Why I hate that Henry Ford quote!

There’s a quotation attributed to Henry Ford that is repeated (far too often I must say) in conversations about innovation and new product development.  It’s not the “any colour as long as it’s black” quote. It’s a different one. It goes something like this.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.

You’ve heard it before haven’t you?  It gets used all the time. Even  Steve Jobs has used it in interviews.

Unfortunately, the people who use this quote most often seem to be people who think they have all the answers or want to quash any discussion about getting outside validation of ideas or plans.

They speak it as if it is an absolute rule about not asking questions to customers or others in the market.

Dumb and …

I hate this quote because, quite honestly, it’s a dumb quote for people to be using, especially nowadays given what we know about new market evolution and dynamics of early adopters.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Ford personally. He was a VERY successful businessman and did a lot to help those who worked for him. He also said a lot of things worth repeating, but this is NOT one of them, and certainly not in the volume that this quote get repeated today.

Here are a couple of other quotes, not from Ford, but which help explain why Ford’s statement is particularly pointless.

  1. The answers you get come from the questions you ask.
  2. Ask a stupid question, and you’ll get a stupid answer.

The first one is just a more polite way of saying the second. 🙂

And what other answer than “faster horses” would you expect if you had asked people using horses and buggies about the improvements they wanted in personal transportation?

Even the “smart” people can be wrong

In the late 1890s, Ford was working as an engineer and worked on his automotive “experiments” in his off hours. Ford deeply believed that the gasoline engine was critical to the success of automobiles. And although Ford had risen to chief engineer in his job,  Ford’s boss, the President of the company where Ford worked, showed little support for Ford’s hobby. Eventually Ford had to choose between his hobby and his job.  In late 1899, Ford chose his hobby.

Ford left his job as Chief Engineer of the Detroit Edison Company. The president of that company was none other than Thomas Edison himself.

So if Thomas Edison couldn’t even see the future, what would the average person of the time think?

Of course, Edison also believed that direct current (not alternating current) was the future for electric power, and killed an elephant to discredit his competition, but that’s another story.

Understanding needs and objectives

Now here’s the irony of all this. We know that simply asking people what they want is not how to determine needs and objectives. And those are the things we need to understand when building products for people. Well it turns out that Ford understood that too.   And here’s a quote from him to prove it.

If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.

Source: nobosh.com

So the next time someone tries to block external research by pulling out that lame “faster horse” quote, drop this one on them and see how they react.


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Top 7 posts from the past year

The blog turned 3 earlier this month.  As a belated present, here are a few of the most popular posts from the past year.  A couple are personal favourites of mine, but most of them, based on their traffic, were favourites of yours! Enjoy.

1. What Origami can teach us about Product Requirements

Published on December 24th last year (yep, Christmas Eve), this post saw a huge spike in traffic in January, thanks to being Holy Kaw’d on Alltop and tweeted by Guy Kawasaki (and then retweeted by many others). My son (who is in grade 4) pointed me to the video embedded in the article, which inspired the article. They’d watched it in class as part of a math lesson. Wow!

2. Product Management Metrics

These posts, particularly parts 1 and 2, garnered a lot of traffic, even without the help of Mr. Kawasaki and his followers. Part 1 also had over 40 comments, with almost half coming from Roger Cauvin. 🙂 Clearly there’s a lot of interest in trying to define and use standard metrics to measure the contribution of Product Management. BTW, writing this reminds me that I still have to complete the series with part 3.

3. Bill Campbell says hire Product Management first!

This article is based on an interview Bill Campbell (chairman and former CEO of Intuit) gave at the Stanford AlwayOn conference last year. The title came from a tweet I’d seen earlier during the conference. Not surprisingly, this post got a lot of attention from readers and healthy discussion occurred in the comments.

4. Product Management in Pictures

This series was quite popular and garnered a lot of comments and retweets. The posts take a lighter look at things like meetings, requirements, presentations etc.  As in most humour, there is a foundation of truth in them that strikes a chord with a lot of people.

5. ProductCamp Austin was our Woodstock

After he attended and presented at ProductCamp Austin, Alan wrote this post about the potential for future events. I don’t know if the post struck a real chord 🙂 with people or it was simply all the references to artists like The Grateful Dead, the Beatles, Janis Joplin, CCR, the Stones etc. that brought SE traffic, but this post was quite popular over the early fall.

6. Guest Post: Measuring Product Management

Don Vendetti’s 3 part series added to the discussion from the Product Management Metrics series. Again, this topic saw a lot of comments from readers but thanks to Don’s research, provides a different perspective on the topic. Well worth reading.

7. (How) do you measure customer satisfaction?

Alan’s questions on measuring customer satisfaction drew a lot of responses from the readers.   Alan asked if people measure cust sat? What do they measure and how? The comments on the article make for a great read with lots of additional links provided for further information.

So there you have it. The top 7 posts (or sets of posts) from the past year.

Let us know what you think and if you have any other articles that you particularly liked.


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What’s New on the Blog?


Just thought I’d pass on a quick update about some changes on the blog.

Move to self-hosted blog

As of early June, we moved from hosted WordPress to a self-hosted blog. The main reason for moving was to take advantage of some of the great customizations available on the self-hosted software.

The old blog content is still available —  http://onproductmanagement.wordpress.com — and will be there for some time. There’s 3 years of links around the web that point to that blog as well as a lot of search engine juice. It still receives hundreds of hits a day, but we are monitoring it and slowly changing links to point over to the new blog.

Broken links on this blog?

Unfortunately our move to a self-hosted instance wasn’t seamless. WordPress is a great piece of software, but the process of going from hosted to self-hosted created a number of broken links in some of the blog posts. These are mostly in older posts, and we will correct them as we come across them. If you run into a broken link, please leave a comment on the corresponding page and we’ll get to it as soon as we can.

Submission Forms for Events, Blogs

We’ve been maintaining a fairly extensive blog list of relevant blogs. You can see various lists here:

If you know of a blog you think we should add (including your own!), to make your life easy, we now have a form you can fill out with necessary information.


We’ve also done the same thing for our events page. The list of upcoming events is here. And the form is:


If you know of any events, ProductCamps, local PM or PDMA or other meetings,  relevant conferences, seminars etc, let us know and we’ll add them to the Events page.

We’ll be adding submission forms for some of our other pages, such as Associations and Resources over the next few weeks. If you want us to add something to either of those pages before then, go old school and leave a comment or use the Contact Us form! 🙂

Changes to the look and feel of the site

Over the summer we’ll be experimenting a bit with the look and feel of the site. We want to continue to have a clean, simple look, but will be trying out some theme changes and some new plugins for the blog.  So don’t be surprised if interface elements change or come and go once in a while.

As an example, we recently tried the Odiogo plug in. It’s a great little piece of technology that automatically creates an audio file — via pretty good text-to-speech technology — of any blog post published via RSS. It also embeds a nice audio player in the web page.

It’s actually pretty good for what it does, but has some limitations that made it unacceptable for us for the time being. As much as we’d love to provide audio for all our blog posts — and good audio at that! — the limitations meant we couldn’t keep it on our site.

But, we’re going to keep trying to improve the blog, and would like suggestions from you.

You ideas are welcome!

Are there article topics you’d like to see us cover?

Do you want to submit something yourself? We’ve had quite a few really good guest posts already.

Are there other resources or reference pages (beyond Events, Blogs etc.) that we could add?

Do you know of any good blog capabilities we should consider?

Let us know – via comment or form — and we’ll look into it.

We look forward to hearing from you.


Rules and Laws Product Managers Should Understand (part 2)

Continuing from Part 1, here are more Rules and Laws to help Product Managers in their jobs.

Thackara’s Laws
John Thackara can best be described as a thinker, designer and innovator. He defined 2 laws (in his 2005 book In the Bubble) that are probably more obvious to all of us today, than they were 5 years ago when he first published them.

Law #1: “If you put smart technology into a pointless product, the result will be a stupid product.”

How true. A great example of this law in action is Microsoft Surface.  Announced 3 years ago, in response to at about the same time as Apple’s revolutionary iPhone, it’s amazing to see exactly how little Microsoft has done with the technology of Surface. Meanwhile we know what Apple has done with the iPhone and iPad. BTW, the best thing that came out of Microsoft’s Surface announcement, was this video. 🙂

Thackara’s second law came from analyzing his own lack of amazement as his friend demonstrated all the great features of a brand new top-of-the-line Mercedes Benz.  Brilliant engineering? Yes. Very expensive price tag? Yes. Wow factor? Nil.

Law #2: “Our capacity to be impressed by new technology diminishes in relation to the amount of pointless functionality added to everyday products.” Known as “the law of diminishing amazement (LODA).”

We’ve all probably experienced this in some form or another. Usually when, like Thackara, a friend is giddy with delight in explaining some new tech toy. Or, if you’re a Product Manager, when listening to a CTO or other technologist describe the wonders of the next amazing product he/she has envisioned.

And for those of you more mathematically inclined, you may appreciate Classen’s law which states:

Usefulness = Log (Technology)

Hanlon’s Razor
There’s debate as to the actual origin of this law. Some claim was a man named Robert Hanlon in 1980, others believe it was actually Robert Heinlein (the author) in 1941, and still others attribute it to Napolean Bonaparte. Regardless, the law is well worth remembering.

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

Keep this rule in mind when things don’t work out as planned.

For example, if you know you’ve done your job in researching, defining and delivering the right product to market, but your sales reps come back to you saying that the reason they can’t sell your product is because it lacks needed functionality or that it’s priced too high, you’ll know where the real problem resides.

Hofstadter’s Law
As someone who’s worked in software for a long time, I appreciate recursion when it’s used effectively. Hofstadter’s law is one such example. It states, quite cleverly:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

Keeping this in mind, always realize that when you set a target date for your next release, it will invariably change (for the worse) and the overall scope of your release will shrink. Guaranteed. And the only people to blame will be those who actually thought those original estimate were accurate.

For more information on this, see Planning Fallacy and Optimism Bias. A quick read of Parkinson’s Law wouldn’t hurt either.

Hawthorne Effect
This comes to us courtesy of experiments done with factory workers in the first half of the 20th century.  An experiment was conducted to see what impact high and low lighting levels had on worker productivity. The workers were fully aware that they were being observed and their productivity increased for the duration of the experiment and then dropped once the experiment ended.

For those physicists out there, you may remember the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, or the Observer effect, both of which can be paraphrased as:

the act of observing a situation will (implicitly or explicitly) affect and change that situation.

Why is this important? When you do field studies with customers or users of your product, always keep in mind that your presence and the fact that your users know they are being observed will change their behaviour, and thus your findings. The more you can do to eliminate your impact as an observer, the more likely you are to get accurate results.

Intuit’s famous Follow me home program is an example of trying to minimize the Hawthorne effect.

I’ll stop here. There are many more rules and laws that can be applied to innovation, product development and product management.

Do you have any that you want to share?


Rules and Laws Product Managers Should Understand (part 1)

First, let me say this post was inspired by a tweet from the CrankyPM asking the following question.

What are the key laws/regulations that software product managers should know?

(click to enlarge)

Now, I’m pretty certain she was looking for answers like Section 508, Sarbanes-Oxley, HIPAA, Open Source licensing etc. But those are all pretty boring subject areas, quite honestly.

As long as you understand the equivalent of the first few paragraphs of the appropriate Wikipedia page for any of those topics, you’ve got pretty much all you need to do your job. And if you need to know more, you can go learn more or ask for an opinion from your legal team.

But there are a whole set of laws and rules that virtually all software product managers should know. These will help you in all sorts of situations and certainly are much more applicable than the legal regulations I listed above.

Product Management Axioms
I’ve got to start with these as they’re my rules and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of self-promotion. 🙂

  • Nail it, then Scale it
  • Change is a process, not an event
  • Every activity is part of a sale
  • Think horizontally, act vertically

I won’t explain these here, but you can view this presentation, or read this article to understand these better.

Newton’s First Law (of Motion)
This comes from the world of physics and can be stated as:

A body in motion will stay in motion and a body at rest will stay at rest unless/until external forces are applied to them

In short, things will remain the same until external pressures are applied to them. Can you see how this might apply to the world of Product Management? For example, any product or project will not change it’s trajectory until external pressures (market, competition, customer, executive, and most importantly Product Management) are applied to it.

Apply this rule and be the external force that changes the trajectory of that product/project in a positive way!

Pareto’s Principle
More commonly known as the 80/20 Rule, this principle originated in 1906, when Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto used it to describe the unequal distribution of wealth in his country. He observed that 80% of the wealth was owned by 20% of the people.

In business, this can be applied in a myriad of ways. Here are a few that are relevant to Product Managers:

  • For any given release, 80% of all Engineering resources will be needed to deliver 20% of your P1 requirements
  • 80% of your product revenue will be generated by 20% of the sales team
  • 80% of the time you make the right decisions, but people only remember the other 20%
  • When creating revenue forecasts, you’ll be wrong 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time, Sr. Management will think you are wrong and tell you to raise them

Murphys Law
This one needs little explanation. The formal statement is:

If anything can go wrong, it will.

We all know how true this is. There are many variants to this law that PMs should keep in mind. Here are a few.

  • Nothing is as easy as it looks.
  • Everything takes longer than you think.
  • Left to themselves, things tend to go from bad to worse.
  • If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.
  • Every solution breeds new problems.

Amara’s Law
Engineer and futurist Roy Amara is credited with the following quote that bears his name:

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen that law upheld…especially the first half. Usually it’s a CTO or other similarly minded person waxing eloquently about the tremendous, dare I say “disruptive” impact of their next technological wonder.

Amara’s Law is a cautionary one but with a promising outcome, if you have the patience to wait long enough.

I’ll continue with more relevent rules and laws in Part 2.