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Embark on an automotive innovation journey with Ashok Sivanand, Founder and CEO of Integral, as we explore how he actively shapes the future of product design, technology, and leadership in the automotive industry.
In this episode, Ashok shares his insights on:
👉What's happening in the world of automotive technology and product design
👉Bridging the gap between Lean manufacturing principles and the field of software and technology
👉The challenges faced by OEMs in adopting cross-functional design processes and understanding how silos impact innovation
👉The shortcomings of traditional customer surveys
👉Power of in-depth interviews and qualitative data for effective problem-solving
👉Essential leadership qualities for fostering innovation in automotive companies
👉Why leaders should foster an environment that encourages experimentation and learning
👉The transition to a more innovative mindset within traditional organizations
Join us to explore the challenges, rewards, and transformative approaches shaping the future of the automotive industry. Whether you’re an industry professional or simply love innovation, this episode is a must-listen.
Themes discussed in this episode:
- Understanding Customer Pain Points
- Challenges in Traditional Approaches
- Innovating Automotive Culture
- Designing Products in the Industry
- Making Bets for Innovation
- Transitioning to an Innovative Mindset
- Integral Way of Problem-Solving
- Essential qualities for fostering innovation in companies
- Managing Transitions in Companies
Featured: Ashok Sivanand
What he does: Ashok is the driving force behind Integral, a digital transformation firm. As the CEO, Ashok is on a mission to make mobility a universal right. His passion lies in collaborating to build delightful products and high-performing teams, fostering a tech community that's not just inclusive but diverse. With leadership roles at Pivotal Labs and a track record in product development, he's now leading Integral to reshape how businesses integrate technology into their core.
On leadership: “I think that a combination of vulnerability and resilience is something that is hard to find. It's hard to find within oneself, let alone within an organization”
Mentioned in this episode:
- IoT Company, Shoplogix
- Toyota Production System & The Theory of Constraints
- Ford Labs
- Steve Blank’s Investment Readiness Checklist
- The Four Steps to the Epiphany: Successful Strategies for Products that Win
- The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses
- Ford Pro
[00:03:38] Ashok’s journey in automotive: Explore Ashok’s impactful career journey and how it led him to become a transformative force in the automotive industry.
[00:08:54] The genesis for Integral: The factors that inspired Ashok to start his own business and sparked his commitment to reshaping traditional automotive practices.
[00:12:13] Transforming automotive product design: The changes brewing in automotive product design and understanding Ashok’s take on how the industry is adjusting to meet the ever-changing market demands.
[00:15:48] Breaking silos, building innovation: The challenges OEMs face when trying to ditch the silo mentality to focus on cross-collaboration and fostering innovation.
[00:18:20] Ashok’s advice for leaders: Ashok’s advice for innovation leaders: Understand your role, recognize your strengths, transition from mere order-taking to value creation, and adopt a holistic approach.
[00:24:38] The right way: The Integral way of truly understanding customer pain and prioritizing customer value through in-depth interviews, qualitative data, and a missionary approach to problem-solving.
[00:32:51] Leadership guide for innovation: Ashok’s take on the 21 traits of authentic leadership and the qualities he thinks are essential for fostering innovation.
[00:40:53] Lessons from Ford Labs: Learn from Ashok’s experiences at Ford Labs, understanding how companies can effectively manage transitions and adopt innovative practices.
[00:49:08] Personal side of Ashok: In a more personal segment, Ashok shares his favorite Detroit spots and music preferences, offering a glimpse into the life of a leader shaping the auto industry’s future.
[00:13:46] Ashok: “I think anytime you use the word product, you want to be very clear as to who's it for and what's it for.”
[00:14:19] Ashok: “When you get all the cross-functional components together, or the constituents together, they're able to make decisions relatively more autonomously and be given the authority to go solve that problem. You're going way faster. And you're able to combine hardware and software very quickly to make these decisions.”
[00:15:31] Ashok: “Digital transformation is not just the use of technology, but it's thinking in a different way and being enabled by technology and then using it to solve problems either for your customer or your internal operations and sometimes even just taking the risk out of the decisions that you make.”
[00:21:15] Ashok: “You're thinking about being more technology-enabled or doing well at serving software. I think there are a few things to consider. Number one is adding business value where you are not just taking the orders that come from the sales team and make sure that it gets done on time and on budget.”
[00:32:10] Ashok: “There's nothing that can convert someone from mercenaries to missionaries, where my job isn't just coming in and getting a paycheck. It's something that I feel purpose around. There's nothing that's going to make that change in your team than helping them understand how bad something is today and how the work they're doing today is going to lead to that being much better for that person.”
[00:47:06] Ashok: “I've seen a lot more efficacy around proving it out in a small area, going real deep with it, and then spreading that context and confidence to the broader enterprise versus trying to do a little bit of it but spreading it across.”
[00:00:08] Jan Griffiths: Welcome to the Automotive Leaders Podcast, where we help you prepare for the future by sharing stories, insights, and skills from leading voices in the automotive world with a mission to transform this industry together. I'm your host, Jan Griffiths, that passionate, rebellious farmer's daughter from Wales with over 35 years of experience in our beloved auto industry and a commitment to empowering fellow leaders to be their best authentic selves. Stay true to yourself, be you, and lead with Gravitas, the hallmark of authentic leadership. Let's dive in. You already know that we're in a critical period of transformation in our beloved auto industry. And today, we're going to delve deep into the intriguing world of technology and product design in a landscape where tech companies are redefining the approach to product creation. We explore why they're so adept at addressing customer pain points; they're laser-focused. And why they seem to operate with speed and agility far greater than our more traditional siloed approach to product design. My guest today is at the forefront of this transformation. Today, you'll meet the CEO of Integral. He's a visionary leader who began his journey as a software engineer, grew a passion for Lean manufacturing, and he mastered the art of bridging the gap between these two very different worlds to advance product design.
Back in 2015, Ashok foresaw the increasing importance of software engineers in driving product differentiation, and he was absolutely spot on. In this episode, we'll uncover many different aspects of this shift: your design approach mindset and moving from the project versus product approach. Think about that for a minute, and the power of qualitative data to the importance of making small bets and fostering an innovative culture. And we'll discuss what happens when a production line comes to a halt. It's more than just a pause in work. It's a moment that really tests an organization's culture. We'll talk about the leadership qualities essential for nurturing an environment of innovation and transforming people from mercenaries to missionaries. Do you have mercenaries or missionaries in your team? Plus, we'll learn why Ashok left a rock-star corporate career to start his own business and why he moved to Detroit and stayed. Join me as we unravel all of this and meet the man who's not just witnessing, but actively shaping the future of product design and technology. Ashok, welcome to the show.
[00:03:36] Ashok Sivanand: Hey, thanks a lot, Jan. It's great to be here.
[00:03:38] Jan Griffiths: Our beloved automotive industry is going through a period of massive transformation, and I talk a lot on this podcast about the culture piece of that. But there's another aspect to this: not only is the product transforming, we talk about going from ICE to BEV all day long, but it's the way that we design that product and all of that is rolled up in this wonderful term that we love to throw around called digital transformation. And you're right there at the forefront, aren't you?
[00:04:13] Ashok Sivanand: Sure am.
[00:04:15] Jan Griffiths: I want to go back and understand a little bit more about you. How on earth did you start your career? Take us right back to the beginning. Where did you start?
[00:04:26] Ashok Sivanand: Sure thing. I think even before the career phases, we have in common that we both weren't born or raised in the US.
I was born in India. I grew up in the Middle East, my family were actually refugees in Desert Storm, and then, when we lived in Kuwait, and then I came to Canada as an international student, and that's where I would say maybe the career started, although my dad was a software engineer and my brothers and I were coding before we were 10, so you could argue one way or another.
And I went to school in a city called Hamilton, which is very similar to Detroit, very industrial, and worked as a forklift driver. And it's almost like every single job since then has been on a factory shop floor or has the lean manufacturing mindset in some way or another. I spent some time at a General Motors plant that was a partnership between General Motors and Suzuki called Cami Automotive. And rumor has it was one of the most efficient General Motors assembly plants, and one might surmise that it's because of a lot of the Japanese production influence that it has. We all had white shirts and blue pants; I had my name embroidered. My claim to fame there was that I shut the line down for like eight minutes when we were even running Sundays, and I learned a lot about how the Japanese culture kicks in. Like I had lost the company maybe five or six times what I got paid that entire year during that night, I was expecting to come in and put my stuff in a box and leave. And they did a very kind, non-judgmental, a sort of no-blame retrospective in a five whys exercise to figure out how this happened. And initially it was pointed at me of like, 'Hey, what did you do? How did that happen? Why is that?' He turned to my boss. They made some continuous improvement suggestions and he thanked me for my transparency. And we went back to work that day. And I then worked at an IoT company called Shoplogix that's based out of Toronto and also very rooted in Japanese or in manufacturing and helping manufacturers understanding what's going on in their plants. And so, I had to really study the Toyota Production System, Theory of Constraints. And I was always sort of the software person amongst the manufacturing folks. And I had to bridge back and forth to be really good at building the right products and helping them adopt those products the right way and getting into their mindset. So, I became a student of manufacturing there.
[00:07:04] Jan Griffiths: So, your background started in manufacturing before you really got into the software.
[00:07:11] Ashok Sivanand: I was working as a software engineer in all of these roles. So, when I shut the line down, it's because I fat-fingered some code. And then, when I was at the IoT company, I started out as a software engineer and moved into product roles, moved into sales roles, moved to the UK actually, and lived in Bristol for a year, and set up their overseas operations in that region. And so, I was always sort of the software person amongst the manufacturers or a software person amongst the Lean folks. And then, I went to go work at a company called Pivotal Labs, where they had embraced this Lean manufacturing process into software. And you've heard of things like lean startup. Extreme programming is another example of where manufacturing systems and thinking were applied to how software is developed and Lean, for example, can carry over just as well where as a manufacturer, you don't want to have a ton of inventory in your warehouses and similarly as a software team, you don't want to have a ton of features that are not in front of your customers or a ton of features that your customers never asked for in the first place, which from a balance sheet standpoint can look similar to inventory. And so, I went from being the software person amongst the lean folks to the lean person amongst the software folks, because we were at Pivotal really out there helping companies with adopting better software practices. And so, I didn't understand a lot of the jargon in the industry, but I understood a lot of the first principles coming over from manufacturing. And so, it felt like homecoming there. That's what brought me to Detroit. There was an opportunity there for me to start something on my own. And so, I've been here for about six or seven years and working on Integral since.
[00:08:54] Jan Griffiths: What made you start your own business? Take us back to that, the mission and the why.
[00:08:59] Ashok Sivanand: Absolutely. In the early days, I saw my dad leave an executive position at a bank and start his own business. And even as a kid, I could tell that the finances were not quite as comfortable when he was working for himself or starting his business than when he was at the bank. But I could tell that he was just way more energized and passionate and excited, and there was something to that that I didn't understand as a kid, but I couldn't forget. And then, I think more recently, I've mentioned I was always in the auto or manufacturing industries and sort of always helping on the back office or manufacturing and operational excellence side when I was a GM; we built applications on the shop floor that helped them run a more efficient plant. The IoT product was also really helping drive more efficient, predictable manufacturing systems. And I always looked at the products that we would see going through the line, whether, like back then it was like the Chevrolet Equinox. And I always wished I could work on the product, not on the line. And there was nothing that I did that I could directly correlate to what made people buy this product versus another product. And at that time, 2015 or so, consumer reports came out and said that for the first time ever, more than 50 percent of automotive consumers made their purchasing decisions based on technology in the vehicle, as opposed to the traditional sort of horsepower and torque things that we would talk about a lot, right? And so, it felt like timing-wise, things were what I had been wanting forever of like software engineers are going to be more critical in terms of product differentiation than solely operational excellence and back office, and so that was one piece. The second piece is this lovely company, Pivotal Labs, that I worked at was, in a sense, going away because they were pivoting away to being more of a platform company and less of a services business. And so, I knew that I'd have to make a choice one way or another. And at the root of it, I'm sort of a services person, acting in service of others as a core value. My parents would drag me out to Temple to volunteer as a kid, and I would do it begrudgingly. But when I was there, I kind of realized how much I enjoyed helping others. And then, the third thing I think was the city of Detroit, Jan, I was meant to be here for six months. And I had a nice spreadsheet with a promotion, and everything when I went back to my job in downtown Toronto, and something about the city just drew at me. I knew that in 2016 if I had left, I wouldn't get to experience that phase of the Renaissance that I was so captivated by. So, all those things kind of added up together. There was an opportunity I wanted to make a small dent in the transformation of the auto industry. The city of Detroit was also transforming and I wanted to see what kind of impact I could make there. And so those were all the different things that spelt felt very spiritually drying towards taking the leap of faith and walking away from that company that was going public and everything else.
[00:12:13] Jan Griffiths: I'm glad you did and now here you are at the forefront of it all in the automotive industry. Tell us more about how we design product in this industry and how it's changing.
[00:12:26] Ashok Sivanand: At the root of it is maybe played out here, and I hear about this a lot around comparisons to Tesla. The part that is interesting to me is that it really is a software company that's making cars as opposed to a hardware company or a car company that's integrating software, right?
And that really comes down to the mindset of the board and the executive team and how that flows down to what your staff look like in terms of manufacturing versus engineers. I was astonished to hear that Tesla has version numbers for their seats and versioning is something that you see way more in the software industry and less so in hardware, but the use of that term anyway, the other thing that I'd seen is that in terms of the team that they put together for the range extension. They combine not just the folks who are going to be working on the button that's on the screen that the user or the driver gets to decide what kind of if you want to go with the extended range mode or not. I've heard that they have folks working, not just on the screen, but the folks who work in the cloud to integrate that stuff into your apps, all the way down to folks who are materials engineers that work on the battery chemistry, and they all get to be put on one team to solve a customer problem, right? And I think anytime you use the word product, you want to be very clear as to who's it for and what's it for. So, who's the customer? And you have to be able to define them in some way. The smaller, the better initially. And then what problem is it solving? And this is as opposed to maybe the term project. It eliminates the silos. Like if you think about a traditional OEM, how many different countries, maybe even the folks that work on battery chemistry all the way through the folks who work on the touchscreen apps sit and how unlikely it is that they would have ever talked to each other. So, when you get all the cross-functional components together, or the constituents together, they're able to make decisions relatively more autonomously and be given the authority to go solve that problem. You're going way faster. And you're able to combine hardware and software very quickly to make these decisions. You're also able to place smaller bets to make sure this all connects together because what's not changing for Tesla or for one of the more traditional OEMs is there's a lot of integration that needs to happen between all these pieces in order for this problem to be solved for the customer. It's a huge assumption, though, as to whether those integrations are going to work or not, those handshakes between those components. But when you jam all those folks onto one team, they'll solve that really quickly. Versus like, there's going to be a bunch of contracts even that talk about what the integration points are going to look like. But when you realize that, "Oh, Hey, we had made an assumption here that doesn't actually hold true. We need to go change the design." Then, you don't want to have lawyers get involved and change the contract because your delivery team realized that there was an assumption. You want that collaboration to happen much faster and sort of give them a little bit more breathing room. That's maybe an example that's more tangible in this space in terms of how I would say digital transformation is not just the use of technology, but it's thinking in a different way and being enabled by technology and then using it to solve problems either for your customer or your internal operations and sometimes even just taking risk out of the decisions that you make.
[00:15:48] Jan Griffiths: What are some of the challenges that the OEMs face if they want to change their process so that they design in more of a cross-functional way? What are some of the barriers that they face?
[00:16:01] Ashok Sivanand: I think the manufacturing systems are optimized for hardware, right? Number one. And it just takes a long time. Like the fastest I think I've heard or seen mass production vehicles it takes three years or so to go from day one to the first car coming off the line. And that gives you a lot of breathing room. And you've also got a lot of past experience of like the traditional OEMs have been doing this for decades, if not a hundred years. And so, that process and system that they have for taking an idea for a vehicle, invoking this global supply chain, creating the design, the engineering, the manufacturing, how you're going to go to market through your distribution and dealership network. That's all been tried and tested many times. And it's been siloed up for efficiency and that's really great for efficiency.
It's maybe not as great for effectiveness when there's a big paradigm shift happening, whether it's technology or BEV. And I think that those silos end up being kind of one of the bigger challenges, right? So, similar to that analogy of the range extender feature on that electric vehicle, I think that comes into play with many features across the board. Sometimes, it's even; you may have a leasing and financing team, and then you also have an e-commerce team as you're trying to sell vehicles, and for regulatory reasons, those folks have to work at technically different organizations. But the customer doesn't care about all that, right? When you're going to go buy a car, financing is just sort of part of the deal. Actually, financing has perpetuated its way into just other consumer goods too, with companies like Affirm. If you're buying like a big, you know, like a Peloton for your house, you can buy that on a leasing and financing plan. And it all kind of looks at the Peloton experience. And it's really hard to tell as a consumer that there are different departments coming together. It looks like one brand. And I think the more you can tell that different departments need to play as a consumer, and that's why there's a compromise in your experience, the less it feels like you're working with a truly digital or technology-enabled business.
[00:18:20] Jan Griffiths: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And what you're describing the process at the OEMs, of course, that flows all the way down through the tiers. So, if I'm a vice president of engineering or a tier one supplier, what do I do Ashok? I know that the design, that the process is changing. I know I've got to generate innovation ideas. I've got to innovate quickly, but I'm stuck in this process that the siloed processes that I've been there for decades. So, what advice would you give to a VP of engineering in a tier-one space right now?
[00:19:02] Ashok Sivanand: I think the first thing I've been lucky to get to know a few of VPs of engineering in the OEM and tier one space. And the first thing you want to do if you're in that role is make sure that you're the right person at the right place, right? When you're going through this phase of adoption, it's really early days. We're swashbucklers that have landed on the beach with machetes and have to navigate through a forest that doesn't have any maps. At best, we have a compass. And so you have to have a little bit of a different wiring where you're okay with having cross-functional conversations and hitting up the CFO and then going to the head of sales and then having strategic discussions and that's just got to be part of your wiring or you're going to be very, very tired trying to do this. There are roles for the swashbucklers as well as the folks who are the settlers and later in the adoption curve. Kind of moving away from proving that something works and it's effective, over through to taking that effective thing and making it efficient. So, I think identifying where your natural wiring and your skills come into play are a big thing. So, it's a big job, and some folks are really well wired for it, and they've been waiting for it. Others are going to feel really uncomfortable. The second thing is what company you work for. Some of the brands or some of the tier ones are going to be okay with some inefficiencies to go do their R&D that allowed them to be market leaders. And the others don't really accommodate for that in their balance sheet. And they want to figure out what's going on and look more like order takers where you're not spending as much money on the R&D. And you don't have first mover advantage, you're not a market leader, but you can be really good at optimizing to catch, play catch up quickly, right? And so, if you got to figure out if you're the right person and if the company you're at is attuned for that, a lot of them have subsidiaries. So, it's not a matter of, you know, jumping ship completely. It's probably finding a role for yourself within the right subsidiaries and so forth. And then I think if you're in the right place and right time. And you're thinking about being more technology-enabled or doing well at serving software. I think there are a few things to consider. Number one is adding business value where you are not just taking the orders that come from the sales team and make sure that it gets done on time on budget. You're swimming upstream and going riding shotgun with them and not just looking at the solutions that the OEMs are asking for and making sure you get that done as per the contract. You're looking at the problems that the OEMs are trying to solve for, which they've come up with that solution definition and playing in that mix and becoming opinionated around, "Hey, you know what, I've done three different or five different shotgun rides with different OEMs they've asked for five different solutions, but they're all trying to same solve the same problem. It's going to be more efficient if I can come up with creative solutions and go back to each of these and negotiate something that's going to be the best solution out of all of them because I've thought about these five times now." Versus each of them are thinking about it for themselves, and you start to lead versus follow with respect to what you're bringing. You can charge a lot more margin because you've got differentiation now when you're on the leading side. If you look at Silicon Valley executives, the CTO is thinking about driving more revenue, thinking about driving better margins, expanding to new customer bases, solving more problems for them. And it's not just, "Hey, strategy told me to do this. I'm going to put my head down and get it done."
[00:22:53] Jan Griffiths: It's a really good point. I was talking to a tier one recently. And I asked them, "How long does it take you to get a new product through the system?" And they said between 18 months and two years. And I thought, wait, wait a minute. If we're talking about innovation and innovation culture, we can't have timelines that look like that. But because of this silo process where the engineering group, the R&D group waits for that input from the sales team, right? They may be involved a little bit, but they wait and then they get it. And then off they go and the whole process takes an incredible amount of time. It's a total mindset switch. And you said earlier, you mentioned the term small bets, and I'm really starting to understand that now. It's changing the way that we think about product, about how we identify customer pain, and then how we resolve that issue; it's thinking about it in a completely different way and making those small bets early on because what kills it is in traditional automotive legacy companies, we come up with an idea and then we want it fully vetted. We want to have a full set of financials. We want to know everything about it before we make a decision. But what I'm seeing, Ashok is a change in really generating more and more ideas fast and having some criteria in a place where you make that small bet. And you either say, yep, this goes on to the next stage, or no, it doesn't. Not waiting to get the full set of financials behind it before you move.
[00:24:38] Ashok Sivanand: Yeah. I think there's maybe three ways that we look at it at Integral. The first one is around focus or speed to value. The second one's around being nimble and being able to change direction or speed to pivot. And the third one is maintaining both those characteristics even when you scale.
So, going back to your question around ideas, I think it falls very much into the first one, right? If you think about design thinking school, they talk about the importance of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking. And what that means in more layperson terms is when you're thinking divergently, you want all the ideas. It's quantity over quality. And initially, you're trying to get. As many ideas as possible, like put the bad ideas on there. Like, I just want to get the most number of sticky notes on this table. And then, so as humans, we almost need to force ourselves to sensor to, mute our sensors so that we can just come up with more ideas. And then it's almost doing a switch. Once you've been in the divergent mode to then into convergent mode where you say, "Okay, now we've got the quantity. Now let's pick from the quantity and prioritize which ones are the highest quality." So you're more likely to get ideas outside of the box if you separate that thinking versus, especially in this industry with there tend to be a high concentration of engineers, we focus a lot on precision and not being wrong and we're able to think about four steps down the line that's almost bad here. We just want to think in this immediate step and, like, let's get all the bad ideas, the good ideas, all of them before we start filtering; you could do this like three times cause there's three fundamentals that you got to like think diversionally and conversionally. The first one is your target audience or your customer. Like you can go serve everyone in the world, but there's probably some folks out there that are going to be more happy to know about what you have, whose problem is not just a headache. Their problem is a migraine for them. So initially like everyone wants to get to global domination and serve everything to everyone. And I think you've got to start by really identifying whose target audience we want to go after. And then again, do the divergent convergent where you say, "Hey, what are the various problems that we can solve for this customer?" And then converge that back down to, "Okay, out of all these problems, these are the headaches, but these are the migraines."
So, let's focus on the migraines, and let's just take the headache ones off the table. And then you do that a third time where you say, "Okay, we've got this short list of problems for this customer. What's the best solution? What's the most value we can bring them in the fastest amount of time." And the thing is, you have to paint with a crayon here where you're going to be wrong about the customer, maybe, but you can go test, you can go ask them questions. You can even go ask your own sales team, "Hey, who's likely in this category? Who's easier for us to get in front of?" There are many characteristics to prioritize a customer based on. The same thing with the problem; we can look at industry studies, but we can also go talk to five people, and we can go talk to five very point, like the five right people. If we did step one correctly and define those customers well, and I've done this so many times where by the time you talk to the sixth or seventh person, you're almost able to predict what they say if you ask them the questions the right way. I really don't like multiple-choice surveys. There's a science to doing contextual interviews or depth interviews to really understand your customer. And then it's getting kind of the broader team that's going to be helping with operationalizing the solution and understanding, "Hey, what can we get to market really quick?" And I think at this early stage, when we place really big bets, we want to be efficient. We want to look at the thing that we can use for all the vehicle lines, and we're going to get the volume discounts and the stuff that we're used to, right? And when you're making a $300 million, $500 million bet on a vehicle. Absolutely, it makes sense. I'm severely underqualified to advise the folks on new model line changes. On the other hand, if you're able to really get at the root of this and look at how you can spend $30,000 instead of $300 million to go learn more about what's the problem that's worth solving for a customer that's worth that we can get in front of that's big enough of a market size. That's a very viable solution. The cost of being wrong is really low, and the $30,000 to get viable piece of information you can do in like four weeks, right? To get to a definition.
[00:29:18] Jan Griffiths: This idea of how we approach customer pain, I love listening to you talking about that. Every tier one I've ever worked for, they all say, "Oh, we solve customer problems." But then when you dig deeper and you say, "Okay, so how do you identify the customer problem?" It's usually just related to that particular widget. It's not a broader view of truly the customer pain, which may expand into the environment that that widget goes into, how the customer interacts with it. It's a totally different viewpoint. And to your point about surveys, it's not a multiple-choice survey. You've got to get in there and you've got to interview the customers. You've got to understand the product, understand the environment that it works in. And that's a very, very different approach. This idea of relentless focus on customer pain that I'm seeing in companies that really get it, is different to traditional tier ones, don't you think?
[00:30:21] Ashok Sivanand: It is. When I worked at that automotive plant, I got to participate in the JD power sort of consumer survey or voice of customer. And many years later, when I've helped build consumer apps for cars, I've gotten to look at what the other side of that survey looks like.
So, when I'm doing this test drive, there's someone in there with a checklist and asking me a bunch of questions. And that gets, for efficiency again, it gets synthesized and you lose so much of the emotion. Some of those things I bet you I was answering only because she asked. And other things, I was probably delighted, and there was, the emotion level was much higher or some things I was grimacing when I was complaining about in terms of the problem associated. But by the time that survey, multiplied by all the hundreds of people that you take it with, ends up with someone who can make a decision. It's been synthesized very quantitatively, which is very precise and it's important when you do things at that scale. But the qualitative analysis gets lost when you do go into multiple choice. And so, I think when you're thinking about placing smaller bets, the fail-fast mentality, if you will, that's a popular term, and you're losing only 30k on it. I would much, and it's an early stage of something that we know very little bit about rather than having a multiple choice, it's very efficient in going and talking to hundreds of people. I'd rather have a half an hour conversation, even recorded if I can, with just five or six people and then share that with the folks that are helping prioritize which problems are worth solving, share even with the folks who are building the solutions. There's nothing that can convert someone from mercenaries to missionaries, where my job isn't just coming in and getting a paycheck. It's something that I feel purpose around. There's nothing that's going to make that change in your team than helping them understand how bad something is today and how the work they're doing today is going to lead to that being much better for that person. And by multiplication, all the other folks out there that this could go help. And that's more likely to get folks out of bed in the morning. You're probably going to have way fewer HR issues on your list because folks are just wired and ready to go in terms of solving that problem for that customer and making a difference in the world.
[00:32:51] Jan Griffiths: To have a truly innovative culture in an automotive company, what are some of the leadership traits that are important? Maybe this will lead us into your pick on the 21 Traits of Authentic Leadership, but what are some of those leadership traits that are important if you want to drive an innovation culture?
[00:33:13] Ashok Sivanand: I love that you have that list out there. And it was really fun to read. I think it's available on your website. So, for all the listeners, definitely check it out. It was fun to do a little self-assessment and prioritization in terms of which of those values I valued the most. And I think mine might be a little bit of a cheat in terms of which of the 21. I really like resilience. And I think given enough time and a high amount of resilience, you can get good at anything, right? Because you're adapting to the situation there. And I think the adapting piece is maybe the second thing I was talking about. The definition was the first one and then in getting to market quickly. But adapting and being resilient involves a level of vulnerability of knowing like, "Hey, we're probably wrong in this plan." And the only way we can tell if we're wrong or right is by going to market with the plan. And we need to find the biggest assumptions in our plan that, if we're wrong about, are going to hurt us the most and go find ways to test that in the market. And if I know that I'm probably going to be wrong, I'm going to have a very different posture around anticipating the bad news is coming, but it actually turns into good news because you're finding out early; you're able to gain so many more insights based on the customer research or the market research that you do firsthand. And you come back to the drawing board, and your second plan is going to be so much better than the first iteration of that plan. And then you look at the second biggest assumption and so forth, and that's hard to do. You know, in a world where you place $300 million bets, if you're wrong about a vehicle line and more than a single-digit percentage off in terms of the demand associated, many people are going to be upset. If you're wrong about a $30,000 thing, no one's going to notice. I think what makes it hard is that funding is, it takes about a, I've kind of surmised that it probably costs like high five to low six figures to approve $30,000, right? And so, it doesn't make sense if you're losing $70,000 off the bat to do this experiment. And so, I think the folks that I've seen that do it well have a different resource allocation spreadsheet that doesn't require all the same checks and balances. So, you maybe go get a couple of million dollars, but you agree that I'm going to meter this out for little experiments. And as I get more validation from the market, I'm going to go from a $30,000 to maybe a $60,000 bet that I place and you sort of scale it that way. Steve blank has an Investment Readiness Checklist that looks at the various factors. We're very rooted in that mindset of the Four Steps to Epiphany or Lean Startup, and really if you're trying to find ways to know whether the market is going to respond like you're hoping for well before you place a ton of investment into it and then have that nimbleness as you go. So I think that combination of vulnerability and resilience is something that is hard to find, it's hard to find within oneself, let alone within an organization, but I feel like that goes back to the swashbuckler phase that I talked about where when you're in the bleeding edge of stuff, it's like being dropped into the forest with a machete. You're going to be wrong. You're going to have to turn around and come back and find ways to figure out your bearings. So, I'd say that's something to certainly look for amongst the leaders.
[00:36:51] Jan Griffiths: And that's something when you're a tech company trying to build a car, you've got that tech mentality, and failing is part of the process. That's part of the culture, part of the psyche, part of the DNA. When you're talking about traditional automotive companies, OEMs, and tier ones alike, this idea of failing, as much as they talk about, "Oh, we encourage that here." they don't. The idea of failing is not acceptable. The idea that you would go into a boardroom with an executive team as an engineer, as an engineering manager, lead on a project, present a project, and then that failed, you would be frowned upon. That's not how we're going to get innovation. We're going to get innovative ideas quickly into this industry. So, I think culturally, this fear of failure is blocking a lot of the potential that we have.
[00:37:54] Ashok Sivanand: And I think it's a transition that you have to undergo. I wish there was a keynote address I could do that would change everyone from Friday, and they show up Monday and having a different mentality on it. I think it's like everything else. There's a multi-phase transition to it. And it may even start by saying, "Hey, I'm going to stick to the plan 90 percent of the time, but the other 10 percent of the time, I'd like a little bit of room for experimentation and to see what I can come up with." And, you know, you start with 80, 20, 90, 10 or whatever. And you're finding the leaders who will enable that. And oftentimes, you'll find that your next innovation sits in that minority, the 20 percent of where you're messing about versus the 80 percent where you're sticking to the plan because, don't get me wrong, you need to have accountability and a plan in the first place, right? I think Eisenhower's quote, "Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable," is really great here. And it really incorporates both pieces of it. You're placing your vision out there. You're driving context and clarity for your team so they can be confident and creative within it. And you're also acknowledging that the plans are useless because I'm going to learn something new and I'm going to have to throw this plan out and make a new plan. And so, I think it's probably finding some ways of doing both versus being very brittle on either side and depending on if you're more of an individual contributor or middle manager and you need to get permission upwards, that's probably one way to go about it. If you're a leader that's listening to this, I think it's probably taking one step further from there and determining, "Hey, what should likely fall in the 80%?" This is a stuff that is tried and tested, and we have more validation and certainty around inner business. And what's in the other 20 percent where it's like, "Eh, we're, we're placing a bet here and we're assuming this is how it's all going to play out. If you want to experiment and find out a little bit more, we could use a lot more validation because this is new for us." And as a leader, I think kind of providing that clarity to your team in terms of where the certainty lies across the product that we're building and where the uncertainties are, and then giving your team the authority to experiment by prioritizing the uncertain areas. That's the area that you want to fail fast. You don't want to fail fast in the areas that you're certain. If you're really good at manufacturing pickup trucks, and you've done that day in and day out, and you have high precision on it, that's something you don't really want to fail at. It's around the things that are more uncertain, whether it's a paradigm shift in the industry, whether it's the market that's changing, and the consumers want different demands, but we don't exactly know how to define it or solve for it. Those things are the ones that you want to have more of that the, you know, fail forward or learning, learning fast sort of mentality.
[00:40:53] Jan Griffiths: You said that this is a transition. How do companies manage this transition? Let's talk about adoption. How do they, how do they do that? You've helped companies do that. I know you have. So, tell us about that. Come on, spill the tea, Ashok. Tell us.
[00:41:09] Ashok Sivanand: Sure thing. I think if you kind of look at it as a graph, right? It's like you're trying to move from point A to point B, and you're trying to move your entire team there. Sometimes we see folks’ kind of going more shallow, like, "Hey, let's all do these few things, but let’s everyone do it," and I think, you know, taking this crawl, walk, run across how you adopt these things, but going broad. It's really hard to do when you're a big established company. I would rather we find a small subset of your team or a small subset of your revenue that you feel like is most primed for a new way of thinking and go deep, go all the way deep, and say like, "Hey, this team's going to work like one of those teams that can put product out in weeks, not months," and there are frameworks that make it really easy to use like we subscribe to human-centered design. So always putting the customer first and also validating everything that we are assuming about our customers. Lean product, so prioritizing customer and business value first and everything else second. And then agile engineering or extreme programming lends itself really well to these first two schools of thought around placing small bets, changing direction quickly and maintaining that nimbleness as you grow. So I think adopting those principles or whatever principles it is that you determine are right for you, but going deep and seeing it happen full circle and one of your teams within your organization creates so much confidence all the way up to the board that, "Hey, this can happen within our walls. This can happen in the Midwest. This can happen within a manufacturing company. This is not just for Silicon Valley companies. This is not just for startups. And it's possible, you're right. What moved me out here from Toronto was to help Ford Motor Company with starting something called Ford Labs. You could check it out on fordlabs.com. They're probably somewhere around a hundred people if I had to guess now. And when we started, it was myself and my counterpart from Ford; we sat in an area with a bunch of cubicles and I thought I could come in one weekend and take the cubicles down with an Allen wrench and found out very quickly what it means to be part of a unionized building, and the executive who convinced me to move here had to sort of be like, "Hey, I know you're really excited about transforming and helping here, but the union is something I need to educate you about." And anyway, we've probably all been educated in the recent past more than ever before on that, and fact of the matter is we created this entity and we intentionally designed it in an arm's length away from headquarters in Ann Arbor. One reason is, of course, access to the talent and the students coming out of U of M. The other reason is that if we can create almost a clean room or a safe separate environment away from how big corporation has been successful for decades, then that's almost one way to think about that, like this placing small bets thing, right? And what we did was we created a team that was highly disciplined. Some of the folks were hand raisers from the enterprise, and others we hired in because there are folks in your own companies that like to work the other way. And there are probably things they like about your corporation, too.
And they're having to choose today between, do I go work for a startup? Or do I get to work with this company whose values I'm aligned with? And it was the greatest thing for those initial folks to hear when they said, "Hey, I can go do the startup-like work and continue to work at Ford, a company that I find a lot of resonance with." And so we convinced everyone to go out to Ann Arbor, and we took over one of the old Google offices actually, and brought together design product folks, engineering folks, data folks, all in one team, which is a huge change culturally because usually you get designs handed down to a project manager, handed down to a technology team, and then put into deployment, and you could start to see how it's two to three years as opposed to 12 weeks when you have to do that versus having everyone sit in within a chair swivel of each other. We also make sure that someone from the line of business came and spent at least a couple of days with us. And so, we were able to get the best of sort of product development and the business context, all sitting in the same room, ideating, validating, prioritizing, developing, deploying, and we were able to prove out that this can happen in-house. And then, so, that has then spurred into some of that talent would decide, "Hey, I really enjoyed this thing that I'm working on. I'm going to leave Ford Labs and go and finish this with the department that brought this idea. And then folks in the department's going to say, "Hey, like, I feel like I'm really wired for this new line of work." so it's a place that you can go practice your discipline and hone these skills. With a little bit of extra air cover or authority and autonomy. And this was, I mean, many, many years ago Ford's hiring, retention, and software operations look a lot different than they were in 2015, 2016, when we started this. And I do believe that we provided the executives a lot of confidence about the possibilities of what can happen within Ford through Ford Labs. And then folks who work there have ended up kind of going, working at spin-out companies from Ford and other startup-like things, as well as really big initiatives and leading things that big LLCs like Ford Pro. So, that's kind of the way that I'm more familiar with. I've seen a lot more efficacy around proving it out in a small area, but going real deep with it. And then spreading that context and confidence to the broader enterprise versus trying to do a little bit of it, but spreading it across.
[00:47:20] Jan Griffiths: You've really got to create almost like a pilot team, but you've got to separate them from the mothership. You've got to carve out that small team of people, different budget, different way of operating, different culture, and let them go.
[00:47:36] Ashok Sivanand: An executive presence, right? The CIO would want to know every week, every month, how's it going? Who are you blocked by? And it was, for her, also a window into what are the processes and current bureaucracy that exists in the mothership that I know I'm going to have to change over the next two to three years. And this is going to act as an early indicator. And she'd get on this call, we'd tell her the blockers, we'd have a little bit of back and forth negotiation, and she'd go out to the rest of the team, whether it's operations or dealer relations, whoever, and create and kind of bring them into the safe zone. And explain to them from an executive level what we're trying to do here versus an engineer going to someone, another team, asking for something. At a big company, folks are kind of trained to say no, and we had to untrain them on that and retrain them to say yes. But it's only contained to this little environment, and we're going to see whether it's going to work or not and whether that no was valid or whether we should rethink that no and having a place that was actually building customer product too. This wasn't we were putting stuff new experiments, new products out to consumers. So, this wasn't also just like an in-house sandbox thing. This was stress-tested all the way through to can we create customer value or not, and iterating there. So, it proves it's a model, not just around the operations and execution, but also the strategy and definition.
[00:49:08] Jan Griffiths: Now let's go to the fun stuff. You ready?
[00:49:12] Ashok Sivanand: Sure thing.
[00:49:13] Jan Griffiths: You have fallen in love with the city of Detroit. Favorite restaurant.
[00:49:18] Ashok Sivanand: You're going to find it's hard for me to pick favorites. I've got a few though. My favorite, favorite, favorite is called Dearborn Meat Market. It is a butcher shop with a charcoal grill in the back. You're going to get fresh cuts of meat, freshly grilled. Not as recommended if you're vegetarian, and it's a Middle Eastern restaurant, too. And having grown up in the Middle East, severely biased there. They're not technically in Detroit. I'd say in Detroit, Selden Standard is a restaurant that I've sort of enjoyed. And then, I have a cheeky plug because a few friends and I own a restaurant slash speakeasy called Shelby that is in downtown Detroit at Shelby and Congress.
[00:50:06] Jan Griffiths: Music tastes.
[00:50:08] Ashok Sivanand: Hmm. I listen to, when I say listen to literally everything I do. I grow up listening to a lot of Indian music, as well as what we call the oldies now. And one of the sort of rebellious things that I didn't inherit from my parents was a cassette of Led Zeppelin IV, and I listened to that a lot. And nowadays I've gotten a lot more into classical music, and I find it helps me focus. It helps me think; it helps me sort of center and be present more. And so, when I'm working, I'm trying to look for different classical music to listen to.
[00:50:47] Jan Griffiths: Wow. You know, I'm always surprised when I ask people the music question. Some people really shock me. John McElroy said that he's a big Zappa fan, and I totally didn't expect that. I did not expect him to be a Zappa fan. I didn't expect you to be a Led Zeppelin fan. I don't know why, but there, you know, there it is. But Ashok, I am thrilled that you are doing what you're doing in this industry. This industry needs you. It needs your thinking, your leadership, your experience. And I can't wait to see the growth in your company and to see the impact because you're already having an impact, but you're going to have even more. And the fact that I now know you and I will be watching from the sidelines makes me very happy. So, thank you for joining us today.
[00:51:42] Ashok Sivanand: Awesome. Thank you for having me. Thanks for cheering us along.
[00:51:56] Jan Griffiths: Thank you for listening to the Automotive Leaders Podcast. Click the listen link in the show notes to subscribe for free on your platform of choice. And don't forget to download the 21 Traits of Authentic Leadership PDF by clicking on the link below. And remember, stay true to yourself, be you, and lead with Gravitas, the hallmark of authentic leadership.