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Collaboration Is the New Competition

Michelle Gansle & Dr. Rupert Hofmann, Vice President Global Strategic Insights & Initiator of the Foresight Academy

"The genius of this platform is that when it comes to foresight, foresight and insights are universal, but what we choose to do with that information is going to look different whether I'm SAP, Audi or McDonald's." 

In this episode, we welcome two exciting guests: Michelle Gansle, Vice President Global Strategic Insights at McDonald's, and Dr. Rupert Hofmann, initiator of the Foresight Academy at Audi Business Innovation GmbH. This lively conversation is kicked off by Michelle, who gives us a glimpse into McDonald's "Accelerating the Arches" program - outlining the three central growth pillars, while Rupert introduces us to the Foresight Academy. This collaborative, cross-industry platform brings together executives from well-known brands - including McDonald's - with the goal to gain insights on the core question: "How do we want to live in 10 years?" If you'd like to learn more about how exactly this collaboration is organized, what tools are used, but also what Rupert and Michelle think will be the most important changes and drivers in the next 10 years, don't miss this episode

Below you will find the full transcript for the episode.

Collaboration is the new competition

Chris: Hi, and welcome back to Innovation Rockstars. My name is Chris Mühlroth, and in this episode, I am excited to welcome two guests. We have Michelle Gansle, the Vice President for Global Strategic Insights at McDonald's and Rupert Hofmann, who is with Audi Business Innovation and one of the initiators of the Foresight Academy. This is a fantastic lineup since today we will have “insights” meeting “foresight”. Michelle and Rupert, thanks so much for being part of this. I am thrilled to have you both on the show.

Michelle: Thanks.

Rupert: Hi, Chris. Thanks for having us.

Chris: All right. So let's kick things off with, as always, a 60 seconds introduction sprint. This is all about you, your career and your current role. We'll start with Michelle, and for the next 60 seconds, the stage is all yours. Let's go.

Michelle: All right. I'm a small-town girl from Texas who has always been obsessed with culture and other countries. I did my undergrad in marketing and then went to get an international MBA in brand management. However, I accidentally fell into insights, and I'm so glad I did because I love the world of insights. I've worked for Mars pimping chocolate and gum for 15 years and then most recently have moved to McDonald's; I've traded in gum and chocolate for fries and burgers. I live in Chicago with my partner and our three cats, but don't call me a crazy cat lady.

Chris: I won't. Thanks. Great intro and very much on point. Even shorter than 60 seconds. Perfect. Now next up is Rupert and the next 60 seconds are all yours.

Rupert: My three cats are skiing, I’d say. I've been skiing since I was three, and I intend to continue with that passion. Later, after high school, I went to Brazil for a year and a half and discovered that business is essential. That led me to study international business and cultural studies with a minor in arts at the Academy of Fine Arts because I love to draw. For me, it's all about what drives people and what elicits change; hence, when I observe people, it helps me to use foresight to get a better grasp of what is yet to come. Shortly after, I joined Audi and completed my Ph.D. with them, then was placed with the innovation section of Audi in Munich, where I have been researching future life laws ever since, and here we are.

Chris: And here we are. Beautiful. All right. Next, I'll be both giving you sentence starters, and I would like you two to complete each of them. For Michelle, the first one is "McDonald's is a great place to work because..."

Michelle: Because McDonald's cares. It is a relationship-based organization that cares about the crew, the community, customers, and employees. It's an emotional brand, especially since I don't know a single person who hasn't been to McDonald's at least once in their life; almost everybody has a story from their past or present about McDonald's.

Chris: That's true. Same here, by the way. Of course. All right. The next one is for Rupert: "My three secrets to success are..."

Rupert: Collaborating with other people when they can leverage strengths I may not have or am not as experienced with. The second one is to network and to be a network giver, meaning to bring people together. And the third one is to apply visionary thinking.  I am a big proponent of visionary thinking and apply it anywhere where it is clear there is potential for further exploration and discovering the hidden benefits.

Chris: All right. Got it. Very cool. Number three for Michelle: "Foresight is..."

Michelle: To me foresight is identifying signals of change and minimally preparing ourselves for future world possibilities. But in the best case influences those future world possibilities.

Chris: Right. Let's flip it around. The next one for you, Rupert, is: "Foresight is not..."

Rupert: It is not a prediction, and it's not accurately calculable.

“To me foresight is identifying signals of change and minimally preparing ourselves for future world possibilities. But in the best case influences those future world possibilities.”

McDonald’s new growth strategy, “Accelerating the Arches.”

Chris: And is also not merely gazing into a crystal ball. Great answer. Thanks much. Let's start talking about some strategies in this episode. As you know, Michelle, even though the COVID-19 pandemic severely affected McDonald's by preventing customers from dining indoors for most restaurants, I learned that McDonald's emerged as a winner in Fast Casual. When I read the quarterly reports for 2020, the CEO, Chris Kempczinski, partly attributed the success to McDonald's new growth strategy, which is aptly called Accelerating the Arches. Michelle, could you briefly walk us through and explain the basics of that growth strategy?

Michelle: Sure. First of all, Chris is a great leader. He is traditionally trained in CPG; he understands the importance of straightforward strategies to the street and the employees. ATA's strategy is built on the letters MCD; M is for “maximized marketing”, C is for “committing to the core”, and D is for “digital drive-through and delivery”. That makes up the core of where our priorities are. Thus, with maximized marketing, how do we make sure that we maximize the distinctive images and the power of the McDonald's brand everywhere in the world. With commit to the core, it's more targeted to human truth, especially in times of change and uncertainty, and where people want core items that they know and love; that takes the shape of delivering the best possible quality on the core items that we sell, whether that's Chicken McNuggets or a Big Mac, for example. Then “digital drive-through and delivery” are a huge reason why we've been so successful. Before the pandemic, we started forming partnerships with companies like Uber Eats to offer delivery. We have more drive-through presence than any other QSR (quick service restaurant) in the world. And then, of course, we're boosting our digital presence through a McDonald's app and loyalty program.

“McDonald’s growth strategy is built on the letters MCD: M is for ‘maximized marketing’, C is for ‘committing to the core’, and D is for ‘digital drive-through and delivery’. That makes up the core of where our priorities are.”

Chris: All right. So for one is growing the core, and evidently, you have a massive scale in that one, especially globally. However, you also focus on expanding your digital presence. There aren't too many countries where McDonald's does not have a presence yet; I think just a few are the exception. With you being the VP of Global Strategic Insights, and when we mention insights and foresight, what role do these two play in the previously mentioned strategy?

Michelle: That's a great question. Part of the reason why I'm here with Rupert today is that I think what makes McDonald's a leader in the world is, as you pointed out, that we are present in so many countries; hence, we have a responsibility to not just react to the future but to influence it. Most of our energies and efforts have been in 0 to 3 years. So there's a recognition that at least a small part of the business needs to be looking out further than those three years to make sure that we are prepared and influencing. My team, along with some cross-functional teams, are leading that work to help prepare us for what are the potential headwinds and tailwinds that we see that are going to, in fact, impact the industry or affect us as a business that we need to be working towards. As a part of that, one of the first things we did was join the Foresight Academy, which Rupert leads.

The Foresight Academy - Open collaboration and shared insights

Chris: Exactly. Speaking of the Foresight Academy, Rupert, how did Audi get started with foresight? What's the story of the Audi Business Innovation, and how do you approach that topic today?

Rupert: I would say that if you take a customer-centered focus seriously, you need to do the necessary research to understand the customers of tomorrow. That is even more important when you are dealing with extended lead times. Michelle touched on that earlier, but in the car industry, the average time spent researching and developing a new product is seven to ten years. That's why foresight maintains such a vital role within our industry. We have always been looking for a broad view and other perspectives. That approach extends across industries, and the active search in those sectors for alternative partners to potentially collaborate with.

“If you take a customer-centered focus seriously, you need to do the necessary research to understand the customers of tomorrow. That is even more important when you are dealing with extended lead times.”

Chris: Got it. Let's turn our attention to the Foresight Academy. Can you just give us a brief overview of what its purpose is? I know that you founded and are leading it. It encompasses corporate leaders from many well-known brands, including McDonald's. Could you talk a bit about what a foresight academy is and what it exactly its purpose?

Rupert: Of course, it's a foresight-focused platform where individual members —as of now, there are 16— from different companies across different industries come together to research and provide answers around the question of how do we want to live ten years from now. Based on these outcomes, we create shared visions on a desirable future everyday life. So it’s all about exchanging among us and learning from one another's differing perspectives and experiences, doing research together. We also brought the key questions of the different partner companies together and did basis research based on that, building hypothesis, doing transceiver talks in the next month, then going into this synthesis process, and then we will enter the visualization process to have clips and images and stories we can bring cross our company to transfer this result in this program. It's all very much a joint journey with a common goal.

Chris: I was just about to ask that. How do you manage all that? Do you get everybody in the room and ask them to present you with their visions or insights into their secrets to success? If so, do you then, in the end, all contribute to creating stunning images and videos of what might be the future? That can't be just the entire process, can it? So, how do you collaborate with the different organizations and leaders that are part of the Foresight Academy?

Rupert: It is a little bit as you described. Of course, we exchange since we want to be familiar with the problems we are dealing with. We ask all of our members questions on how they address these problems and how any impact foresight outcomes had on senior management. How did that influence the overall strategy or products? So the exchange is one part but meeting people is a part too. Of course, most meetings are done these days virtually, but we try to have our initial meetings in person. The last time we met was in September — we initially wanted to meet last November. Still, due to the pandemic lockdown, that wasn't an option. We try to meet at least twice a year in person and do any future touchpoints virtually. So it’s a joint process. We cover perspectives, decisions, and anything else we can align jointly on the table during these meetings, primarily through diverse opinions. We are very structured but always receptive to surprises. And it all lives from the activity from the different partners.

Michelle: From my point of view, the genius of it all is that foresight and insight are universal. But what we do with that information is that we look at things differently, whether I'm SAP or McDonald's. Right. So we're sharing the cost of going deep to understand the changes in human behavior or the changes in macroeconomics, and then collectively understanding from each other what we might do with that as businesses. The response to that information will inevitably be different. But there's no conflict of interest because we're sharing to get a broader understanding. I enjoy the process, and it's been great to connect with other companies and share opportunities and problems.

"From my perspective, the genius of the Foresight Academy is that foresight and insight are universal. But what we do with that information will be different, whether I'm SAP or McDonald's."

Chris: So the expectation from the participating companies would be sharing the cost of generating insight and going deep into those topics, maybe more specifically on behavioral changes, as you mentioned before. What seems to be sure is that people are expected to change their consumption and living behavior in the next five, ten, fifteen or twenty years. However, when it comes to formulating strategies or tactics, how to approach I assume that this isn't done in the open view of everyone, right? It would be done more privately behind closed doors at McDonald's within your strategic teams. Okay, I understand. Before going any deeper into some of the collaboration formats, I would like to play a quick game, and it's called "Either or." The rules are simple. I'll provide you with two options, and you'll choose one or the other and explain why in a brief sentence. Michelle, you go first. The first one is: "Would you prefer McDonald's restaurants to be run solely by robots or customers getting their burgers from their 3D printers at home in the future?"

Michelle: That's tough. If I had to choose one, I think there's always a need for human connection; thus, I can't imagine a world where robots only run it. I'll go with 3D printers, especially if it allows for more personalization and customization.

Chris: Okay. Great choice. Rupert's next one's for you: Either a Big Mac or McRib?

Rupert: It’s a vegan burger, I’d say.

Chris: Beautiful. All right, Michelle, next one for you: "Would you prefer working 100% in the office or 100% remotely in the future?"

Michelle: I think Rupert still has to answer the question. He can't skirt around it. I'm going to say; that if we could have remote working from off sites like once a month or a quarter, I'd say 100% working from home. Nonetheless, meeting as a team is still crucial since certain things can't be done virtually.

Chris: I agree. Imagine that all the strategizing, creativity and inspirational work are inefficient and hard to do remotely. Okay. Last one for Rupert: "Ten years from now, would you prefer living in a world where most of the interactions will be with artificial intelligence, or would you rather live in a world where a devastating solar storm damaged most of our technology infrastructure? What's your choice?

Rupert: I think I would go for the solar storm since the damage could be repaired gradually but not interacting with humans would be a no-go for me. For instance, two days ago, I went home from the office where I had been looking at the screen all day, and as I rode my bicycle, it started to rain, and it was miserable. However, after a short while, I began to enjoy it and felt alive. In any case, I need that human interaction that provides me with significant opportunities.

When insights meet foresight

Chris: Sure. I gave you two dystopian choices, which wasn't fair, but a great answer. Thanks to you both for that. Let's return to our topic of insights and foresight. Michelle you being the VP of Global Insights at McDonald’s, already mentioned distinguishing between strategic insights and foresight which is far further out. So for the insights part: Who is your internal stakeholder for these global strategic insights?

Michelle: I have an allergic reaction when people talk about customers or clients regarding insights because we're business partners. We partner with different teams to help uncover human truths to drive business strategy versus being a service provider. So I only say that to reinforce; I think that language needs to go away when we talk about corporate insights. However, within the world of insights, my team's remit is everyone across the customer experience team, composed of global marketing, global operations, global innovation, and our digital products and experienced teams.

“When talking about insights, we do not talk about ‘customers’ or ‘clients’ because we're business partners. We partner with different teams to help uncover human truths to drive business strategy versus being a service provider.”

Chris: Got it. Okay. How do you obtain those insights? Are there any specific data sources you can tap into? Where do you get the data from?

Michelle: From all kinds of places. Through our app and other places, we have, of course, access to first-party data. Still, we work with various partners to capture third-party data. We run all kinds of direct and indirect qualitative or quantitative research, anything you can imagine. I'd say increasingly; it used to be in the research world where we had a small portion of large research suppliers. Now it's becoming more and more fragmented. We use consultants, research tech suppliers, martech suppliers and internally built tools. So the world has certainly gotten more fragmented and complicated in terms of how we gain insights.

Chris: Interesting. To follow up on that question, how do you make sense of the insight data, especially since you also have the resources of the Foresight Academy at your disposal in terms of greater outreach, information, assumptions, scenarios, hypotheses, etc. I would assume that it's not as simple as saying on this timescale that is bound to happen since our assumption about the future is somewhat vague. That is the advice or the data you provide to some business partners. So, where's the connection, and why bother to distinguish between insights and foresight? Isn't it happening in the future on a particular timescale, and you want to make sure you're advising and supporting your business partners in the best possible way? So what’s the connection?

Michelle: That's a great question. There's a fundamental difference; besides time horizon, an insight is generally started from an identified business problem to be solved. Then based on that, we create hypotheses, and we're trying to validate or explore them more for a better overall understanding of the problem. There's a defined problem, and therefore we go and do work around that problem to come to an answer, a recommendation and a strategy or an action. With foresight, there's no question being asked. It's more seeking to understand how the world will change so that we can be prepared to change with it or influence that change. So it's fundamentally different things that we're going after and other approaches that we would take to accomplish that.

“Insight usually starts with an identified business problem to be solved, whereas foresight doesn't ask the question. It's more about trying to understand how the world will change so that we can be prepared to change with it, or influence that change. And that is where the difficulty lies in combining the two.” 

Chris: Got it. That's a great answer. Thanks a lot for the clarification. Let's look at the Foresight Academy. Rupert, how did you and McDonald's find each other? Did you reach out to Michelle, or how did this all come to be?

Rupert: Well, it all was facilitated by Katja Sottmeier from Hornbach. She has been with the Foresight Academy for a long time and has shaped it. She knew Susan Schramm,  the CMO of McDonald's in Germany and Susan connected me to Michelle. Then we first met in September, but we had a few online meetings before that; that's how it came all together. Then Michelle also got me in touch with interesting people like Jake Sotiriadis from the US Air Force. He also participated in one of the Innovation Rockstar episodes as many others from the Foresight Academy, like Thomas Boermans from E.ON, Jasmin Mathäß from Hornbach or Benno Blumoser from Siemens.

Michelle: Christian only hangs out with quality people, Rupert.

Chris: I was going to say that. Anyway, with the Foresight Academy, what were your initial hopes or expectations of it? The expectations have been laid out quite well by Rupert in terms of the kind of interactions you'd hope to see with the different companies that are there. Did you initially expect the group to be more of a secretive thing, or were you right on board to make it an open forum to share their views on the future? How did that turn out?

Michelle: I don't know if I knew what to expect, but I've had great success joining other collaborations with other big brands in the past. I knew that that was a successful model, at least for me. And what I can say is that the professionalism and the quality of the interactions, including the output, are the best that I've ever seen; most of it is driven by Rupert. The group works together with a design agency and other organizations beyond the brands to pull it off; thus, from my perspective, it's exceeded my expectations.

Chris: As you develop the stories of the various scenarios about the future and rank them according to their likelihood of happening, how many insights and details do you share between those participating companies? You mentioned a ranking, I believe, from low to high, but what is the tendency to really be open and honest to each other or instead opt for confidentiality, which leads to a more general assumption of the future? What is your take on that, Rupert?

Rupert: In general, there is no problem in sharing experiences or insights into the markets since we aren't sharing any critical strategic topics; we are much more focused on talking about customer needs. For instance, we wouldn't share our strategic partners or cycle plans or which car model we are bringing onto the market in the next couple of months or years with Audi. All that is missing the point anyway, since we are researching changing customer expectations and a desirable future everyday life and how we want to live. That's pretty much what we are working on and driving together. We are achieving a broader view of various research sources that helps pinpoint and solve problems; hence confidentiality issues haven't been an issue thus far. Sure, we have all of that mentioned in the contracts, but it isn't something we dig up and regularly cover since we don't have to.

“Within the Foresight Academy there's no problem sharing experiences or market insights because we don't share critical strategic issues; we're much more focused on talking about customer needs.” 

Glimpse to the future - A change of how we live

Chris: Got it. Okay. Let's talk about the future. What are some of the significant shifts and drivers we will most likely experience in the next ten years?

Rupert: We could go on for hours about that because it's an interesting question. It depends on your perspective and what shifts are important to you. So I always argue that you have to define the research questions and then try to identify significant trends and shifts. But if you ask me about the next ten years, I'd say changes with a noticeable shift in the recalibration of human aspects and a move towards digitalization. So we're entering a new era of digital possibilities - the buzzword is metaverse. It's fascinating what can be done and how we can combine the real world with fiction, build digital twins and connect that to fantasy. And that's it. We've settled down, but there are things coming that could disrupt that status quo. It would take time to grasp everything, like what human aspects like intuition, vision, empathy or originality would change and how they would be recalibrated. Also, on the one side, we have tremendous opportunities with quantum computing, artificial intelligence and biotechnology. On the other hand, human perception limitations can be very influential. We have an increased consciousness of our resources and how we deal with them as humans, like time, health, sense, relations, which can be seen as a hard currency and not accept to spend too much on health just for the career, money or stress over it. So, health consciousness is steadily improving —at least for those with higher living standards. However, we can't ignore the ecological depressors associated with that. The recent IPCC report said that three and a half billion people are living in regions severely affected by climate change; hence, there will be more pressure due to more floods, hurricanes, droughts, heatwaves and water shortages. All of that will affect us. There are also significant power shifts to Asia, to Africa, and even to women in power, which is fantastic to see. Even COVID will not reverse the urbanization in the world, so we are becoming more and more urban. Further we will see a lot of automation is taking over. And last I’d like to mention the parallel narratives that we’re having and, therefore, the frictions. We see that cruelly at the moment in Ukraine and in Russia and the stories surrounding that. At the same time, we see unification around values. However, there are still topics that cause friction and aligning to the common ground will be very important. We don't know what 2024 will bring, but here in Europe, there are many important topics. So predictions doesn’t make sense. And I think at the end it comes to politics. I still remember when politics had been regarded as something less relevant, but that has and will change over the coming decade. What's your input, Michelle? I probably only just scratched the surface.

Michelle: You certainly covered a lot of what I would have said. The only other thing worth mentioning that we recently talked about is this weird polarization in the aftermath of COVID. People are more risk-averse and want to splurge, cheat and be a little naughty. So in some areas, I'm meticulous about decisions I make on things like vacation or who I hang out with. I'm like buying that purse that I've wanted, taking that trip, or spending more than I would typically in a restaurant. So I think that's fascinating and matches what you said about parallel narratives with consumers.

Chris: That's interesting. What would your assumption be on how people will spend their time in the future five or ten years from now? We heard different things about the metaverse and so on. How are people expected to spend their time, given an increase in life expectancy in the following decades? What do you think?

Michelle: I don't know if I'm super able to answer it, but in that parallel world, in one way, we might be double downing in retreating inwards and spending more time at home and creating sanctuaries at home, but then living the external world in things like the metaverse, or it may swing the entire other way and all of that may come crashing down. Then there might be a renaissance towards human connection again. There might be some hybrid in between where people are truthful about where they have human relationships for most things in their life, whether that's done virtually or not.

Chris: How would that play out for McDonald's? For instance, with Meta, where Mark Zuckerberg aggressively pushes that vision, I assume that McDonald's will want to be part of that. So what would that look like? Can you get some fries or burgers, NFTs or any other form of doing business and connect with consumers?

Michelle: I mean, we're tipping our toes into it and looking at how we can do things like, for example, create a McDonald's presence in the metaverse. I think it's essential for us that we do it authentically on brand and create meaningful experiences. So we want to make sure that we don't inadvertently harm the brand or harm consumers. But for sure, we're looking into how we play in that world.

Chris: All right. We've been talking about possible futures for the world and companies. For the final act, let's talk about your project, Michelle. What does the future hold for you at McDonald's? What are the high-priority topics you focus on?

Michelle: We talked earlier about our Accelerated Arches Strategy, and we will continue to evolve that strategy. But right now, a lot of the things that we're thinking and talking about besides foresight is how we modernize the marketing and insights function? How do we make sure that we're bringing best-in-class approaches? How do we continue to get the following new core product that consumers love, like potentially the vegan burger, which we call McPlant? And then how do we continue to evolve our digital drive-through and delivery experiences?

Chris: Okay. Great. Same question to you, Rupert. Looking at your future and the future of the Foresight Academy, what's coming up next?

Rupert: Right now what’s next are the transceiver talks which are taking place in May and June where we are trying to condense all the hypotheses and thinking about the topics we are addressing in the dialogues with the people. Further we are going into the synthesis and visualization process.

Chris: Right. What about further out into the future? What's coming up next for the Foresight Academy? Any plans to expand?

Rupert: We are wrapping up our current session, which will continue until December 2023. We won't be doing too much foresight beyond that. Instead, we are concentrating on the present. We will work together with the partners and then define where to go, full of surprises as the future always is.

Chris: As it always is. All right. I would like to know your Innovation Rockstar moments as our final act. Michelle, when you reflect and look back on your professional career, what would you say was your most outstanding Innovation Rockstar moment?

Michelle: In my entire career? Goodness that is a big one. I'm proud to work in multiple countries, especially as an American. From that experience, I've learned that human insights are universal. It makes me more able to be bold in making recommendations and decisions. Foremost the opportunity to have lived in Germany and the Netherlands has been probably a highlight of my career.

Chris: Beautiful. Rupert, tell me your Innovation Rockstar moment.

Rupert: I'd like to take the one in 2009 when I first deployed the first Fortran receiver method in an Audi project. I had the opportunity to experiment with various research outcomes for particular Audi projects. I have researched trying to profile both customers and visionaries, and we managed to do that. Then we had this first workshop and discussion with Fortran receivers. Still, I was pretty anxious about seeing this play out. However, these fears were unfounded since they all worked out well, mainly based on observations, which was a great moment.

Chris: All right. Brilliant. We were blessed with two Innovation Rockstar moments in one episode, and they both sound like really great experiences. And with that, we are already wrapping up this episode up. Michelle and Rupert, it was a pleasure to listen to you. Thanks again for the inspiring insights about foresight and being a part of the episode.

Michelle: It was fun. Thanks a lot, Chris.

Rupert: Thanks a lot. Michelle, good to see you again.

Chris: And to everybody listening and watching, leave us a rating or a review and share the podcast with friends and colleagues if you liked the show. If you want to get in touch, simply message us at That's it, folks. Thanks for your time, and see you in the next episode. Take care and bye-bye.

Show notes

Learn more about the Foresight Academy.

About the authors

Dr. Christian Mühlroth is the host of the Innovation Rockstars podcast and CEO of ITONICS. Michelle Gansle is  Vice President for Global Strategic Insights at McDonald's. DR. Rupert Hofmann works at Audi Business Innovation and is one of the initiators of the Foresight Academy.

The Innovation Rockstars podcast is a production of ITONICS, provider of the world’s leading Operating System for Innovation. Do you also have an inspiring story to tell about innovation, foresight, strategy or growth? Then shoot us a note!