ford-innovation-shot-clock

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Every change in corporate leadership brings a wave of change. New initiatives, new goals, and new ways of thinking. One change that stood out to me recently came from Jim Hackett, taking the wheel of Ford Motor Company from former CEO Mark Fields. As part of his first 100-day plan, Hackett instituted a “shot clock” on lingering decisions to ensure the automaker sees progress in key areas.

Like the rest of the automobile industry, Ford is facing three transformations at once: autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, and – possibly more troublesome – the decline in car ownership (and therefore vehicle financing). Hackett’s predecessor seemed, at times, indecisive in those areas. With massive change and opportunity on the horizon, Hackett needs his company to show it can keep up with an industry on the edge of disruption.

For Ford, and many enterprises, the question remains: do deadlines push innovators to make better decisions?

Overcoming Your Risk Tolerance

Enterprises aren’t built to make decisions quickly. As an organization grows, it inherently places bureaucracy and red tape around its core business to protect the practices that got it there. New, riskier ideas are often killed outright or, as at Ford, left wandering aimlessly from whiteboard to whiteboard. For a CEO like Hackett, who aligns closer to Silicon Valley than Detroit, that aimlessness in decision-making must be frustrating when taking the reins of a slow-moving company.

Generally speaking, making decisions for the sole purpose of making a decision will lead to bad decisions or missed opportunities. Given the challenges of its industries, Ford probably needs to move faster than most companies. To be successful, Hackett needs to match a decision-making framework with a cultural shift that provides clear ownership of risky choices and a process focused on moving forward instead of navigating red tape.

Forward motion is important, but innovators need a target. As we learned from our panel of manufacturing innovators, companies win on customer experience, not by chasing new technology. While a shot clock could push Ford employees to quickly make decisions without external input, Jim Hackett has a secret weapon to drive culture in the right direction.

Increasing Pace with The Right Way

What sets Hackett’s plan apart from an arbitrary innovation timer is his deep foundation in design thinking. Design thinking gives a coherent, repeatable to find answers faster; it’s important to say answers here, and not solutions, because design thinking doesn’t necessarily bring you to a destination. It forces you into action, much like a shot clock. Hackett, a long-time collaborator with IDEO, bases his shot-clock vision in design thinking, a process which has served him well at Ford.

Google Ventures often says its design sprint framework allows teams to fast-forward to the future, to see the outcome – good or bad – of an idea without wasting months of effort in theory or whiteboarding. Take five days, build something and put it in front of real customers to quickly validate or kill an idea. In the enterprise, everyone knows ideas and teams will occasionally fail. Design thinking forces teams into a customer-centric mentality, ensuring that any success or failure delivers meaningful insight.

The difference between a forced decision-making process and a design thinking approach is a deadline with guaranteed knowledge when the clock expires. However,

Revisiting Old Ideas

Any team can kill an idea without truly testing its viability; middle managers and compliance officers in most enterprises excel at it. It takes a better team to kill an idea for the right reasons or, better yet, prove an unproven idea has legs. The trouble with putting innovation on a timer is that, in many cases, an idea that failed early in the game may be a slam dunk in the fourth quarter.

As technology and consumer taste changes, an idea that failed the viability or feasibility tests a few years ago might be primed for the marketplace. Killing innovative ideas due to an arbitrary timeline can mean that products that merely needed some more time to bake are never revisited because they failed early. Innovators who can maintain a customer focus throughout the lifecycle of an idea will know when to revisit or recycle ideas that failed in the past. When the conditions are right, organizations need to encourage innovators to occasionally take the same shot they missed earlier.

Innovators need speed and a framework for repeatable, rapid decision-making. But it’s important for innovators and executives to remember that speed for speed’s sake rarely leads to good decisions. It must be paired with a focus on challenges facing the core business and friction facing your customers.

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