“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” Henry Ford

By Ayesha Arif. Ayesha, 29, is a student at Bahria University. She lives in Karachi, Pakistan. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

Whoa! What a strong and polarized statement! Was Henry too naïve to say like that? Too smart? Or too ignorant? How come he became the leader of Ford with this belief? What made him think this way?

These questions might have come to your mind after reading the statement, asking for clues and answers. Let me make it interesting for you. So here I go with a short yet powerful story followed by my analysis and discussion.

 

The hero of the story is Henry Ford- the fueling engine and steering body behind Ford Motors.

Henry Ford has made his mark in the market in the 20th century by his visionary and strategic approach way before others, which led the Ford to reach heights from its start. His smart steps towards his ‘Ford Motor Company’ made it thoroughly famous and successful and in a short time, he started to be known as the superhero in the market with his superpower phenomenon ‘Fordism’.

However, the sad part started by the end of the 20th century, when the CEO quoting this same statement of their leader Henry Ford announced that Ford was towards the verge of bankruptcy.

The numerous reasons count for:
-Overall financial crisis
-Weaker branding and foothold i.e. not considering customization for customers (as General Motors and BMW did in the past),
-Failing to capitalize on the abundant untapped customers of China, India, and Pakistan who love Ford, etc. etc.

But, most importantly, the reason was an ‘Orthodox Mindset’.

 

At his boom, Henry Ford is said to have articulated this statement which is often under debate for its applicability in the past and present era. According to Vlaskovits (2011), some even say that this statement has not been said by Henry Ford and is mythical (that is a different argument), however, it is quoted by many leaders in their aggressive speeches signifying Henry Ford’s ideology. Here ‘people’ is implied by ‘customers’. So I will proceed with my discussion keeping this in mind.

 

Henry’s statement was workable until he gave strong competition to rivals on price and the needs of customers were static. It was the time when he was not compelled to do innovation based on the customer’s choice that his idea of ‘price and cost reduction’ worked. His remarkable Model T Design remained effective from 1908 to 1927.

But, things started to take a turn when General Motors thrived in the automobile sector with its astonishing innovations and regard for customers in 1920. Now the rigid ideology of Henry Ford ‘any color, till it is black’ was terrifically taken over by Alfred Pritchard Sloan’s ideology ‘A car for every purse and purpose’. This great CEO of General Motors had a pure customer research-driven approach that catered niche market segments with customer-centric revolutions like used trade-ins of cars, selling on installments, closed models of cars along with changing models annually.

It was now proved that the highlighted statement of Henry Ford being discussed is not comprised of mere ‘words’ but a stubborn mindset. Because of this, his inflexibly introduced models were not ideal anymore. The losses showed that the customers wanted more than faster horses, they wanted great cars with prodigious features and financing choices.

 

If I particularly analyze the statement, it shows the extraordinary boldness and courage Henry Ford had on himself while it is apparent that he has given nil significance to a widely acknowledged concept of ‘customer feedback’. Today, the phenomenon like ‘360-degree feedback’ has been rigorously practiced by more than 80 percent of successful companies that are highlighted under Fortune 500 (like Facebook, Amazon and Toyota Motor) and the customers are valued to form a major part of their feedback (Graber, 2018).

 

I admit that leaders like Henry Ford are capable of thinking out of the box and have strong far-sighted impulses. Yet, Henry was mistaken to perceive customers as non-creative and unimaginative species. I do believe, being a distinct gifted inventor, he was not naïve to ignore his ‘people’. As in the beginning, he was insightful to tap the right masses of customers who wanted affordable cars. His vision accurately matched with the needs of customers at the start so he won their hearts. However, later on, it seems that he gained overconfidence and self-assurance to disregard differentiation and asking for further needs of the customers.

Ironically, Henry Ford was not the only leader with this mindset, one of the most successful leaders like Steve Jobs also had a similar orientation against customer involvement. He was against focus groups believing that participants carry different motivations where introverts do not participate much and small sample is generalized.

However, the point missed by Henry unlike Steve was the science and art of understanding customer’s values. If they said ‘Faster horses’, it means ‘fastest transportation’, they might not have directly asked for the automatic transmission or enduring engine. This is the beauty of the leader to judge the pain points of customers rightly and this can be done by walking in their shoes. So, it was never about building cars, it was about building a solution to customers’ problems by ‘asking’ them.

Correct need assessment is the first stage of any critical problem solving, innovation, and development. If the need is wrongly identified at first or the people being affected by it are overlooked, then it is a waste of time, brainpower, efforts, and money.

Comparatively, seeing optimistically and considering the intellect of Henry, I cannot disregard that his statement might have hidden wisdom and the context in which he said might make it worthwhile. Nevertheless, this statement has often been misquoted to hide product failures, to defend wrongdoing and to protect business egos.

Innovation is a continuous effort and not a one-time struggle, though it gave a monopoly to Ford for a reasonable period of time but not everlastingly. The customers want ongoing improvements, they are more demanding now due to an abundance of options available at competitive prices. Interestingly, many brand conscious customers focus least on competitive prices and ask for ‘quality’ and ‘features’. Because of this, the brands that focused on customer’s choices and opinions are adored, just like Aston Martin with customized Aston Martin’s Q, Mercedes (AMG) and BMW (M).

The secret is making the customers feel valued. Nowadays, wise leaders and companies like Unilever and Tallwave allow customers and stakeholders to give their opinions in their official brainstorming sessions (Pruitt, 2016). Formal/informal questionnaires, interviews, and focus group sessions are conducted to have first-hand knowledge about their problems, needs, and expectations. Unilever involves and collaborates with customers in more than 60% of their external research-based projects which tells a lot about its success.

Similarly, according to Innovation Games, (2018), a process ‘Wellbeing North Star’ is generated by Kimberly Wiefling which allows game-storming. In this process, the major theme/problem is highlighted in the center and all discussions regarding theme are put nearby the star. Everyone including customers is given the opportunity to be vocal in the process.

This shows that the key to developing a breakthrough innovation is customer discernment. In our story, however, the very first step of the innovator’s method including ‘questioning, observing, networking and experimenting’ was killed by ‘assuming’ (without questioning) what the customers would have said and the remaining process disastrously followed.

Although this statement is often used in the business context but seeing it from a lay man’s perspective in general life, it means no matter what you do or achieve, people always want more from you. The weight of the exceeding expectations of ‘people’ including family, peers, friends, bosses, etc. only crushes you down. Ultimately leading to affected mental health. And worst-case scenario, when this burden becomes too difficult to carry, ends up in taking your life.

So, the secret to happiness is having the self-confidence to a fair extent, knowing your goals and being somehow carefree towards the opinions of others. However, sometimes asking people for help or advice helps us tremendously when we are falling apart. After all, the world is running on the phenomenon of ‘give and take’.

 

Concluding the gist of my story, a leader wins his battles by taking along ‘everyone’ by means of ‘synergy’ from top to bottom workforce of the company along with stakeholders i.e. customers, suppliers, distributors, dealers, etc. He says ‘we have done it’ instead of ‘I have done it’. He believes in collaboration, empowerment, and relationship building. And, just like his vision, his heart is big. He is mindful to earn a competitive advantage for the company by capitalizing on the brainpower of employees and customers together and never underestimates anyone.

Henry Ford would have done wonders if ‘people’ he quoted were rightly understood and their problems were considered through observational, intuitional, empirical and anecdotal modes. This gives a lesson to us and the future leaders that it is important to listen to customers by continuously testing our own vision against facts.

107 comments on ““If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” Henry Ford

  1. Ishaa.l on

    The start with ‘questioning’ is very inspiring.
    Excellent use of Examples based on updated Research.
    I loved this Mature writing with Practical and Strong points.

    Reply
      • Memona Haseeb on

        Very well penned about Henry Ford.

        Selection of words is awesome.

        Writing about leadership skills ,is not an easy task. You have to work hard to get the essense.

        Would love to see ur beautiful words about Ferruccio Lamborghini, August Horch, Ettore Bugatti & others.
        Wish you all the very best for your future endeavors.

        Reply
  2. Semra Raheel on

    Coincidentally I once did a leadership project on famous and known leaders and Henry Ford was one of them. Never I knew that he had this side as well.
    Loved the words here as they did justice with the highlights of his vision and leadership and also shared the unpopular philosophy which he held as well. 👏👏

    Reply
  3. Farrukh on

    Really enjoyed reading this article, it’s a really good effort and in the background homework was excellent about the automotive giants. The title was wittily argued and defended. Good luck.

    Reply
    • Ayesha on

      Thank you so much! It’s an honor to read such a positive feedback on my work.
      The regard that you all have shown for my background research and education that I have put forward for discussing this statement is awe inspiring.

      Reply
    • M. Imran Syed on

      Good insight, Ayesha. Having lately read about innovation and entrepreneurship, I would say it’s very well written. Customers are surely an important part of a company’s success, they can’t be ignored at all. Keep writing like this

      Reply
  4. M. Imran Syed on

    Good insight, Ayesha. Having lately read about innovation and entrepreneurship, I would say it’s very well written. Customers are surely an important part of a company’s success, they can’t be ignored at all. Keep writing like this

    Reply
  5. Samera on

    Wow! What an amazing piece of writing so refreshing for the mind,perfect combination of facts complimented by the questions to stimulate your mind!! Keep it up Ayesha.

    Reply
  6. Yusra Siddiqui on

    Wao! 👍Well explained and very good topic selection.👏 Keep it you ayeshu my best wishes for you from my heart.😘 Love you alot my sister♥️ keep it up👏👏👏

    Reply
  7. Muhammad Shahrukh Saeed on

    Very well written. It seems quite alot reseaech you have put in. Best of Luck Ayesha Baji. Let me know if I have to promote anything on international stage.

    Reply
  8. Noman Khalid on

    As a follower of car industries, this article is presented in a well mannered way. Describing the customer’s mind set of targeting them.
    May Allah give you success in your work Ayesha.
    Keep it up. 👍

    Reply
    • Sundus Basharat on

      Beautifully scripted. For a person who’s never been fond of the automobile industry the above piece od writing gives immense pleasure and thought provoking analysis on two folds. Not only the historical analysis and in considerable detail with relevance to what customer wants but also to a side where there is hard-core analysis of life and its enigmatic lessons.

      Ayesha you should never stop writing. With your words you paint a whole new world for a person who is as naive as me.

      Reply
  9. Noman Ghouri on

    So many valuable concepts of education explained meaningfully under one topic in easily understandable words.
    This is a great educating blog!

    Reply
    • Shoaib Ali Siddiqui on

      Although I have read many articles and case studies of great authors.
      After reading your article I am amazed and I feel that in future you will start writing great books because you have great potential…. Keep it up, great skills… 👍

      Reply
  10. Noman Farooqi on

    Very nice Ayesha, very well you have good writing skills, I really appreciate you and suggest you that plz never stop it.

    Reply
  11. Muhammad Tabrez Ali on

    NICE CRAFTED!
    Being an Industrial Automobile Engineer, pleased to see such an “Informative Article” from the genuine writer…!!

    Wish you all the Best of Good Luck…!!

    Keep it up (y)

    Reply
  12. Tayyaba Sajjad on

    Love how well you have written it out and your selection of words made it even more powerful. Also, the way you have related it to the reality in 3rd last paragraph. Keep writing more, would love to follow up.

    Reply
  13. Kishwer Jahan on

    Wonderfully penned diwn, I enjoyed reading, it was very informative. It has been well expressed keeping in mind a balance with every odd and ends. Comprehensively written, You have done a good job. All the best for your future writings.

    Reply
  14. Muzammil Hussain on

    Wow. Truly excellent work done!!! Ayesha. Keep up the good work. I really enjoyed your writing skills and appreciate the efforts and hard work you have done to explain the importance of customers feedback and innovations for success of any brand. God bless you.

    Reply
  15. Rabia Baloch on

    Truly impressed not only with the research on the subject but also the writing style adopted. A very few people are blessed with the flair for business writing particularly and you my dear is abundantly talented in this regard. Keep Shining! 👍🏻

    Reply

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