Ford futurist looks at everything but cars to shape tomorrow’s automobile
Sheryl Connelly has always kept her eye on the future. But she admits she never envisioned her dream job would be heading the Ford Motor Company’s Global Trends and Futuring Division, helping the car maker forge its tomorrow.
“I am just as surprised as anybody that I have the job that I have,” Connelly said as she visited with Jenni Hogan on The Next Big Thing podcast during a whirlwind visit to Seattle.
Connelly never had an interest in the automotive industry. She went to law school and got an MBA at the same time. It was only after landing a job at Ford in marketing that she eventually stumbled into her unique post.
She works with everyone from engineers to IT to help the company come up with the cars of tomorrow. But at the same time, she looks at everything other than the car business.
Instead, she focuses on global trends through different lenses – social, economic, technological, environmental, political – to help others shape the products.
“I try to change the tone of the discussion so that people look at things differently,” she said. “So my role is to slow down the conversation and say ‘what are those assumptions that you take for granted that are so subconscious that we never identify them,’ and then ask ourselves ‘what if they’re wrong?'”
Connelly has been in the role for nine years. And while many within the company look to her for inspiration and advice, the only thing she’s certain of is “you can’t predict the future.”
“My work on its own is really not much value until I compare it with the subject matter expertise of someone within Ford. And the ultimate goal is we can collaborate in a way that allows us to come up with insights or ideas that neither one of us could have come up with on our own.”
One of the big challenges is separating trends from fads. It takes three years or more to bring a new car to market. So Connelly and her colleagues have to make sure they aren’t chasing the wrong thing.
Among the biggest trends is balancing what Connelly calls “information addiction” with “information overload.” As more information becomes available, car makers and consumers are faced with a growing number of choices and the challenge of giving them what they want without it completely overwhelming the driver.
“So we’re so reliant on all of this data and information, but our ability to decipher what’s credible, reliable or accurate has never been more difficult.”
That’s why Connelly declared “Trust is the New Black” as the top trend in Ford’s inaugural trend report “Looking Further with Ford”, which explored 13 leading consumer trends for 2013 and beyond.
“Consumers want to be given a reason to trust, they want to believe. And those brands that can deliver transparency, authenticity have a really unique space in the marketplace.”
Ultimately, it’s about far more than just coming up with a new car. For Connelly, it’s about “enabling a lifestyle.”
While she’s had a hand in a number of Ford’s recent successes that have helped turn the company around, Connelly isn’t quick to take credit. Instead, she likens it to “sausage making,” saying she’s just one part of a very complex mix.
“It’s a huge company with extraordinary talent so I will talk with anyone who will have me.”