for this task with robotics at universities? Or is it still very male-heavy?

Christoph Pasching: It is still very male-dominated. But we are actively looking for women in this field, because that naturally helps the whole team to function differently, to function better, to get other views. And we try very hard to support that.

Markus Petz: Um, yes. Maybe if we look back now, when you reflect on what has come about. Is there anything you would say? I would do that differently next time.

Christoph Pasching: I would do it differently next time. I would definitely put more energy and focus into communication next time. I would work out a better or more refined concept on how to pick up existing staff and existing resources better, even better. Earlier and so that possible, I’m going to say unnecessary tension or procrastination. An unnecessary one, can be shortened. It will never be avoided completely. But next time I would like to take the knowledge with me on how I can pick up stakeholders even earlier and get them excited about the issue.

Markus Petz: Yes, thank you very much, dear Mr Pasching, for these fascinating insights into the emergence of a completely new, innovative unit within a traditional company. I would like to thank you very much for your willingness to make our podcast available for this purpose. Thank you very much! Yes, of course. Perhaps there will be an opportunity to exchange ideas again in the future, when you have taken the next steps.

Christoph Pasching: With pleasure. I would be happy to hear from you again.

Markus Petz: Yes, then I would like to thank our audience for listening. If you enjoyed the episode, we would be delighted if you would subscribe to us via your favourite podcast app and, of course, even more so if you would give us a five-star rating or recommend us to a colleague or someone in your circle of friends and family who might also be interested in this episode. This helps us to continue to attract exciting guests and explore new topics around transformation, change and transformation for them. See you on the next episode. Kind regards, your MetaShif team.