Ford Still Should Have Asked a Customer

Can we stop using the quote?

Craig Damlo
May 15, 2019 · 4 min read

I’m sure you’ve been in a presentation that, at some point, puts up a slide with the famous Henry Ford quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.’” It’s usually used as a justification for ignoring customer feedback on an amazing new disruptive innovation.

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It’s Cold, I’m a Horse by Craig Damlo

First, let’s all agree that Henry Ford never said those words. Patrick Vlaskovits has already researched this and proven that Ford never “uttered this famous” quote. Patrick goes on to further discuss,

However, even if Ford didn’t verbalize his thoughts on customers’ ostensible inability to communicate their unmet needs for innovative products — history indicates that Henry Ford most certainly did think along those lines — and his tone-deafness to customers’ needs (explicit or implicit), had a very costly and negative impact on the Ford Motor Company’s investors, employees, and customers.

This is the real danger of using this quote when talking about innovations; it closes the mind and diminishes your group’s culture of innovation, risking future value in the process.

Let’s look at the quote more closely because, even if Ford never said it, it is still part of our cultural memory and probably not going anywhere. We can break this quote down in two ways: (1) How many people would have really said a “faster horse,” and (2), even if they had, that doesn’t mean that’s what they needed.

Let’s start with the people who may have actually answered with a “faster horse.” Ford’s customers may have answered a “faster horse,” because they didn’t know they had another option like Ford’s automobile and, depending on how the question was phrased, this might have been the correct answer for them.

The piece of information we are missing is what question Ford intended to ask his customers. Based on his answer, I suspect his intended question was, “What do you want in a new horse?” If so, then the answer of a faster horse makes sense. That question implies that a horse is part of the correct answer. Faster transportation is almost always desirable. Think of how much time is saved by being able to move from point A to point B in a fast amount of time — the entire airline industry is built on this premise.

This highlights the problem with surveys: The questions themselves can skew the answers. One of my Stanford professors, Bill Burnett, said, “A survey is not an interaction.” What Ford needed to do was either ask a better question or, preferably, get out on the street and interact with his customers.

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Photo by James Lee on Unsplash

But Ford could have dug deeper if he had actually talked to a customer. For example, “Why do you want a faster horse?” This could have had many answers: “It takes me 7 trips to move my goods from farm to market, and I want to get it done faster.” A modern solution is a pickup truck to haul more, reducing trips. Or maybe, “I have to make 3 trips to get the whole family to church on Sunday.” A modern solution is a minivan.

And this is the culture we should be pushing for innovation and entrepreneurship, a culture that not only wants more information but one that needs it. An innovative team should trust their ability to solve a problem, but not their own judgment to define the customer’s problem. Get outside of your building, outside the box, and let your users show you why they need that faster horse.

Let’s avoid the faceless survey with carefully crafted questions. Even the best questions elicit single-word answers or, at best, short answers. So don’t ask questions; instead, ask for stories. You can always ask for clarification of a story. If Ford had followed this advice, he wouldn’t have asked what his customers wanted in a new horse; instead, he would have asked his customers, “How do you get around, and what’s the worst experience you’ve had with it?”

Doing so would have allowed Ford to collect a multitude of answers beyond “a faster horse” and may have short-cut his journey to the mission he ended up with:

I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one — and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.

This is the quote from Henry Ford that we should be sharing. It has everything a great innovation needs: a target market, a value proposition, a worthwhile mission, and, most importantly, a story.

Craig Damlo is an innovation coach and the founder of Soap Box Rocket, whose goal is to help ignite a culture of innovation for you and your team. Visit http://www.soapboxrocket.com to see how he can help you.

Igniting Innovation

Great innovations start with great ideas, and great ideas…

Craig Damlo

Written by

Innovation Management Guru

Igniting Innovation

Great innovations start with great ideas, and great ideas start with great imaginations. Soap Box Rocket’s collection aims to ignite your imagination toward great innovations. Visit SoapBoxRocket.com for help igniting your innovations.

Craig Damlo

Written by

Innovation Management Guru

Igniting Innovation

Great innovations start with great ideas, and great ideas start with great imaginations. Soap Box Rocket’s collection aims to ignite your imagination toward great innovations. Visit SoapBoxRocket.com for help igniting your innovations.

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