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Former Ford CEO Alan Mulally: Running a Business Is a Design Job

American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company, by Bryce G. Hoffman, is a great business book about one of the best CEOs of all time, in my opinion. It also is the story of a business leader who, as I like to say, thinks like a designer.

"Running a business is a design job. You need a point of view about the future, a really good plan to deliver that future, and then relentless implementation," Mulally told the author.

If you have optimism, empathy, holistic thinking, collaboration, and an open mind--then you are thinking like a designer. You have a high design quotient (DQ), just as Alan Mulally does.

Here are five principles for how you can think like Mulally, a designer of business.
1. Think positively.

Mulally's optimism is famous. As Hoffman notes in American Icon, "Clearly Ford faced a long, uphill battle back to profitability--a daunting prospect for everybody but Mulally. Belying the predictions that the harsh realities of the American automobile industry would soon grind him down, he seemed to be having the time of his life." Even in the worst moments at Ford, and it's had more than its fair share, Mulally approached every problem with the belief that a better solution was possible. This is central to thinking like a designer.

How:

While it may be true Mulally was born an optimist, two strategic tools made him a positive thinker as a leader. One was his belief in the process, what he calls "emotional resilience" that comes from trusting the process will work. The other is his "find-a-way" attitude" that is about proposing a plan, rather than stating the problem.
2. Have empathy.

Empathy is putting yourself in other people's shoes to see things from their perspective. When you empathize, you are human-centered. Empathy is not something you can develop and nurture in the safety of your office. You need to get out, meet people, talk to them, and observe them--to take away the layers of hierarchy between you and your customers until you're literally face-to-face with them in their natural habitat.

How:

Mulally did this by working as a salesperson in a dealership. A. G. Lafley, the former CEO of P&G, did it by washing laundry with customers. Empathy building with customers also builds trust, as Hoffman's description of Mulally demonstrates: "A few minutes later, Mulally had made his first sale. In less than an hour, he made two more. Another was pending. It would not be the last time Mulally played at being a car salesman. This was a way for him to see firsthand how Ford's customers approached its cars and trucks. But it also generated a huge amount of goodwill for the company. Everybody who met Mulally walked away an ambassador for Ford. He had that effect on people."
3. Think holistically.

Thinking like a designer is about opening your viewing angle really, really wide to see the big picture. It's seeing things from different points of view so that you can connect the dots in new and valuable ways. Gather inspiration and information like a bee pollinating from many flowers.

How:

Mulally cast a wide net to see the big picture--he talked to industry experts, veteran journalists, and even to his competitors (like then GM CEO Rick Wagoner); he read reports, white papers, newspaper articles; he flew to Consumer Reports' automotive testing division; he talked to customers, dealers, investors, and employees; he looked at Ford's archives for inspiration, as Hoffman describes, "like a miner convinced that the goal was close at hand."
4. Collaborate.

If you want to improve people's lives, you need to collaborate. It is too big an undertaking to pull off alone. Working in silos, in the isolation of the different departments, can lead to serious mistakes that can be avoided through collaboration. The value of helping one another across disciplines, departments, regions is indispensable. Collaboration means design, engineering, manufacturing, purchasing, sales--all disciplines literally having a seat at the table together.

How:

Mulally held a business plan review (BPR) every week, same time, place, and day, with mandatory attendance and where collaboration was not only encouraged but necessary. Holding a BPR, or a variation of it, is a must-have tool for any leader serious about collaboration. As Mulally told Hoffman, "Working together always works. It always works. Everybody has to be on the team. They have to be interdependent with each other."
5. Have an open mind.

Thinking like a designer is having an open enough mind to imagine the future using what you know today. It's asking "what if" questions to explore what can be versus what already exists.

How:

Despite his incredible success and experience at Boeing, Mulally brought a beginner's mind to Ford. He was unafraid to ask questions like a novice and learn like a student, captured by Hoffman, "Mulally knew he still had a lot to learn before he could finalize his plan, and he threw himself at that task like a senior before finals week."

After I wrote this post, I reached out to Mulally to ask what he'd like to add.

"The leader holds themselves and all the participants responsible and accountable for following our agreed-to process and expected behaviors, with zero tolerance for violating either," he told me.

Among his many exceptional leadership qualities, Mulally has an exceptionally high DQ, the ability to think like a designer. You can increase your DQ, too, by building these principles into your leadership skills and by practicing them, bringing everyone together.

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