The New Breed of Innovator: Pragmatic Business

At the age of 18, Dee Kapur left India and arrived in New York City on the first leg of his journey to California to attend Stanford University. His flight was late, and he missed his connecting flight; Kapur found himself stranded in the Big Apple with $200, his suitcase, his tennis racquet, and little sense of what to do. He eventually got to Stanford, and although economically poorer, he gained a new sense of confi­dence. With no money to his name, he found that he had to be innov­ative in small ways every day just to make ends meet. His current drive for innovation in business has its roots in such experiences, when he had to seek new and efficient solutions in daunting circumstances.

After earning a degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford and his MBA at Carnegie Mellon, Kapur eventually landed at Ford Motor Company. At Ford, he continued to seek innovative ways to turn supposed barriers into opportunities. At one point, he ran the most profitable line of vehicles in the United States and was part of the group at Ford that helped transform the SUV and a pickup truck from a service vehicle into a lifestyle vehicle. In 2003, after a suc­cessful career at Ford, Kapur was named president of the Truck Division of International Truck and Engine.

Kapur believes in what he refers to as pragmatic innovation, a term that perfectly captures the balance between creativity and profit. He recognizes that, even as he leads an organization, he can­not mandate innovation. However, he can institute a management process that fosters it. Kapur models his approach to his employees with one dose inspiration and one dose instruction. The level of interpersonal relationships is reinforced by the practical, by budget allocations, and by reward and recognition. In his work with others and in his business procedures, Kapur holds up innovation as a clear signpost that shows the direction of his leadership. How you allocate your time and money and how you groom your employees show your priorities and establish incentives within a company. At the end of the day, Kapur keeps an eye on results. Although his upbringing and engineering training continuously ensure attention to facts, logic, and results, often the road to the outcome is newly laid. He likes to set targets for his company that he has “no freakin’ idea how to get to.” These targets are not just goals; they shape corporate culture. The targets create a demand for unconventional input, and, more often than not, they coalesce into a game plan that would not happen with a “safe” goal. In setting such goals, he has developed an instinct for finding the sweet spot between the acceptable and the impossible. Setting the bar where he does helps motivate those under him and creates an environment of creativity. He also sets a positive example by walking the walk; he strives to be the ideal he wants others to be. He has a directness and honesty that you instantly respect. He wastes neither words nor time. He does not look to blame others; instead, he looks to accomplish goals. He never seeks to embarrass people, and he knows the power of win-win.

Throughout his career Kapur has looked to identify the people who, like him, are looking at the broader picture. He realizes that you can never bring everyone along with total conviction, but if you build a core team right away, you can change the way a group or project team works. In any organization, he says, approximately 30 percent of the people are passionate about wanting to win or at least make a dif­ference. The leader’s challenge is to identify those people, groom them, harness their energy, and let them be a beacon for others. If one can garner the allegiance of that 30 percent, that is success. Spend time with the people who want to be motivated. Challenge and “jazz” them, and they will introduce a velocity and energy that will propel the rest along with them.

For Kapur, pragmatic innovation requires a balance of the left and right brain working in unison. Such a balance enables him to see situations in a broader way than many others. He can manage the duality inherent in complex corporate decision making. He intuitively understands the concept of moving from one level of viewing the problem to another. He attributes this in part to the fact that he not only has an analytical ability to understand engineering and business systems, but he also has a feel for the lifestyle side of products, he appreciates the human reaction, and he recognizes the compulsion that drives prospective buyers. He was raised in the Himalayas in India, but he also spent time in Europe when his father was trans­ferred there in the course of his career. He has a global perspective born of his personal life: high school in the Himalayas, several years in Europe as a child, and an exposure to life’s possibilities without the luxuries of coddling.

His ability to see the value of the different major players in the process enables him to manage and motivate others and to unify them toward common goals. It is not who is right or wrong, but what needs to be done to get to the next level. in our work with the auto industry, we saw many examples of managers who were loyal to their area of expertise and defensive about the requests for change or per­spectives offered by other areas in the company. Many complain that employees in other areas of the company are myopic. If only they could learn to see the situation from another’s perspective, they could move faster and make the right decision. Design stylists complain that others fail to grasp the gestalt, or entirety, of a design; when non­designers pick it apart and make changes to the pieces, they compro­mise the overall effect. Engineers argue about cost overruns and the inability to deliver on style without compromising performance qual­ity. Manufacturing argues about the feasibility of maintaining toler­ances given form complexity or material choices. Human factors and safety specialists constantly call for changes in engineering and styling to ensure a higher degree of safety. Cars are designed to be driven, but human-factors specialists are trained to think about when the car will fail. Marketing argues for details that stylists reject as incompati­ble with the new approach to style. In short, there are plenty of rea­sons to disagree. Kapur does not like to take sides; when he must, however, it is to ensure a successful outcome, and he strives to bring his team along with him. A persistent operating theme for him is “integrated execution!”

When Kapur started in automotive design, he was as fascinated with styling as he was with engineering. While directing the Truck Division at Ford, Kapur, along with marketeers Bob Masone and Allison Howitt and head truck designer Pat Schiavone, was viewing an old two-seat roadster with saddle leather interior. The car exuded high class, and at the same time, the leather reminded him of the saddles cowboys used. And those cowboys happen to be customers of pickup trucks. Wouldn’t it be great if a pickup had a similarly luxurious interior, one that still con­nected to the cowboy aura? That leap led to the development of a lim­ited-edition F-150 pickup with saddle leather interior, co-branded with the King Ranch in South Texas. The King Ranch accomplished a num­ber of things inside Ford as well as with the F-150. The project not only made a strong brand statement of innovation for Ford, it also created a great working relationship with the whole team. Trucks and SUVs became the place where everyone wanted to be; it was where the action was. The new line of F-150s introduced in 2004 (and further discussed in the next chapter) was a product of the team that brought you the King Ranch as well as the Harley Davidson F-150 (designed jointly by Gordon Platto and Willie G. Davidson himself). According to Kapur, “The name of the game is to continually change it.” That is the focus of Kapur’s view on innovation.

Yet Kapur’s last assignment at Ford was to deal with the chal­lenging problem of controlling costs in vehicle programs. Controlling costs by itself is not a difficult task—cut out all unnecessary parts, and cheapen those that are integral. But that approach leaves the com­pany with little to sell other than a low price. The challenge is to pro­duce great products while meeting cost goals. More managers are needed who can handle both the creative innovation such as that in the King Ranch and the pragmatics of cost, because the combination of these two positions gives Kapur the ying and yang of what it takes to develop innovative products. Now, Kapur will see whether that same approach can help clarify and rebuild the International brand in the trucking industry.

Kapur sums up his approach to managing innovation in three steps:

1. Make innovation and boldness part of the culture—everyone needs to know what you stand for.

2. Role-model innovation as often and in as many forums as you can.

3. Institute a management process that fosters innovation.

Kapur lives by the vision that “the future for society and the coun­try is vibrancy in innovation.” Kapur is a new breed of innovator.

Updated: September 24, 2015 — 5:08 am