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Remember the Pontiac Aztek? Here’s What Its Failure Can Teach Us About Poor Project Management.

A new piece in Car and Driver details the awful corporate situation that birthed one of recent memory's most spectacular automobile industry failures.

If you’re in your mid-20s like me, you might remember that one kid back in middle school whose mom drove a Pontiac Aztek. I say “one kid” because there was only about one family per municipality that, for whatever reason, actually dropped money on this objectively hideous vehicle. In fact, the Aztek’s failure was so huge that it contributed to GM ultimately scuttling the Pontiac brand in 2010.

Over at Car and Driver, auto executive Bob Lutz tells of the toxic corporate culture that helped produce one of the biggest industry flops of recent memory:

“At the time, GM was criticized for never doing anything new, never taking a chance. So [then-GM chairman Rick] Wagoner and the automotive strategy board decreed that henceforth, 40 percent of all new GM products would be ‘innovative.’ That started a trend toward setting internal goals that meant nothing to the customer. Everything that looked reasonably radical got green-lit… These things require a culture of complete acquiescence and intimidation, led by a strong dictatorial individual who wants it that way.”

The “individual” Lutz refers to is then-Product Development Head Don Hackworth, a really awful sounding guy who pushed the Aztek project by employing aggressive intimidation and a totalitarian attitude. Legitimate concerns about the car’s design were quashed in favor of maintaining the party line. Hackworth’s team worked in fear of crossing him and withheld their opinions lest they lose their positions. This awful work environment was instrumental in producing a car that only satisfied unchecked Pontiac executives. The customers, as you now know, took off running.

So what’s the lesson here? First, I have to offer a hat-tip to writer Craig Calcaterra, who first brought this idea up on Twitter earlier today:

Background on how the Pontiac Aztek happened. The central lesson here applies to a LOT of bad corporate decisions.

— Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) October 13, 2014

As Calcaterra later went on to post, the process by which the Aztek was developed suited Pontiac's internal whims without ever giving a thought as to what the consumer wanted. Many of us can probably think of examples from our own work experience where adhering to "the process" or "protocol" or "tradition" got in the way of productivity. It's imperative that leaders of any organization identifying those instances and do away with them.

I would add that a leader who incites fear in his or her team isn't much of a leader at all. At a certain point, the person at the top of any group has to be a positive inspiration for those below. A dictatorial approach that quashes any potential criticism will restrict innovation and only lead to stagnation and failure.

Read more at Car and Driver

Photo credit: Auto Reverie / Flickr


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