The Pope dreamed of a grand mausoleum for himself, and commissioned Michelangelo as his artist of choice. Michelangelo proposed an ambitious concept of more than forty marble statues. Initial design approved, Michelangelo spent nearly a year in the hills of Italy cutting massive marble blocks.
But the Pope’s advisors viewed Michelangelo as a threat to their influence and convinced Julius to end the project before it began. Michelangelo was outraged. On advice of counsel, Julius then challenged Michelangelo to paint the Sistene Chapel, al fresco. It was a diabolical scheme. The Pope’s advisors knew that Michelangelo not only detested painting as a medium, but further had no experience whatsoever with fresco. If Michelangelo accepted the commission, his anticipated failure would position him as inferior to Raphael, an up-and-comer who was being hailed as a genius. This comparison would destroy Michelangelo. However, if he refused, his career would end that day. Michelangelo protested, even suggesting Raphael for the job. To no avail. He had no choice.
So Michelangelo did what a true artist does. He summoned his grit and took artistic license, using the adverse situation to drive his creativity, channeling his passion, frustration and anger into the work. He refused the help of expert fresco painters brought in to advise, choosing to completely reinvent fresco technique. He even expanded the job requirement, deciding to paint the walls as well. He built his own scaffolding, locked himself in the chapel, and for four years contorted himself, hanging upside down, painting the incredible scenes.
Is this a fluke story with no ties to the present day? The newly appointed president of Toyota would disagree.
In June, Akio Toyoda, the great grandson of founder Sakichi Toyoda, took the helm of Toyota Motor Corporation. But it was not a foregone conclusion by any stretch. You’d think that a direct descendant of the founder would be given special consideration and comparatively free reign, right? Wrong. Akio’s rise through the ranks was no easy feat, and he had a harder time than most in getting his ideas heard and approved. In fact, his ideas might not have survived at all had he not executed his version of the Michelangelo strategy.
Akio Toyoda joined Toyota in the mid 1980s, and for the next fifteen years found himself constantly at odds with the senior leadership. For example, in 1995, Toyota leadership shifted to a non-family member for the first time in thirty years. Then-chairman Shoichiro Toyoda, Akio’s father, appointed Hiroshi Okuda as president. The head-butting began almost immediately, and Akio found himself fighting harder and longer to create meaningful change. In his view, Toyota was simply too slow to act and capitalize on emerging business designs to better serve customers.
That year, Akio challenged the conventional thinking of the managing directors by asking why Toyota kept pumping out huge numbers of boring white cars in Japan. Why not flashier colors? What if what the customer really wants is a red Corolla?
Leadership easily stonewalled his rather confrontational question by pointing out his lack of proof. After all, the white cars were selling. And so began Akio’s quest to somehow link up Toyota’s dealers to share information on customers. As serendipity would have it, Akio met the head of Microsoft’s Japan unit, and posed the very question. Microsoft’s suggestion was to use a relatively new technology called the World Wide Web to answer those kinds of questions and share information quickly and cheaply.
Within a year, Akio’s team developed Gazoo.com. The site linked dealers and customers, and offered all kinds of information on new and used vehicles, as well as innovative features like a virtual body shop for dealers to offer repair quotes and the ability for a customer to track their car as it went through various repair stages.
The concept was all but dead on arrival. Like the Pope and his advisors, president Okuda and the directorship opposed the idea, as did dealers, fearful that it would somehow steal dealers’ sales. Nearly everyone viewed the virtual nature of the Web as far too risky. Akio found a sole ally in Fujio Cho, his mentor (and now Chairman), who favored the progressive idea. With a tiny budget, Akio began operations.
Still, the powers that be did everything they could to thwart the project. For example, they banned advertising on television, radio and in print, severely handicapping Akio’s ability to market the concept. Channeling his anger like Michelangelo did, Akio got creative. He found a loophole in the ban he thought he could exploit: trains. Nothing prevented him from plastering posters in every train depot. So that’s what he did.
And it wasn’t long before Gazoo.com caught on with consumers. Toyota leadership couldn’t argue with success, and approved a full launch in 1998.
Gazoo.com is now a full-feature e-commerce destination supported by multimedia kiosks in dealerships and convenience stores all over Japan. Books, DVDs, travel reservations, and financial services all contribute to the multibillion dollar annual revenue.
And Akio? Still headbutting and trying to change the world. His latest leadership message is worth a read.
Matthew E. May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing, and blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.