Did Ford utter these words? Is this maxim correct? Is it wrong? What prompted this statement? What did he really mean? Wow, a whole lot of questions already but guess what, I’ll take you through a journey of enlightenment and let the answers to all of these questions flow from your understanding.
According to legend, Henry Ford scoffed at what we now call customer’s insight by using that maxim. But was he right to do so? We’ve all been in conversations on topics of creativity and innovation when this Ford’s most famous maxim is (excuse the pun) trotted out, usually accompanied by a knowing smirk and air of self-evidence. Battle lines are quickly drawn mentally. One side vehemently argues the merits of innovating vis-a-vis customer feedback, the other argues that true innovation is created by singularly gifted visionaries. While this quote cannot be traced back to the sayings or writing of Ford, it is at same time, essential and dangerous to the growth of a business, its sustainability as well as its death. How so? I’ll talk you through.
While customer insights are key to the growth of a business, a technical question arises: Do customers really know what they want?
Do Customers really know what they want?
If you don’t listen to your customers, you will fail. But if you only listen to your customers, you will also fail.”- Amazon slogan
This question got me thinking in the line of innovation because as we all know that is the driving force behind any business. So I discovered innovation is of two types; incremental and radical innovation . Incremental innovation is a series of small improvements to your existing product to make it better, faster or cheaper. Customers or people can quite easily tell you why they like or don’t like some existing thing, but they can rarely imagine or articulate a radically different solution. So customers usually suggests you make things cheaper, faster, easier to use rather than suggesting an entirely different solution to their problem. So, knowing this, you asking people what they want only leads or take you back to incremental innovation. But relying solely on your vision takes the form of radical innovation. Radical innovation involves you creating something entirely new or solve a problem by implementing new methods. This usually requires you exploring the art of the possible and not getting stuck in the cage of limited experiences. As American journalist Edward R. Murrow once said, “everyone is a prisoner of his own experience.” Let’s take it this way, what do you think you want that doesn’t exist? It’s hard to imagine. But once it exists, it makes perfect sense. Now that’s the challenge of radical innovation.
This made me realize and think, if you want to be a radical innovator just like Henry Ford, you have to break out of the box. Our own experience as well as customers experiences puts us in this box of limited ideas, not enough to bring new systems or solutions to world problems. Instead it takes us or limits us to incremental innovation because customers know what they want when they see it. This was one of Steve Job’s greatest weapons in making Apple a worldwide brand and increasing their world market shares. Nobody for example told Apple that they wanted a cool mp3 player, an online music store, an iPod or a tablet computer but once we were shown these things, we realised we definitely wanted them, needed them. So yes, Henry Ford was right in making that statement because people would have suggested ideas based on the limitations of their experiences.
However, where I think Ford got it all wrong was that, he still undermined the inputs of his customers after he had brought his radical innovation into reality. His action was not good for the sustainability of the Ford motor company. As the data brings to our examination, Ford motor company deterred in growth in terms of its market shares (because it dropped from making 2/3 of all cars made in the US in 1921 to 1/3 in 1926) because to ensure sustainability in the growth of your company, you have to constantly test your vision or ideas with reality, with what is in vogue, constantly review, improve and rebrand your products and services based on your customer’s insights. Why? Because, at this level, your customers now have an idea of what they want and could want in your product or services. Thanks to the implementation or creation of your radical innovation, they’re now exposed to your vision and so also have their tastes, choices and preferences heightened.