Actually, they probably would have said they wanted less horse manure.
The statement above, though undoubtedly meant to extoll visionary thinking and innovation, is often touted as an excuse to irresponsibly supersede the efficacy of consumer input. Ford’s quote (often misattributed, no less) is a challenge to transcend prevalent paradigms and states of existence as we know them. The issue comes in, though, when it also makes the engines behind that change out to be an elitist and exclusive group of thinkers dreaming up ideas in isolation—which is misleading. Because ‘people’ i.e. consumers, give immediately applicable and visceral feedback. And rather than being an amorphous blob with no enterprising abilities, their feedback drives some of the most powerful innovations in the world today.
In fact, if you were to trace back the origins of the lowly house stoop, you’d see it was a direct response to the pressing needs of the times, (hint: it wasn’t faster horses)—a mechanism to manage the manure on the streets. The need for innovation was pressing, and Ford did answer it, not by slapping an iterative quick fix band-aid on the issue, but by providing a completely revolutionary alternative. But that’s not because ‘people’ didn’t know how to innovate.
It is imperative for one to first consider exactly what innovation generally alludes to. Innovation fueled by need sets the world on fire; innovation for its own sake is often tepid. At best, it comes across as an afterthought. At worst? It is an untactfully, ungracefully tacked on appendage. Like an octopus with nine legs, “just because”. While it would be a gross understatement to say that there are no noteworthy advances that have been made in isolation from the end user, it would be an equally hubris-inspired and presumptuous move to attribute all advances to a select group of thinkers, especially in the participatory communities—and economies—that are required today. The objective of solving a consumer’s problem, addressing a need or fueling improvement is a shared priority, a collective reality which permeates all of our consciences.
Is it an accident that one of the most forward-thinking innovators of our times, Steve Jobs, took two seemingly wildly dichotomous stances on the same issue? The ‘ones who [saw] things differently were, by default, ‘the ones who [thought] they were crazy enough to change the world’ and, in turn, the ones who did. But they were also ‘no smarter than’ us. The use of the word ‘ask’, by default, brings to mind a dialogue. And it is true that sometimes it is hard to keep up with the bleeding edge of change, to keep one’s finger on the throbbing pulse and articulate exactly what one needs. As T.S. Eliot famously remarked, “It is impossible to say just what I mean.” But if ‘I’ can’t, how can I be certain ‘he’ or ‘she’—or ‘they’—can? Does this quote attest to a vocal minority? If we continue to perpetuate the belief that knowledge and thought are controlled by a ruling few, does one not wonder: is this the 1%? And what if, as Ford put it, they’re not ‘asking’ the right questions?
Our question, then, becomes of motives. Ford is credited with revolutionizing the automobile industry through assembly line methods of production. While Ford’s innovations rested on making cars more quickly and for less, the ‘Menstrual Man’, Arunachalam Muruganantham, solved a pressing problem for women of his country. Spurred by his own wife’s inconvenience, he worked tirelessly to create a sustainable and scalable model for innovation. While larger manufacturers may churn out a new scent, more absorbent gel fillings, differently shaped wings or unique packaging variants, for a large portion of the female population, it was imperative for sanitary napkins to just be available.
Proponents of this case may argue that advances in production efficiency are important, but they will find that the scope of this efficiency is often tilted towards being bigger, doing it better and doing it faster/cheaper, rather than giving the consumer what they want or need. On the other hand, scalable efficiencies in production and convenience are, undeniably, at the backbone of consumer preferences.
Where is the balance though? In order to ascertain that, it is important to remember that early stage research focuses on the opportunity space, not the solution. And it is true that Ford was visionary and many forward-thinking entrepreneurs have changed the product and service space as we know it. But making “the people” out to be an inferiorly abled non-thinking blob while retaining the singular pronoun “I” and appropriating a position of privilege, of giving, just isn’t going to cut it anymore.
In our present-day attention economy, today’s consumer has multiple messages competing for his or her time, numerous service offerings and less volition than ever before to sift through it all. In fact, today’s consumer is used to getting the things he or she wants when he or she wants. Just take a look at the ‘Skip to Play’ option on YouTube and you will notice growing frustration, just in those five seconds. When you have only one option, everything is riveting. The consumers of yore whom Ford referred to may have sat patiently by their (metaphorical) television sets just waiting for a channel to make an hour long appearance through the static and enjoyed advertisements every bit as the sole available show. Today? We want options: be it the option to ‘undo’ a sent message in Gmail, the relatively recent ‘Delete for Everyone’ feature in WhatsApp, or even the option to change Siri to a man. Yes, we are provided these options, but companies today are aware of the consumer’s desire to choose his or her own customizable solutions.
This age of “co’s”…communication, collaboration, and, for the smartphone addled swarms that huddle close to their group chat or hungrily scroll through Instagram feeds for “fear of missing out”— co-dependence, demands a new ‘co’: co-creation.
Perhaps what I mean is that the path of change, or innovation, is not always linear. By virtue of its unpredictability, it must be a nexus point, not a pit-stop. A nexus point which is fluid, and has multiple inputs, not from one omniscient entrepreneur refusing to deign to ‘ask’. It’s true that such organic and intuitive innovation might not always be a hundred percent effective. But neither will the pre-ordained version.
And isn’t a lot of life lived on the fringes? Aren’t a lot of discoveries made by accident? The success story of Sheri Schmelzer and the wild success of Jibbitz (adornments that fit neatly into the holes of the famous brand of shoes: Crocs) comes to mind. A mother of three of the end-users of the shoes, where others saw simple holes, she saw an opportunity, resulting in a $20 million dollar ‘accident’. Even the ubiquitous potato crisp is said to have been invented as a direct response to customer feedback, albeit, in this case, due to dissatisfaction and, ultimately, frustration when a customer kept sending French fries back, claiming they were too thick. What if that cook hadn’t listened to what people—one person—wanted?
As an English teacher, I urge my students to experience the joy of using traditional paper-bound dictionaries, not because I have an aversion to technology, but because that journey and pursuit are fodder for beautiful discoveries. Had it not been for hours spent leafing through the pages, I would be bereft of many of my favorite words today. Like a collector, I loiter around these pages, waiting for a willing word to pounce up and claim me as its own. Obscure words and concepts, such as an aglet (so that’s what the pointy thing at the end of my shoelaces is called!), or mellifluous words with mundane meanings, such as ‘lanyard’—all have been ‘accidental’ discoveries. Had I been imperiously ‘commanding’ an electronic dictionary, an app, or, for that matter, Siri, to provide me with the definition of one specific word, I would have been robbed of the joy of discovery.
I would have been removed from the end-user, just as Ford’s quote makes him out to be. And it would be unfortunate if that’s what we remembered him best for. A legacy would be lost, and an entire impetus to co-create—thwarted. The contributions made by many visionary entrepreneurs and producers cannot be ignored, but they must be taken with a grain of salt, and accepted as a few drops in an ocean constantly in flux, with multiple opinions, ideas and beliefs, all of which feed off of the other. Much like our nuanced and interdependent ecosystem and inclusive communities. Much like our shared ancestral heritage. Together, we have the potential to drive change in the best way possible.
Because ultimately, Henry Ford did give us faster horses. They just had four wheels instead of legs.