Posted on 10/12/2016

Q-and-A with Ford Futurist Sheryl Connelly

Sheryl Connelly says she can’t predict the future. Rather, her job at Ford is to help the organization prevent “strategic surprise.” To expect the unexpected. In this Q-and-A, Connelly discusses what led her down this interesting career path, the types of trends she’s forecasting, and how those trends are impacting decisions at Ford. 

You can hear more from Connelly at Automation Alley’s 16th Annual Awards Gala on Oct. 14 at the Detroit Yacht Club, where she will discuss current trends that are shaping our future. 

What does it mean to be a futurist?

It’s much easier to explain what a futurist isn’t. At least for me, it’s not someone who predicts the future. There’s a certain irony to my title. 

With companies like Ford, that have lead time and large capital investments, we’re talking three to five years to bring a new idea to the marketplace, we have to find ways to think about the future. And when we do so, we also have to be mindful of the fact that whatever assumptions we make are subject to change. So my job is to push against the status quo. Our past is not always going to be a good predictor of our future. 

When you do work like trends and futuring, which is rather abstract and intangible, you have to know your audience and whether there is a willingness to be pushed in terms of their point of view. 

How did your career path lead you to your current role? 

It was the right place at the right time for me, and I was very lucky. By way of educational background, I have a bachelor’s degree in finance, and a law degree and an MBA. I know that sounds like a lot of education, but it was really more of a reflection of coming of age during the recession when there weren’t many jobs. So you stayed in school and tried to become more marketable.  

After leaving the practice of law, I decided to see where my business degree would take me and wrote to Ford and got hired by marketing. Eight years into the job, I had an opportunity to join the global consumer trends and futuring team. That was almost 13 years ago now, and I have learned quite a bit in that time.

How does your background in finance, law and business help you do your job? 

The finance degree taught me the business fundamentals, my MBA taught me how to apply those fundamentals to actual practice, and the law degree taught me how to do the research I do on a daily basis. And just as important, it taught me how to make a persuasive, logic-based argument. 

What types of trends are you forecasting and how far into the future?

It depends on who I’m talking to. Sometimes it’s two to four years out, and sometimes it’s four decades out, and everything in between. The near-term micro trends are the things that we are watching, the ones that we think are emerging and that we have to keep an eye on. But the things we are tracking that are several decades out, the macro trends, are the ones that are slow moving, and their changes might be subtle, but the implications will be rather significant. 

So what I look at is called STEEP (social, technological, economic, environmental and political) categories, and I monitor how things are evolving. So, for example, we might track the global phenomenon of aging populations. If I’m talking to someone in corporate strategy, we might discuss things like the United Nations concern about this trend being one of the greatest challenges we will face in our collective lifetime. And there are implications to that. Who will take care of the elderly? We used to rely on the youngest generation taking care of the oldest generation, but as society becomes much more mobile, that’s no longer the case as people move further and further away from home and shift locales more frequently. 

But the real heart of the issue comes down to economics of aging. If you think you’re going to live to the age of 70, working from the ages of 15 to 65 is fine. That’s a financial model that won’t have any problems. But what if you live to be well over 100? You’ve only worked for one third of your life. That is not financially sustainable. 

Let’s move that aging population conversation over to a group of designers or engineers. The elderly deal with reduced response time, impaired vision, limited range of motion. How can we design the ergonomics of the vehicle to address these changes without ever alienating our target market? So when we come up with solutions for an aging driver, it has to work whether you are 16 or 61. Or, I can say, let me tell you what cell phones are doing in this space, or I can tell you what tourism is doing, or how aging is affecting medical care, or what governments are doing to prepare. Each of those topics can help enrich the conversation without ever having to tell a designer how to design a better car, because I don’t have the skill set to do that. 

And then, you take that same topic of aging and move it to HR. People are staying in the workforce longer, and if you look across any company, not just Ford, they probably have at least three distinct generational cohorts: the baby boomers, the Gen Xers and the millennials. And each of these cohorts have distinctly different work ethics. Baby boomers believe in facetime: first to arrive, last to leave. They show their dedication that way. Gen Xers believe in response time. You won’t always see me, but don’t doubt my dedication because I’m going to respond to a request for help in the middle of the night or over the weekend when I’m at home. The millennials feel that my time is my time, and where, when and how I work shouldn’t matter as long as I get the job done. 

So these examples are all focusing on one trend, but taking the conversation to different functions. 

How do your forecasts impact decisions about the future at Ford? 

I’m not a decision maker, but rather, a person who feeds into the process that supports the decision makers. I don’t look at automotive, and that’s by design. The company doesn’t need any automotive expertise. There’s no shortage of that here. My job is to look at things that they might not run across on a regular basis. My goal is to sit down with those people and say, “Here’s what I’m seeing, and here’s what I think is important.” And to collaborate with them. Because the goal, ultimately, is to come up with insights, implications and opportunities that none of us would have discovered if we would have worked on our own. 

Do you see any of your past predictions coming true now? 

My hope at the end of the day is to prevent strategic surprise. So that nobody in the company ever says, “Oh my gosh! In our wildest dreams it never occurred to us that this could happen.” I hope that I am able to teach the organization to expect the unexpected. Of course, the challenge is that we just don’t know. It’s a numbers game. So, of course some of the things you discuss do play out. But there’s just as many things, if not more, that never play out. 

In 2004, for example, we developed a series of scenarios as a tool for strategic planning. We wrote fictional stories about what the world could look like 10 years out. And one of those stories talked about a global economic collapse and what that would mean for the auto industry. And it was surprisingly similar to what we actually saw when the industry took a nose drive in 2007, 2008 and 2009. In fact, we went so far as to write in our 2004 narrative, “What happens if U.S. auto manufacturers filed for bankruptcy?” When you let go of any sort of worldview, when you let go of your preconceived notions and your prejudices, the way to see the world, and enter this discussion that absolutely anything is possible, then it becomes a numbers game, and some of this stuff you will actually see play out. 

What do you like most about your job? 

It’s about a combination of curiosity and creativity. Bringing those two things together. 

If you could make one bold prediction about the auto industry in the next 10-15 years, what would it be?

I think autonomous vehicles are going to be a reality. Ford has said that by 2021 we will have autonomous vehicles on the road at least in a commercial context. Maybe for ride sharing or ride hailing. By my prediction isn’t so much about when that arrives, but the implications of autonomous vehicles I think will be of the scale of the advent of the Internet. Or the advent of mobile technology. There’s no way to truly appreciate how fundamental that change will be in all aspects of life.

Sheryl Connelly has served as Ford Motor Company’s corporate futurist for over a decade. Her expertise lies in identifying consumer trends that help to inform design, product development, strategy, business and marketing functions. Sheryl is responsible for anticipating shifts in consumer values, attitudes and behaviors. She currently sits on the Global Advisory Council on Transportation to the World Economic Forum, has spoken at TED Global, and was recognized as one of the most creative people in business by Fast Company.


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