There’s little doubt that Henry Ford was one of the great industrialists and innovators of the 20th century, and I would image he’d be rolling in his grave if he could see what has become of his once-illustrious company. While the staggering powerhouses of Detroit have few examples of stellar management these days, the man who put the Ford name on the map has a surprisingly poignant sentiment that we seem to have forgotten in the 21st century:
If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a better horse.
In IT especially, we are obsessed with analyzing the past in the hopes of predicting the future. Rarely does a day go by where I don’t receive a swarm of surveys in my email and postal mailboxes, asking for my opinion on everything from cars, to soap to enterprise technology systems. We’ve made a science out of mining people’s opinion, and to Mr. Ford’s consternation, that is not where we need to look for innovation.
Few revolutionary ideas come from a chorus of the masses begging for some company to come along and implement the idea. In Henry Ford’s time, the benefits and technology of the automobile were virtually unknown to the mass market. If Mr. Ford acted like a modern company and barraged his customers with surveys and focus groups, his analysis would likely conclude that his efforts would indeed best be focused on building a better horse. Intimately familiar with the fact that the past and the market could not understand the automobile’s benefits or his methods for producing them, he threw market research and opinion out the window, freeing himself from the shackles of the past in order to create the industry of the future that would revolutionize transportation as we know it.
While few of us will have the opportunity to create an entirely new industry and change the course of human history, we can take a lesson from Ford’s recognition that the past and public opinion are not the right tools to foster innovation. Consider how your business would be different if you threw out the rule book and did not tolerate “it’s always been done this way” or “this is what our customers want” as valid reasons to continue doing business a certain way. When the market and your peers are asking for a better horse, take a moment to consider if there’s an opportunity to give them an automobile instead.