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“Who has the authority to hold earth as a hostage?”
An explorative interview with Mr. Gopichandra Surnilla about Innovation and Sustainability

Inventor and Mentor, Ford Motor Company

Interviewed by Anu Gopalakrishnan for ©2022

We all seem to comprehend that the definition of innovation is simple and easy to understand. However, it is surprisingly difficult to achieve a consensus among today’s corporate leaders on exactly what innovation means in their organization. And why is that? There is no one single definition that plays into every organization. It depends on the business heritage, model, culture, and its core values. However, we all realize that the key to any organization’s growth today is the emergence of thinking out of the box. 

What makes Innovation in huge organizations click? Meet our innovator/ engineering expert and scientist Mr. Gopichandra Surnilla, the recipient of Dr. Haren Gandhi Innovation Award at Ford Motor Company. When interviewed in 2010, Mr. Surnilla spoke about path breaking inventions around emission and fuel economy.

A decade later, Mr. Surnilla has shared some important and valuable advice that could help you break the traditional conservative chain of thinking and leap forward with enthusiasm to enable, immerse and solve world’s most critical problems. His energy to share and co-create with fellow innovators is a spark that every scientist needs to adapt to further the progress of societal change. 

Here are some excerpts from the deeply informative interview with Anu Gopalakrishnan, exclusively for

Q: A lot has changed since we last met in 2010 - how do you see yourself as a change agent within Ford Motor Company.
Yes. Innovation cuts across every vertical and every day is not the same. I was able to focus on three areas that allowed me to contribute for change at Ford Motor Company - changing the focus from inventing to innovating; disseminating knowledge around the innovation thought process to the young engineers and mentoring them to be great innovators and innovation leaders; and finally, most importantly, developing processes and mechanisms for streamlining innovation process within the company for a broad participation. Mentors play a significant role in this thought process. Mentors should be vulnerable, speaking about failures. It’s not just about assigning and providing lessons to improve. Mentors provide connection to explore the path and the mentee should be willing and open to receive such teachings – answers to life’s deepest questions. Bhagavad Gita is a prime book of knowledge that explicitly states that. 

Q: You have been the recipient of The Dr. Haren S. Gandhi Research and Innovation Award that comes with a huge responsibility to attract and impact the community. Could you share an experience with Dr. Haren Gandhi which you still utilize as part of your thinking?
Dr. Haren Gandhi was my mentor and embodies all the qualities of a scientist who pioneered leadership and execution of innovative ideas within a huge company like Ford. I am very happy to have worked and learned under his shadow. The award I received was given for two major areas of contribution -for being one of the prolific inventors in history of Ford, and for promoting innovation in the company through teaching & mentoring of engineering teams and developing innovation processes for enhancing innovation in the company. Though I have over 500 patents, quantity does not matter in the larger scheme of things. What is important was that I was able to learn and identify opportunities to share with the Engineering community by trying to teach and explain processes. Learning a lot about people, how they think, how I can help them think is something I deeply enjoy. 

Sharing a quick experience with Dr. Haren Gandhi – we were working on an emission absorbing catalyst. In one of several 1:1 meeting I had with him, Dr. Gandhi made a statement regarding our ability to meet emissions with an emissions device called the “Lean NOx Trap (LNT)”. We can meet our target emissions with the technology, if we can manage the temperature range of the trap. That simple statement provided guidance to the whole team on where to focus our innovation efforts and we started working on chemical, mechanical and controls solutions towards temperature management. Great innovation leaders like Dr. Gandhi provide a vision on what’s possible and the young engineers make it possible. The vision provides the young innovators the confidence that something is possible and inspires and extracts innovation from them.

Q: How do you see the current world of leadership and the demands for innovation in today’s world?
When innovating, it’s not about where you are in time. The “current time” is history. For the scientist, the current is 2, 4 or 10 years ahead. Innovation leaders should investigate the future and provide a vision of “art of the possible” which inspires and instills confidence in innovators to deliver to that vision. Leaders show the destination, innovators discover the path to it. The message I give to innovators of today is that solution is always in your mind. It’s just that you still haven’t figured it out. It involves great amount of discipline, fostering culture and commitment to achieve success. Every person can solve the problem. You don’t need to be a PhD. or even a highschooler. To solve a problem, you don’t need to have the knowledge but need means to leverage other’s knowledge. And of course, you need leaders and visionaries to provide a direction.

Enablers are key to the ecosystem. Do you know the first autonomous vehicle was conceptualized in 1920’s called the “Phantom Auto”? People then said it was a crazy idea. At that time, all enablers were not in place- electronic steering, electronic throttling, automatic transmission, etc.  Every CRAZY idea is only CRAZY at a given time. With time, it becomes a feasible one because of other enabling technologies that make it happen.

Q: Is there a duration between ideation to execution? Companies insist on launching quickly and effectively to gain a competitive edge.
I do not think there is a typical timeframe for going from innovation to product execution. It depends on the type of problem one is solving and the complexity of the solution. Innovations may be executed to a working product even in a month’s time. Some of the software innovations are executed at dramatic speeds if the architectural and foundational frameworks exist. 

To execute the innovation fast, the organizational design and culture play a big role. Ability to tap into cross-functional organizational expertise and resources without too much bureaucracy is key. Message of innovation should be embraced top-down in the hierarchy. When given an opportunity to innovate, it need not be tech focused only. Simple improvements are also credited as innovation. For example, a better trash can in the bathroom, it need not be just tech. Science is streamlined to all quarters. Doing or experimenting any out of the box idea should be part of your accomplishments. Bonus or perks with any non-financial form of recognition for the individual and the idea should be a part of the culture. 

Q: How can companies organize themselves effectively, creatively with the right resources for innovation?
I think there are essentially two ways large companies manage their innovation; the top-down and the bottom-up approach. 

Top-down being a directed innovation based on companies’ strategic objectives. In the top-down case, the best way a company can promote innovation is by providing a strategic objective in terms of the big-problem to solve rather than a solution to implement. This way the team is provided with the direction of innovation and enables the teams to innovate to solve all the related problems to solve the “big-problem”.

In the bottom-up approach, the innovation is happening at the grass-roots level. When one thinks of innovation, this is what first comes to mind. In this case, the innovation may or may not be aligned with the strategic direction of the company. However, the bottom-up innovations can open new business opportunities for companies. The evaluation of innovations that are not in line of the company business tend to be difficult as there are no established mechanisms to evaluate them. Thus, for bottom-up innovations, it is generally best for the companies to have a separate channel for developing and market testing these innovations. Evaluating them in the mainline business can squash some potentially great new ventures.

Q: There is a line between invention and innovation. How do you plan to bridge the traditional way of doing things vs. modern ideas and technologies?
Innovation is about solving a problem in a meaningful way. Invention is a just an idea that may be a big or small part of delivering the innovation. Many inventions might be needed for one innovation. 

The traditional way of innovations has been about coming with an innovation and see if markets accept it. In the modern day, innovation is rooted in design thinking approach of desirability, feasibility, and viability. The core focus of the innovation phase being on the desirability. This is about understanding the need of the customer first before innovating. If you are solving a problem, it better be a valuable problem to solve. Desirability enables us to determine if that problem is a valuable one. Currently, the most critical and difficult thing is about finding the right problem to solve. Once we determine that, we can innovate to solve the problem. Technology has provided so many enablers to solve the problems, so solutions are not the difficult part anymore.

Q: Today's youth are competitive, engaging, and far more advanced with their skillset. STEM is everywhere. How have you been empowering them with your expertise and mentorship?
I think the answer to the previous question is quite relevant to this. I have been mentoring the younger generation in importance of a valuable problem. To this end, I have been focusing on the art of questioning to identify the problem and to broaden the scope of these problems. Some other expertise I am trying to hone in on is the importance of leveraging the skills of others. My message is that you do not need to have all expertise to find a solution. If there is a good problem to solve, the world is at your disposal to help you solve it. Technology and social media have really enabled to cast a much bigger net for solutions. The problem then becomes the key challenge to go after.

STEM is good. But the concept of STEM is not looking at the relevancy of the problem, but the focus is on solution. Technology is interesting and how do you enable technology to meet the needs of the problem is important. I am a little less enthused about STEM because it’s not actually giving them innovation abilities to find or identify a problem. For example, Robotics is widely adopted in schools which allows the kids to learn the tools related to design, control, software, etc. But I think there should be a secondary aspect to it – allow the kids to go find the problem(s) and come back as a team to solve the problem(s) which need not and should not be only technical. This will allow the young minds to be better innovators and innovative problem solvers. 

Q: With innovations as the key, has there been a deliberate shift from logical and extensive processes to customer dynamics (real-time) in product development?
Focus has significantly shifted to understanding the customer. Before an initial product is out, there is a major focus on what the customer really wants. However, even after the product is released, now we have a great opportunity to get feedback on how the customer is using the product, product performance, etc. in real time. This enables innovators to iterate on the product quickly. With software products, there is an awesome way to update the products and features that is really changing how we innovate and what product cycle means. 

You look at many parameters for innovation - Is it a worthy problem to solve? Problems can come from any customer segment. Secondly, you need inspiration. Look at Elon Musk or Bill Gates – their focus has been the impact their products can create in the society. What the product is, comes later. They internalize the problem and then externalize the solution. Likewise, Steve Jobs - in terms of the CxD experience and acceptability. I am excited that I am at a very good stage. In my earlier days, I couldn’t make decisions, we followed the lead and the vision. Today, I have come to a point where I can say that the idea doesn’t make sense, doesn’t add value. Believe me when I say this – innovation leadership finally boils down to two things - ability to analyze and critically express what you feel about a product or an idea; and the ability to criticize your own projects/ideas without bias. Personally, I want to focus on meaningful, broad impacting and enabling innovations. 

Q: What is a key element to innovate and creatively succeed in today's corporate environment? 
Ability to question. 95% of one’s energy goes into the whole initiation process of asking a question. The individual is in fear, sometimes looking to tone it the right way, be smart about it and many more anticipatory factors. The remaining 5% goes toward framing the right question. It should be the reverse. The amount of energy you spend speculating goes down as you ask more questions. Encourage youngsters to ask questions. Ability to ask better questions leads to identify good problems to solve.

Other thing, that I have been telling youngsters is to have at least one world issue you care about and passionate about. This is like a strategic objective of the world that one has coined oneself. It is amazing how your mind starts working to innovate to address that chosen issue.

Q: Are we in the cusp of an intergenerational innovation era?
Humanity has been progressing using innovation. We have impacted social life so much. The need is to focus on reusability and recycling as well. Whatever you design, use it for design to reuse. Always think about the product impact on earth and the people on earth. I feel strong regulations need to happen in the sustainability side of things. That’s how emissions regulation came into being (like C02 impact, material impact, taxes, penalties etc.). Public-Private partnerships become very crucial in establishing a blueprint for change and transformation. Governmental decisions become crucial to the change. 

When we look back, we realize what we called progress may or may not be a real progress. For example, how has our progress has impacted the environment? Innovations must be evaluated differently going forward. We need to consider the benefit of the innovation as well as the cost to the society and environment. We have only been looking at the material or labor cost before. There is no well-defined mechanism for this, but we need to strive towards developing and using one.

Q: As an innovator, do you think there could be a possibility of intersecting all three areas of transportation- air/space, water, and road? What does the future hold?
It should happen. Integrating all modes is happening. I am excited about possibility of multi-modal concepts. The future is looking at closing the malls, shipping products to home, vehicles will be limited, families would reduce ownership of vehicles- maybe most families will reduce their vehicle count by at least one vehicle. Transportation needs are going down. By integrating all the modes, I am excited about the possibility of reducing the land footprint for meeting the transportation needs of the expanding societies. As we move forward, the transportation industry will learn to orchestrate all modes of transportation for efficient mobility of people and goods at the same time minimize the impact on environment. One fact that motivates me towards innovating for saving environment is about how the humanity has impacted the life on earth. Just a few hundred years back, the amount of bionic matter (not plants) mass was 4% humans and 96% animals. Today it is 96% humans and 4% animals. Humans have monopolized and plundered the earth so badly. Who has given us the authority to hold earth as hostage? It’s gut wrenching. 

Indeed, a tough question to answer! Mr. Gopichandra Surnilla’s journey has clearly traversed from his initial beginnings as a student, learner, a designer of solutions to an innovator and now a mentor and evangelist. His passion and care about sustainability is evident in the interview and carries a strain of worry blended with huge optimism and hope for today’s youth. Be it hunger, racism, poverty, mental health, sustainability, the problems are powerful and with it comes a powerful generation that needs to enable change innovating and using or creating resources that are available around us. congratulates Mr. Gopichandra Surnilla on receiving the Dr. Haren Gandhi Research and Innovation Award. The Michigan Indian community is very honored and takes pride in Mr. Surnilla’s contributions and is excited for his future endeavors as he continues to engage and build a community of young innovative minds. 

Interviewed by Anu Gopalakrishnan

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