“Passion”, according to Jim Morgan, “is a crucial leadership characteristic that we don’t talk nearly enough about. Passion for product, passion for creating new value, passion for your customer and a deep passion for your team. It’s an essential fuel that powers great development. It’s what helps keep you going when things get tough, and it helps to energize and align your team.”
In this recent WLEI Podcast, Morgan explores this topic in depth with his former colleague Dave Pericak, who served as chief engineer of the hugely successful 2015 Ford Mustang, and is now an engineering director at Ford Motor Company. The two former colleagues explored the role of passion when it comes to product development: the way that it binds teams, guides a vision, and binds individuals to doing great work. The following excerpt is adapted from Dave’s discussion of how he did market research for the 2015 Mustang (the 50thanniversary version of the famed automobile):
“It was a big task to try to figure out what the 2015 Mustang needed to be. How do you determine what success looks like so that you can take something that has been so successful and continue it for the next 50 years? My opportunity to be the chief engineer of Mustang was quite humbling. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to have a slice in time being a curator of this legend. Mustang is a lot bigger than any one of us, and it was cool to be a part of it, for sure.
“Mustang’s been a part of my whole life. I grew up with them, worked on them. I proposed to my wife in one. As I was a kid growing up with them, they were always something that I aspired to own. It’s always been a part of me. That said, I wasn’t designing the 2015 Mustang for Dave Pericak. I had the opportunity to lead the team that needed to design this product for the millions of Mustang fans that are out there globally who have loved this product for 50 years.
“You know the kind of customer we’re talking about. They think of this vehicle as if it’s a family member. They name their cars. They tattoo Mustang on their arm. These people live and breathe Mustang. If you think that you know just because of your experience that you know all there is to know, then I think you’re going to fail, and I think that’s where maybe a lot of companies struggle. I think if you’re going to design a product that’s going to be hugely successful, you need to understand the customer.
“Normally the marketing guys line up the customer, and they identify a target customer and a certain age. That’s not understanding the customer. I’m talking about understanding the guy that cleans his car with a toothbrush. This is what you need to do, no matter what product you’re designing or selling or making, you need to truly be a part of the community and understanding the customer.
“I went out to different shows. I went out to events. I really was a part of that Mustang community and they accepted me into that community. One of the huge surprises was when I went out west to California, and we were doing an event out there. Here I am, the chief engineer of Mustang, and I’m feeling pretty good about that. We’re in an establishment where we’re just talking about things.
“When I told everybody what I did, I didn’t get the response that I had expected. I actually got a response that shocked me, which was people could not believe that we were still building in their words, “That pig.” What they meant by that was a V8 that was not responsible. They saw the car as being an old-school, knuckle-dragging V8. I was just taken aback. I probed a little bit more trying to figure out did they love, did they see the car as sexy, did they see the car as appealing and was it just the fact that they thought it wasn’t a responsible offering.
“I found out that they did think the Mustang was sexy, and they did think that it was cool, but they did not see it as something that they would even consider based on what I mentioned before, being sort of irresponsible to the environment and things like that. I left that night, literally we didn’t make it through the night.
“I called back to some people in Dearborn, and I said, “When I land we have to huddle the team. We’ve got to change the way we look at this product.” That did change the whole engine lineup for the 2015 Mustang.
“We had to consider this challenge: When you think about how Mustang is going to survive, given that the world is changing fast, how is Mustang going to survive in this new world, and how does it become relevant? You look at the younger generation, they have a different view.
“That doesn’t mean that they don’t love automobiles. I think they do still have the passion and the love for an automobile, but they don’t look at the vehicle in the same way that you and I do. With the technology today, how do you bring that into the car? How do you just look at this thing in a way that it stays relevant to those people that are now starting to get their driver’s license, and at the same time not alienate obviously the very large community that has loved this vehicle for so long.
“One of the things that we did find, which I thought was pretty interesting, was that the people that love the vehicle today, they’re actually more elastic than the people that you’re trying to actually conquest, or the new people that you’re trying to bring into the family. It was interesting, a lot of people thought that the current Mustang customer is going to be very rigid in what they wanted and how the vehicle had to look, and what engine offering.
“What we found was that wasn’t the case. As long as you didn’t lose the essence of Mustang, you didn’t lose what makes a Mustang a Mustang. They were willing to stretch. That was an eyeopener for us, because that opened up a whole new idea of what you could do for 2015 to make the car fresh, and make it relevant, but yet not alienate the people who have loved it for so long.”
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