Orientation Case Study: GM

A quick story about GM's Test Track

Let’s go way back to the 1970s, to a test track in the southwest United States.

It’s GM’s purpose-built proving-ground for new vehicles, and it’s located there because it puts cars through a lot of challenging situations: altitude, climate, etc.

The story goes that on a regular basis, GM executives would fly in to test new models for approval. They’d charter in, hop into a chauffeured limo, arrive at the track and drive the cars. In some cases they wouldn't even drive; a pro driver would be at the wheel.

And as it turns out, the cars were perfect. Amazing products, on-strategy, and living up to all the standards set out in the plan.

But they weren’t the same cars that were available for sale. They were doctored versions:

They use a rolling radius machine to choose the best tires, fix the headliner, tighten panel and interior gaps, remove shakes and rattles, repair bodywork—everything and anything.

Because of course they were!

It probably only took one gripe from Bob Lutz (CEO at the time) for the manager of the proving ground to push their team to doctor the example vehicles.

As far as they knew, the cars were exactly as they would be coming off the line. That’s why Bob Lutz thinks GM’s products are world-class. The ones he’s driven are.

There‘s no way any CEO would want this to happen. What leader would want to make decisions about their organization’s future using made-up data?

And yet, things like this happen all the time, whether it’s a PPT dashboard with green-shifted measures, or unaddressed basic technology gaps (read: bad laptops) because execs always have the best available equipment.

This is an orientation problem.

Orientation and Strategy are deeply connected, but I like the idea of orienting more than strategizing. Execs and teams need better maps, better compasses, and better goals than they have today. In the GM proving ground example, each of those three portions of the system failed.

So, some core questions: Is my organization headed in the right direction? Are we orienting ourselves based on accurate and comprehensive insights? Is there an effective system for measurement and adjustment in place? And, importantly, are the incentives in place driving the desired outcomes?

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