Every company needs a Sheryl Connelly. As global head of trends and futuring for Ford, Connelly immerses herself in ever-evolving social, cultural, environmental, technological and economic ideas to imagine what consumers might want up to 20 years in the future.
Connelly’s creative prowess has earned her a spot on Fast Company’s 2013 Top 100 Most Creative People in Business list, an annual look at the people and businesses that are redefining creativity in industry, culture and commerce. Connelly’s award puts Ford Motor Company in the creative ranks with Apple, Nike and Facebook; Ford is the only automaker represented this year.
“Our One Ford global employees are extremely bright and creative, and Sheryl is one shining example of the talent that goes into building world-class products our customers love,” said Hau Thai-Tang, vice president of engineering, Ford global product development. “While it is impossible to predict with certainty what will happen as far out as 2020, her thought-provoking insights into the future afford us the opportunity to do scenario planning and create the best value solutions for our customers.”
Connelly considers herself the company contrarian. She provides a “functionally agnostic” view of the world for engineers, designers, technologists and others at Ford, while offering a different lens through which to view future shifts in the marketplace.
“I’m very proud to be part of this world-class Ford team and collaborate with such smart, creative colleagues each day,” said Connelly. “This award from Fast Company is a huge recognition for Ford as a whole.”
Connelly’s work helps Ford take a big-picture approach to consumer research, going beyond traditional business analysis to consider situations Ford can’t control or influence. As a result, the company can better anticipate consumer shifts and act on them in a way that gives Ford a competitive advantage.
In 2004 for example, Connelly led a project that examined the possibility of an economic collapse and the perils it would present to the U.S. auto industry. A few years later consumers rallied behind Ford as the only U.S. automaker that did not need government loans to avoid bankruptcy when auto sales dried up during the Great Recession.
Connelly’s trends research and her collaboration within Ford also helped the company develop a business case to invest in compact utility vehicles during the early 2000s – ahead of many in the industry. Ford predicted consumer interest in smaller utility vehicles would be driven by downsizing baby boomers as well as rising gasoline prices. From 2005 to 2012 sales of small utilities rose 155 percent. Today, nearly 7 million compact utilities are sold every year, accounting for more than 16 percent of all vehicles sold worldwide.
“Nothing has been more prolific than the global rise of the compact utility,” said Erich Merkle, Ford’s U.S. sales analyst.
Connelly’s work also contributed to Ford’s pioneering introduction of its SYNC® infotainment system in 2007. More than 5 million SYNC units have been sold, with 14 million expected to be on the road by 2015 as SYNC launches globally.
“It’s thrilling that a more than 100-year-old company, in a very mature and extremely complex industry, is on the cutting-edge of innovation and creativity,” Connelly said of Ford. “It’s about being nimble enough to anticipate or create change.”
Creativity and art
You won’t find a crystal ball on Connelly’s desk, though. Crayons and markers are the tools of her trade. Connelly encapsulates her thoughts and futurist ideas through art. She is widely known within Ford for forgoing typical text-based notes in favor of illustrations – drawing a subject or idea, for example. She uses illustrations to convey her ideas, begin discussions or take notes during a meeting.
“I’ve always loved art. I would have gone to art school when I was younger, had I convinced myself it was a financially viable route,” joked Connelly.
Connelly, who has spoken at several TEDX conferences in the United States, will give an attendee talk at TEDGlobal 2013 next month in Scotland. It will be her first appearance at the international version of the conference series known for its focus on creativity. She will speak about consumer trends and her collaborations within Ford to positively impact future products for consumers globally. She also was asked to be an official note-taker for the conference, using her creativity to capture the event’s key messages and spirit and post them online for the world to share.
Via Ford Media