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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64 thoughts on “Why I hate that Henry Ford quote!”

  1. Hating something for it’s mis-use by stupid people is pretty shortsighted.

    I use the quote to emphasize the need to digg deeper than the obvious questions and answers. Henry Ford didn’t stop asking questions after that one, but he realized that to create something revolutionary you have to lay a new foundation by using your creativity an being self-centered to a certain point. After establishing that, the valuable questions can be asked to see if the concepts holds up and how it could be improved. Henry Ford didn’t stop asking questions, but he needed to get past that dumb obvious one by innovation.

    Look at Apple. 2 years ago tablet PCs were just a bit weird and people said they missed a keyboard and wouldn’t know a good use for the thing. But Apple had a different and innovative vision on the tablet and developed a tablet that a lot of people want. They didn’t focus on giving people a really smart and tiny keyboard but came up with a new standard. People don’t even remember tablets from the past but now only look at the tablets that will be competing with the iPad in the future. But I’m sidetracked here.

    The most important point I would like to make is that your hate is focused on the wrong subject. Go hate the people who use the material in the wrong way (same with nuclear technology). You pretty much said it yourself, but this would make the title of your post misleading and incorrect.

    I think you just have a smart way of promoting your blog, throwing a controversial statement out there and wait for people to bite. Let me know if I overrated you.

    1. Sebastian,

      Thanks for the comment. As they say, a catchy headline will drive people to click. 🙂

      I totally get what Ford was saying about asking people what they want. But to be honest, the quote is so over-used (NOTE: virtually everyday, it’s Tweeted and RT’d on Twitter) it’s become a hackneyed phrase. It’s easy to say, but it’s meaning is becoming lost, and it’s misuse — the focus of my blog post — is really a symptom of that.

      On top of that, while the statement may have been significant in Ford’s time (70+ years ago), it’s old hat today. We understand that simply asking people what they want is not the way to make innovative leaps. Even understanding needs is not enough.

      While I won’t knock your choice of Apple as an example, — can’t knock success! — I think there is more to Apple’s success than simply adhering to the Ford quote. I wrote a bit about that here.

      Yes, disliking the people who misuse the quote is one option, though, like a song that you once liked, but heard far too many times and then hated, I feel the same way about that particular quote. Maybe it will change over time, but to be honest, I like the other Henry Ford quote I gave in the article much better.

      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.

      It’s neither short enough to be RTd endlessly on Twitter, nor succinct enough to casually roll off the tongue. In our current “sound bite” culture, that’s a liability. But, for anyone who cares to read and understand it, it really is a clear statement of how to innovate.

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  3. I guess it’s only slightly upsetting that I just used this quote (a paraphrase, actually) in a recent blog post.

    But in the spirit of your argument, I don’t think I used it to stifle discussion, but rather to encourage Product Managers to look beyond the easy, incremental improvements that can be made using the solid techniques that Roger and Brandon illustrated, to the changes that can be made that make the product jump from “good” or “great” to “indispensable.”

    Faster is definitely a better attribute in most technology products, but it’s not the only way to make something better and sometimes, it’s not even the best way.

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  12. Nothing “wrong” with the Ford quote. Having been involved in new product development for many years, I understand Ford’s point being that people often don’t know what the next best thing is. When the transistor was coming into it’s own, people had no clue about it’s utility, until the Japanese built a small radio and the rest is history. Had the transistor developers asked about radio improvement, they likely would have gotten everthing from a different type of wood cabinet, or a longer power cord 😉

    1. Bob

      Agreed people don’t know what the next big thing is. As I mentioned in the article, even Thomas Edison was blinded to the possibilities of the gasoline engine.

      The problem with the quote is that it is too often misused to stifle debate and research into market needs.


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  16. Agree, I think the quote gets misused in some context. However, I think the quote is appropriate for a more divergent discussion about revolutionary design versus evolutionary design.

    Customers often are not be able to articulate what they want or need. This is where you make the intuitive leap to create something with your knowledge of the technology and capabilities available.

    Yes, you are correct that once you do develop or create something, you seek feedback and validation. It’s silly to think otherwise

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  18. Saeed, you expressed your hate towards this quote, but you didn’t analyze thoroughly what he really meant.

    Even we have some requirements on the production supplied, on the one hand we always care about “time management”, whether this product say apple computers are not time consuming when you’re using this. Simplicity and effectiveness are always number one factors when we are about to choose a product.

    By horse indeed (with no doubt) he meant cars. At those times, fastness was a clue to find a way to reach consumers.

    In the meantime, criticizing openly a (great) person who did something in his life giving a huge effort for automobile industry development (we cannot image our lives without cars nowadays) by a person who didn’t provide worthy arguments towards Ford’s quote, moreover who didn’t pass the levels of effort to reach the rock like Ford is unprofessional.

    1. Sylvia

      Thanks for the comment. I politely suggest you reread the article. I think most of your objections are addressed in it already.


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  23. I think the big problem with the quote is that you have to understand what the user is actually asking for. While they might have said they want a faster horse…that is really how they want it no what they want. They really are asking for a faster way to get from point A to point B on a regular basis.

    Great article!

    1. A good product manager would probe to get beyond the functional requirement (get from point A to point B) and the most obvious nonfunctional requirement (speed).

      How much time, effort, and money is required for care, “feeding”, and maintenance of the transportation product?

      How comfortable and pleasant is the ride?

      What are the externalities (e.g. sustainability and effect on the environment) of the transportation product?

      The answers to these kinds of questions are what drive sound product decisions, not answers to surface-level questions.

      By the way, I’ve responded to this blog entry on my blog. My response is here.

      1. Roger,

        We are in violent agreement. People need to dig deeper than simply asking what others want.

        In fact, I don’t know of any good PMs who’d simply ask people what they want without looking at the root causes. BUT, when people (usually not PMs) use this Ford quote, they typically don’t want to understand people’s underlying needs, let alone even understand what they want.

        As mentioned in the article, the quote is typically used to try to stifle debate and discussion about further research in order to push a preconceived viewpoint — usually based on opinion rather than fact.

  24. I ALSO hate that quote. I find that executives try to use it as an excuse to ignore customer needs. Sure, Ford’s audience may have said “faster horses,” but any product manager worth her salt would know that “faster horses” wasn’t the underlying customer need.

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