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In 1924, Henry Ford released his first print ad, making the bold claim that Ford would “open the highways to all mankind”. And for the next eighty years or so, they achieved this.

However with the ever increasing shift in public focus towards how legacy organizations can adapt to the challenges that people and the planet face, it takes a large cultural shift within a business to make the change.

In this episode of The Big Question, we’re joined by Usha Raghavachari, D-Ford Global Innovation Lab Director and Luis Zunzunegui, IDEO Executive Director to explore The Big Question: How Might We Bring Change & New Ways Of Working To An Industry Giant With A Heavy Legacy?

Usha and Luis share how Ford has adopted a more inclusive and diverse approach to their company philosophy, and how connection between their people is at the heart of driving this change for the benefit of all.

Usha Raghavachari: When we’re thinking about creating the right conditions in the culture of the company, the tools and the processes that we have to enable those teams so that they feel safe to experiment and continuously grow and learn, that's also really, really hard. That's a massive change.

Detria Williamson: We live and work in a world of interlocking systems, where many of the problems we face are dynamic, multifaceted, and inherently human. We believe that design thinking can help solve these problems to provide answers. But big answers can only be found by asking big questions. Welcome to ‎The Big Question: an IDEO Podcast. I'm your host, Detria Williamson.

Hi. This is Detria Williamson, your host of IDEO's The Big Question, and I'm super excited today to be joined in this episode by Luis Zunzunegui, IDEO's Executive Director, and Usha Raghavachari, D-Ford London, Melbourne, and São Paulo's Innovation Lab Director. We're here today to explore this big question: how might we bring change and new ways of working to an industry giant like Ford with such a heavy legacy? Welcome, Usha and Luis.

Luis Zunzunegui: Hello.

Usha: Thank you, Detria, lovely to be here.

Detria: Usha, first, tell us who you are and give us a little bit of detail about this incredible role that you have and how you went from being a marketer two decades ago to now leading the D-Ford Lab?

Usha: Gosh. Well, that's a big question, so maybe I'll start with the last part first, which is, how on earth did I end up in D-Ford, coming from a marketing background? I joined D-Ford, and Ford Motor Company, straight from university. My plan was to be here for five years, and then run away to my next big adventure. I've had many adventures, but I've epic-failed on the running away part. I've worked for Ford in the US, in China, in European roles. I grew up here in the UK, so I've worked for Ford for many years in the UK as well. So, I’ve had a little bit of an intercontinental adventure, most of that in the first part of my career in marketing.

I guess, coming from a marketing background, I've always been super-obsessed by the customer, so I love learning about people, what makes them tick—not just the obvious stuff, but also the stuff we get from what I would call super-stalking research, or following people around and observing them and really, deeply understanding the emotional side of who they are.

So, there’s that—that dimension has been in nearly every role that I've done in Ford, but I've also been incredibly excited by the creative side of the business. In marketing, that's the bit at the very beginning, when I get to work with designers on future products and services, and the bit at the very end, working with creative agencies to bring new products to market. I'd say those two ingredients are very much in evidence in what I do today in D-Ford. D-Ford is Ford's human-centered design team, so we have an innovation lab and Detria, as you said, I've got a lovely intercontinental gang, so some of the team in Brazil, and some in Australia, and the rest here in London.

It brings together that customer obsession with that creative side with a little extra dose of disruption. I love a challenge. I love things that are super difficult to figure out and I love creating things from scratch. We get to work on some of the biggest challenges that the company and the industry and the planet can throw at us. My days are very exciting, exhausting, and never the same.

Detria: A big question I have for you, Usha, that we'll have to come back to is when do you sleep? You've got such a cross-global team. Luis, tell us about you and your role at IDEO.

Luis: Interestingly enough, I have a very similar background to Usha, so I have a strategy and marketing background and I've worked in a bunch of different industries, like from banking to telcos to I've had my own startup for a while, my technology startup. Again, there's a lot of parallelism just that empathy and trying to understand customers and understand what drives them and what are their challenges and what are their needs. I got really dragged into, “what is human-centered design” and designing from a deep understanding of human needs.

I think that my role here at IDEO is tying those two things together: how can we tie those deep human needs together with those business needs or those strategy needs and making those connections happen and add value and add impact in a greater sense. That's a little bit also my role here at IDEO and I've been involved with the Ford relationship for the last almost three years so yes, it's been a super interesting journey.

Detria: Well, I was so excited for today's podcast, because we're all marketers at heart and plus 1000 to what you said, Usha, earlier about being on that constant learning journey. I know that Ford and IDEO, we've worked together for a while, we've done some incredible work. How did this work actually come together that we're doing, Luis and Usha, how did we actually come together to do more work with D-Ford Lab?

Usha: Detria, we are going through such a tremendous period of change and disruption, and I'm not talking about the pandemic. In the automotive industry, or zooming out to think about mobility more broadly, or zooming out again thinking about what's happening in the world around us with 5G, AI, automation, electrification, autonomous vehicles, you could just write the longest list of things that are going to come and disrupt our business. We've been in business for 118 years now, which is incredible, and we have every intention of being in business for the next century, too.

What human-centered design does for us is enable us to think about and think through some of those big questions that we need to tackle in order to transform Ford from this really industrial, hardware-focused proposition that's been incredibly successful for over a century with, in essence, the same business model, to transforming ourselves—not just what we do, but how we do it. The entire business model, thinking about the ecosystem, building new capabilities for that future, and creating a whole new bunch of experiences to delight our customers across hardware, software, and services in that ecosystem.

The processes that we've established inside D-Ford are really helping the company think through some of those big sticky problems and helping to bring some of those disruptive new ideas to market, so it's super exciting.

Luis: Maybe just to add to that, which I think it's my perspective of that journey, and this relationship between IDEO and Ford and D-Ford, it's very interesting because for me, it's incredible to see how Ford has changed, related to everything that Usha was mentioning. You could see this radical change from the beginning and also for IDEO ourselves.


We've always been true believers of clients actually owning their future, so D-Ford is an incredible representation of that. We've been working with Ford for more than 10 years already, and this last four or five years it's been incredible to see how D-Ford has grown to become this true representation of what is the importance of human-centered design and how they are changing Ford from the inside. Yes, IDEO being on the side, now seeing them just ride and grow and we see them as peers right now, really, truly think of them as peers, because they have really done a fantastic job on getting that done.

Usha: Thank you, Luis. We're very much on a mission. I would just say, just listening to you I just reflect, when I was living in Shanghai, I was working actually in our electric vehicle team, Team Edison, which in and of itself was a little startup operation inside Ford, so you'll see a little bit of a common theme in what I love to do, but when I arrived back home in London, I was employee number eight, Detria. The team was super tiny, and we'd been experimenting with this new way of working along with our friends at IDEO for maybe 12, 18 months, but on a very specific project at that point, and because of the success of a number of experiments that we had undertaken around the world using this new way of working, what we observed is: not only were we creating business impact coming up with these new experiences and ideas, but even more exciting was, we were creating cultural impact and behavior change. We were creating a little ripple effect around these little, we call them beacon teams. They were like beacons of light in the company and embedded in some of the largest businesses that we had around the world.

These little beacon teams were creating the impact, but also creating that behavior change and culture change. You can imagine in a company that's over 100 years old, affecting behavior change and culture change is a huge thing. At that point, we determined that we wanted to scale this. We decided that we want to teach everyone in Ford about human-centered design, so everyone has at least a level of understanding and ability to practice, but then we create this smaller group of super ninjas, I would say—or Navy SEALs, if you're in the US—that would be D-Ford. A group of designers, engineers, marketing folks, business folks, data scientists, all sorts of different flavors of people who basically would be on a mission to accelerate the disruption and the transformation of the company. We were seven then, in London anyway. We’re now 75, and we're going to grow again, probably double again, in the next 12 months, 18 months. It's been an incredible journey. Globally, D-Ford is nearly 300 I think, I lose count, because we have new people joining.


Luis: It's amazing.

Detria: I want to make sure our listeners know that this is definitely a series, because of all the incredible work that you and your team are doing. We know that right now there's greater pressure than ever on industry giants like Ford to really make the world a better place. It's a new calling. How does your role and the work your team is doing, how do you meet that pressure? There must be challenges there.

Usha: Yes, it's super hard. But I would say it's such an incredible time to be in an automotive company and a mobility company, if you think about what's happening. We are on a mission. The cool thing about doing that inside a company like Ford is, the things that we change and the things that we can affect, affect the lives of millions of people in hundreds of countries around the world. That's what gets me leaping out of bed in the morning even if I've gone to bed super late the previous night, because that's a great responsibility.

If I think about our CEO, Jim Farley, he talks about modernizing the company and disrupting the company as being two very different things, and we need to do both of those things. Obviously, in D-Ford we're very much focused on the disruption side of the business, but that disruption for us includes and involves the creation of this incredibly sustainable, electrified, and connected future.

We're on this mission to make the world better. That sounds naive, but I love to describe myself as a naive optimist, so I will hold onto that forever. In order for us to make these changes that the industry needs to make—that actually, frankly, the planet needs us to make—it's really important that we can do that at scale. It’s terrific to see large companies like Ford doing this, but also, to do it in a way that's actually really accessible to everyone.

If you think back to the very beginnings of Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford very famously, his first print ad that he used basically said: we're opening the highways to all mankind. Because cars had been around for many years before that point, but had only been available to a really small number of incredibly affluent people. By creating the production line, he basically democratized that mobility, but actually gave economic access to a huge proportion of the population.

That's what we need to do with our sustainable and circular systems that we’re in the process of imagining, not just electrified products that are also connected. Yes, it's a huge ask. It's a huge responsibility. But I couldn’t think of anything more fun to do. And to be surrounded by an incredible group of designers and engineers from inside and outside the company to tackle some of those questions: it's a huge privilege, actually. I'm very lucky.

Detria: Usha, first, thank you so much for sharing that history. I think that's really interesting and probably a lens into Ford that's new for so many of us in the business world. I want to dig a little bit deeper, though, into what you said earlier about making the world a better place. Luis, can you talk a little bit about how design enables or supports this type of radical shift that Usha is talking about? Moving away from just designing products, but also, really designing to make the world a better place and doing it with the community at the center of that.

Luis: It's very interesting, because very connected to what Usha was mentioning—that eagerness of democratizing mobility—I can perceive that there's this eagerness also to democratize design inside Ford, and more specifically not only design, but human-centric design. You can see people, how they have embraced that. They have gone really from product and very business-centric design to this human-centric design. More than that, lately, you can perceive that it's not only human-centric design, it’s what— there's this term that is coming around which is more around life-centric design, or what Usha was mentioning, planet-centric design. Really, understanding that human first, what are the needs, but also in the context of its environment. 

I have perceived there has been a radical change of focus, starting from the leadership inside Ford—it's incredible to see, for example, how customer-obsessed they are—to every single engineer in Ford. You can see the conversations, and to connect, how does that turn into making the world a better place? It’s just a very natural outcome. When you think about planet-centric design and about life-centric design, when you're designing things with that spirit of actually making them available to the biggest amount of people possible, if where it's born is through that deep focus on human and planet and life-centric objectives, you are making the world a better place.

I think that that transformation, just through that, you can see that it's become something very natural inside Ford. That, for me, is what's really exciting, because that's what makes it sustainable. It’s not going to be just one thing that's going to happen for a few years and then it's going to be forgotten, it's something that is already becoming ingrained inside the culture; therefore, it's going to last for a long time.

Detria: Thank you so much for that, Luis. Usha, you hit a little bit on inclusion earlier, and obviously, in order for this change, this radical shift, Luis, that you're talking about, there has to be some big changes that happen. I'm just curious, Usha, what are some of those big changes that you're identifying that have to happen and that you're leading, and why you see the importance of some of those needed changes?

Usha: Yes, I know, it's a subject super close to my heart, Detria. Honestly, creating what really is like a startup inside the company, brings a whole host of challenges that we're having to tackle inside D-Ford, but also, a lot of these translate into the bigger company as we think about how we're affecting that transformation across the world. 

A couple of things that we have to tackle are related to talent. If I'm changing from this hardware-focused offering to this ecosystem offering, where I'm thinking about transforming the entire business model, thinking about digital and software and services, I need people who have that expertise. We've been hiring a lot of folks from all these different disciplines from outside the business, where we've identified those gaps in our skillset inside Ford, but we're combining them with the incredible people that we have already in Ford.

We work, and Luis will know this, having seen it, but we work really closely with the rest of the business across functions. Actually, I joke I'm a collaborationist—makes me sound quite angry, doesn't it? But literally, I work across so many parts of the team, so many functions, so many skill teams, so many parts of the world as well. One part is talent: getting incredible people is step one. Creating the right conditions where they feel like they can take risks is quite another thing.

That's another thing that we need to change is, when we're thinking about creating the right conditions in the culture of the company, the tools and the processes that we have to enable those teams so that they feel safe to experiment and continuously grow and learn. That's also really, really hard, that's a massive change. Thinking we've gone from this, ‘I sell you a car or a van or a pickup truck and then I'll see you maybe in five years’ to ‘how do I create this always-on relationship’, that requires a very different attitude and mindset and process and skillset in the company.

That's at one level, big change. Another level—and again, for me, very close to my heart—is thinking about diversity in the bigger sense. I've just been talking about diversity of experiences and perspectives and backgrounds. As well as obviously the more obvious parts of diversity, which, if you look at a picture of Usha, you'll see there are some obvious parts of that visible diversity. But I think all of that is incredibly important and frankly, inside D-Ford essential, for us to create real breakthrough innovation and to drive creativity.

Again, that is something I think that we need to do more of and change more in the industry, inside Ford, and it's something I'm incredibly proud of. So, bring in the right talent, make sure you have that incredible mix of people, and then create the right conditions for them to be successful, take risks, and really do what we need to do, which is come up with these really disruptive ideas to basically break our business model. That's our objective, I would say.

Detria: Usha, that also just really resonates with me not only because even the three of us on this Zoom have such varied backgrounds, but you and I also look quite different than what the design world has welcomed in, so thank you for being here.

Usha: Detria, I would just say that we did a DE&I to project last year and I remember some of my team interviewing me for that project, and they were asking, in all kindness to my team, they were asking, "Gosh, what does it feel like being an Indian woman in leadership inside Ford and inside a creative role?" Honestly, I look at the world only through my eyes. I don't wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and think, gosh, there's a curly-haired Indian Brit. I just look in the mirror and go, oh, there’s Usha and she's looking a bit tired having not had enough sleep.

Detria: And leaping out of the bed!

Usha: Quite, exactly! I do think sharing our lived experiences, and just on a personal note, I've been trying to do more of that. I think the last couple of years have given us tremendous insight and a window into much more of the lives of our teammates and colleagues and team members and leaders, actually. Because we're looking, peering into people's homes and houses and apartments, and it's been super difficult in many different ways. Actually, what I found, is many more teams have reached out to me, individuals from all around the world in Ford and actually outside the company, asking for me to share some of my experiences.

Earlier on in my career, it wasn't something I really thought about a lot. But now, I do think about it a lot, especially as I think about inclusion in design. Do we have inherent biases in our processes? I think having the conversation and talking about these things and sharing our lived experiences has really helped me. I know it's helped my team and it's helped a few other folks. I love to hear people's stories and I actually— I'm increasingly getting more comfortable. I wasn't always super comfortable to do it at the start, but I’m getting more comfortable in sharing mine.

Detria: Usha, I think first, the need for radically inclusive leaders, such as yourself, could not come at a greater time, so we thank you from the design community, for sure, for being here. I also, we have a very similar treasured background being around the world, and I remember coming back into the US and a reporter actually asking me, "What's your Black experience?" And I thought, ‘I don't quite know what that means.’

Usha: Like you have any others.

Detria: I just really connect with and appreciate and thank you for sharing such a beautiful personal story. Luis, let's go back to some of these big changes that Usha is talking about that need to happen and why and how. Usha is actually paving the way for this new culture and this transformation. What do you feel is the role of leadership or design as part of this transformation?

Luis: To connect a little bit to what Usha was saying: one of the things that I admire a lot about Usha and what she's doing in Ford and how Ford is changing because of that, is that obsession for openness and for collaboration, and in a way it's helping two things. First, to gain that idea of democratization of design and creativity. It's not owned by a specific group behind some dark walls. It needs to be owned by everyone, it needs to be present in their day-to-day. That message, to get that message through--what better way of doing that than through example and just welcoming everyone to be part of that process? I think that's incredible, that's fantastic. That's a very important thing that leadership needs to have and that I see in Ford, specifically Usha has done a fantastic job doing that. 

Another one, I think is that other thing that we were mentioning around, like that permission to fail. Again, that's so hard in these large companies. Everyone is expected to have the right answer, and you can see this whole way of working is more about asking the right questions, not so much having the right answer. Just changing that mindset. 

For example, you think of the automotive industry, you think about prototyping. Prototyping in the automotive industry is like, millions of dollars spent in this very beautiful, sophisticated, real-size models of the next vehicle. Prototyping this context of creativity and human-centric design is about trying scrappy things, and I know that Usha loves the scrappiness of things, but trying scrappy things and seeing that fail and learning from that process. Again, I think that's something really difficult to find in large corporations, and Usha is a big advocate of that and you can feel that. People suddenly are more comfortable with trying out scrappiness and having fun with it and learning from it. That, for me, is a big, big, big takeaway.

Detria: Usha, talk to us a little bit [about] the need for scrappiness and how that comes into the day-to-day of your team.

Usha: Scrappiness, for us, it's one of our values inside Ford. I even have the t-shirts printed "I love scrappy", and it's really important, because making and prototyping is such a fundamental part of our process. It's actually such a big part of who we are, and it's really important because when you're talking about moments where, and we spend a lot of time collaborating with bigger Ford, so the rest of the business, sharing ideas, communicating our concepts, and being very eye-level in our communications… just gathering around a prototype rig or sharing some digital prototypes on a tablet. It's just easier, right, than living in the land; we're not lovers of PowerPoint, I would say, inside D-Ford. There's a time for PowerPoint, but we just love making. 

Actually, as Luis was saying, our ‘making’ is hundreds of dollars, not millions of dollars. We use it to basically reduce the risk of some of these slightly seemingly crazy ideas, but also so we can move very quickly through the process, and that's really important for us. It's a very effective way of engaging stakeholders and other parts of the business and we've got some incredible experts, who've been inside  Ford for many years, have got brilliant ideas and brilliant perspectives and how do we unlock that, connect it to some of the things that we're trying to accomplish, and take everyone with us on the journey?

I'm a very passionate advocate of that, I don't believe in sitting off in some fluffy ivory tower going, "Ooh, we're looking at the future." Nonsense. We want to work together with people, and we want to make stuff real and put it in the hands of our customers. So, I have a very strong bias towards speed and towards action, as well.

Detria: Usha, you're obviously, you've come into a company where there's a legacy of being, I would imagine at Ford, in its leadership position, has really been a top-down company. How has design and the work that your team's doing really empowered greater vocal advocacy for more people?

Usha: I guess we have a very collaborative process and it's a very flat process, I would say. Because we're building a capability for the company in D-Ford, and even inside D-Ford, we have an incredibly flat structure, because we're bringing in expertise. And so, I'm also a massive advocate for, if you've been here 10 minutes or you've been here for 30 years, everyone has a role and a perspective to play in creating our ideas and advocating for them.

This process that we've had, I guess, in the company for over 100 years, we've had a business model, basically manufacturing and selling vehicles, that's been it, has to change. We have to break so many parts of that business model to be meaningful in the future, that we don't have time for a small number of very, very, very senior leaders, everything to flow up and down the company, it's too slow.

If we need to change to a digital, always-on, continuous relationship-building ecosystem of offers to our customers, then that communication's flow needs to be horizontal in the company, across multidisciplinary teams who are set up as product teams. If I'm thinking in the digital sense, product teams who rapidly can absorb information from customers and real-time data and analytics and make very rapid changes in terms of what we're offering to the customer.

That clock speed is completely different, so we cannot use the… let's call them ‘industrial processes’ that we've had in the past to create digital products and services, and so it's forcing, right now, this shift from this top-down, very hierarchical structure and process and communications flow, to a recognition that actually, we have many, many experts quite often at the working level inside the company. We need to enable them and empower them to move at the speed that we need to, to be a digital company in the future, and so that is a massive change for Ford, and there are so many different things that we're doing in terms of culture, tools, processes, leadership training, and of course, efforts like D-Ford, which are at the front end of experimentation. 

We basically not only do a lot of work kind of imagining and reimagining the future of the company, we also work on culture and ways of working projects and are a testbed pretty much for anything that the company wants to roll out. We put our hands up to be the Guinea pig and try it and give feedback on it, so it's a huge effort and it will take time for us to make all of those changes, but actually, what does help, as well, is bringing in more talent at all levels of the business to help us. Because they're bringing their normal, actually, and so in order for us to change the company's normal, we need a lot of people inside the business who actually feel like, and have grown up with that as their normal, if that makes sense.

Luis: I love this, and maybe just one, I tried one thing which I think it's quite… you can see it in this whole approach, but I think it's worth it to underline, is that the seed of all this is the complexity of the ecosystem that we're [in] right now and that where Ford needs to survive. And so, in a way, the old days were simple. Now, Ford and every large organization needs to survive in a very complex ecosystem, where you need to actually not only be digital, but you need to be more planet-centered, you need to be understanding a lot more things, you need to watch out like what's your experience, what are you providing, what value, what is the impact? There's so much stuff that you need to consider. What is interesting about this is that D-Ford or the innovation that is happening in Ford are not interesting side projects, and maybe one of the main differences. Like, they are the core of the business, of how the business is going to survive in the future in a better way.

For me, that is super important, because in order to tackle that challenge of that complexity, you need to democratize where innovation is coming from, like Usha was saying, and the roles of everyone on making that happen, from every single person. I love that the input of different levels is as important if not more, because they are many times closer to the things, to the client, to the manufacturing, than the leadership, their input is critical on doing that fast innovation and reacting and tackling those very complex problems.

I think that's spot on and you can see it now. I can truly say that you can see that and you can see the passion of the people that are given that responsibility and that accountability, you can see how they grow, also, so I think it's very good in so many ways, and I completely agree with Usha.

Usha: Yes, Luis, I was just thinking, 10 years ago, there were probably like one or two teams doing innovation inside Ford, and right now, literally, the entire company is transforming and it feels like it's everyone's job, not just the job of a couple of folks in the innovation department, right?

Luis: Exactly.

Usha: I think that's a really important point, and then maybe just one other reflection, just listening to what Luis was saying that I think, to me, when you think about moving from just hardware focus to hardware, software, and services, you are now competing with other digital brands and other service brands. In the old days, we were just thinking about how our products compared with other automotive manufacturers, but in the future, we're comparing across industries.

Thinking about it from a customer perspective, when they're maybe purchasing or accessing a service from Ford, then they're comparing us with other services in their life. They're looking at Netflix and they're looking at Google and they're looking at the service. It also means that when we are thinking about how we show up and our role in the world, we have to think about it in that way, and that's also a massive change for us as a business.

Detria: Well, this has been just such a fascinating conversation with so much rich content falling out of it, Usha, knowing that you probably have three or four alarms around your bed: There must be a big question that keeps you up at night, and what is that?

Usha: Gosh, there's probably like a long list, but if I had to pick one, goodness, what would I pick? I would probably say, for me, it's the health and well-being of my team, because the last few years have been super difficult for us in many, many different ways, and we're also then tackling some of the biggest challenges in the industry and not just in our industry, but on the planet. And so, just keeping our resilience levels high, keeping our optimism high, and not just thinking about success, but thinking about keeping our team happy and whole, that's probably the thing I think about the most, to be honest, between the hours of one and three in the morning. 

Detria: Usha and Luis, again, thank you so much for sharing so much about how to go from a team of eight--Usha, you said you were number eight in your team--to now being a world trailblazer in design and the need for creating beacon teams and the need for having super ninjas in your team with diverse experience, and Luis, for really highlighting and reminding us about the need to have an eagerness to democratize human-centered design. Usha, thank you for bringing your full heart to this podcast, and Luis, for your passion. Thank you so much.

Usha: Thanks for the opportunity, Detria. I had fun doing it.

Luis: Yes, it was fun. Let's do it again!

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Combine the outlook of a visionary with the rigor of a high-performing athlete and you’ll begin to get a sense of IDEO ALUM Detria Williamson. She has spent more than 20 years as an innovative brand experience marketer who gives companies a brave push forward, bringing the discipline and mindset needed to create new brand ecosystems while building on the resonance and value the brand already has to its audiences.