Rick Wagoner's support of my efforts to revitalize product development was exemplary, a clear demon-stration of one of his most endearing characteristics: steadfast loyalty to his handpicked subordinates, leaving them with the certainty of the boss's backing. Sadly, this otherwise laudable leadership trait can cut in both directions: Rick, in many instances, was devoid of objectivity when it came to people with whom he had served a long time, who had moved up the ranks with him, or whom he had known as early as his Treasury Office days. It was painful to see Rick protect and support many officers who, to my eyes, personified the large corporation culture of "look good, sound good, prepare well for meetings, and never disagree with the boss." It wasn't until after Rick's departure in 2009 that the hammer fell on many of these experienced, slick, intelligent, but ultimately near-useless members of the Wagoner team. A collective sigh of relief marked their departures.
Rick was definitely a procedural executive. He was blessed with truly exceptional intelligence, mostly left-brain analytical but, unlike in Red Poling, combined with an understanding of right-brain value. Rick liked to reduce complex interlocking issues to understandable, repeatable processes. Given the impenetrable thicket and lack of executive discipline that he inherited, this unquestionably provided clarity and value. The good thing about focusing on process is that it ensures repeatability and predictability. The bad thing about overfocusing on process is that it discourages creativity, experimentation, and new solutions. Yet, in large organizations, many derive comfort from following "the process," even if they know the result will be mediocre at best. Rick, with his well-ordered mind, liked process and was not comfortable in its absence.
On one occasion, eager to show Rick the benefit of free-flowing creativity, I asked Design to put on a presentation of any and all ideas for future vehicles the most talented of the designers could come up with for new, untried ways to put the public on four wheels. It was a great exercise, and as always in acts of spontaneous creation, no "focus groups" had been involved because they could no more have imagined these cars than focus groups of cell phone users could have come up with the iPhone.
We presented it all to Rick, who was fascinated. He just had one question: "How do we know whether these directions we're going in are correct?" I assured him that we would all recognize a potential home run if we saw one, but that these "what if" proposals had to be seen as the products of the fertile imagination of talented designers; they were not firm "product proposals" but rather "thought provokers" or "idea starters." Rick still had a problem. How did we know we were exploring in the right direction? He then outlined his idea: What if we were to create a high-level panel of leading thinkers, artists, architects, fashion designers, people who were young, sharp, cool, and trendy? Expose them to these design "stimuli" in a scientific way, tabulate the results, and we would soon see if we were headed in the right direction.
"Rick," I said, "here we are trying to demonstrate one way to generate new ideas through an unfiltered creative process. But you are so quantitatively data focused, you immediately want to measure, sift, analyze, and generally left-brain-control what is supposed to be a pure right-brain exercise." Rick laughed and said, "I guess you're right. ... I always want to see data."