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.

Saeed

Tweet this: RT @onpm: New Blog post: Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! #prodmgmt http://bit.ly/9OcrHW

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59 Responses to Why I hate that Henry Ford quote!
  1. Jennifer T says:

    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.


  2. 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!


    • 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.

      • Saeed says:

        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.

  3. jpfozo says:

    On Product Management: Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! http://bit.ly/aiLg70 "(Of course they'd want a faster horse.)"

  4. Alex Hubner says:

    Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! – http://bit.ly/b4hEjk

  5. yess_padilla says:

    Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! – http://bit.ly/b4hEjk


  6. RT @onpm: New Blog post: Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! #prodmgmt http://bit.ly/9OcrHW

  7. Silvia says:

    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.

    • Saeed says:

      Sylvia

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

      Saeed

  8. Thomas Knoll says:

    RT @onpm: New Blog post: Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! #prodmgmt http://bit.ly/9OcrHW

  9. Brandon says:

    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


  10. RT @thomasknoll: RT @onpm: New Blog post: Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! #prodmgmt http://bit.ly/9OcrHW


  11. RT @onpm: New Blog post: Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! #prodmgmt http://bit.ly/9OcrHW


  12. RT @onpm: New Blog post: Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! #prodmgmt http://bit.ly/9OcrHW

  13. bob says:

    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 ;-)

    • Saeed says:

      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.

      Saeed


  14. [...] Product Management – Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! You’ve heard it before haven’t you?  It gets used all the time. Even  Steve Jobs has used it [...]

  15. Eline Walda says:

    Goed artikel! 'Why I hate that Henry Ford quote' – over slimme productontwikkeling http://ht.ly/28iRn


  16. Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! http://tinyurl.com/32bojjk (via @pulsepad)


  17. RT @onpm: New Blog post: Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! #prodmgmt http://bit.ly/9OcrHW

  18. saeedwkhan says:

    @vinodhn I HATE that Henry Ford quote. Here's why. http://wp.me/pXBON-1ar #prodmgmt

  19. saeedwkhan says:

    @UrPersonalJesus @Yardboy @AlisonMcNab @Jhnhtt @sekatsim – I HATE that Henry Ford quote. Here's why. http://wp.me/pXBON-1ar


  20. @saeedwkhan Interesting take! I HATE that Henry Ford quote. Here's why. http://wp.me/pXBON-1ar #prodmgmt

  21. saeedwkhan says:

    @opimum @briancromer @baswillems @leilakarnik @josephinetoo I HATE that Henry Ford quote. Here's why. http://wp.me/pXBON-1ar

  22. saeedwkhan says:

    @AdamAguilar @chris_pruett @lexloiz @johnyqi @korygorsky I HATE that Henry Ford quote. Here's why. http://wp.me/pXBON-1ar

  23. Ivan Chalif says:

    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.


  24. RT @saeedwkhan: @vinodhn I HATE that Henry Ford quote. Here's why. http://wp.me/pXBON-1ar #prodmgmt IC: Just added my own $0.025

  25. Sebastien Willems says:

    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.

    • Saeed says:

      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.

  26. Ross Gray says:

    @saeedwkhan has sure made me feel like a chump for tweeting that Henry Ford quote; http://wp.me/pXBON-1ar

  27. Ian Corns says:

    Currently Browsing: http://tinyurl.com/32bojjk – Post discussing overuse of the Henry Ford innovation quote. (you know, the horse one)

  28. saeedwkhan says:

    @crankypm Yeah, I hate that Henry Ford quote as well. http://wp.me/pXBON-1ar #prodmgmt

  29. Pranav Desai says:

    Hi Saeed,

    I completely agree with you on this one. The thing is most people miss the context of the quote when reusing it.

    In my humble opinion (which is worth $0.02) this is true for disruptive innovation (which drastically alters the way people do things) where the problem definition is not complete like the first cars or planes or the tablet in the example above. However for most customer problems and especially for a product which is widely deployed with a defined problem definition, in my opinion, the best product is the one which introduces incremental changes instead of monumental changes. Any major deviation and there is huge customer backlash (e.g. Windows Vista vs Windows 7)

    Nice post and it was fun re-visiting Edison again. The only sad part was you did not mention Tesla :-) who was a genius who used disruptive innovation within the pragmatic application framework (availability, scalability). He was both a researcher and a Product Person.

    Cheers
    Pranav


  30. [...] Product Management, Why I hate that Henry Ford quote!: You’ve heard it before haven’t you?  It gets used all the time. Even  Steve Jobs has used it [...]

  31. steve waasiura says:

    I wish I had a time machine to travel back in time and see if Ford really said that. He didn’t invent the automobile, he invented a cheaper way to manufacture a car, using the assembly line. So it’s not like people didn’t know about the car, and they wanted a faster horse. They wanted a car, they just couldn’t afford it because they were all custom made things just for richy rich people. That’s my take on it.


  32. RT @onpm: New Blog post: Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! #prodmgmt http://bit.ly/9OcrHW

  33. Jim Holland says:

    Another view of "Understanding Needs and Objectives" by @onpm http://bit.ly/9OcrHW #prodmgmt #prodmgmt #agile #leadership


  34. RT @Jim_Holland: Another view of "Understanding Needs and Objectives" by @onpm http://bit.ly/9OcrHW #prodmgmt #prodmgmt #agile #leadership

  35. GregCott says:

    RT @Jim_Holland: Another view of "Understanding Needs and Objectives" by @onpm http://bit.ly/9OcrHW #prodmgmt #prodmgmt #agile #leadership


  36. Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! http://bit.ly/9OcrHW by @onpm > "answers you get come from the questions you ask" #scrm #innovation

  37. Julie Hunt says:

    RT @bhc3: Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! http://bit.ly/9OcrHW by @onpm > "answers you get come from the questions you ask" #scrm # …

  38. Bill Marty says:

    Don't use Henry Ford's quote about faster horses as an excuse- http://j.mp/h79BWk
    (via @bhc3)


  39. RT @missmarketer: RT @onpm: New Blog post: Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! #prodmgmt http://bit.ly/9OcrHW

  40. Derek Chen says:

    Ask the right questions to your customers http://bit.ly/d8EOer Dig deeper than just "what do you want" when conducting research.


  41. Saeed, I’m obviously late to this conversation, but I was doing a search for a Henry Ford quote and your post showed up on the first page.

    What bothers me is when people use this quote to justify not visiting customers and doing market research. Getting outside of your product management bubble is absolutely key to developing successful products. Yes, we (product managers) have to be innovative and go beyond the standard answers we hear from customers. But, like you say, it’s more about asking the right questions. The biggest problem we create for ourselves is thinking we know what will be the next big innovation without listening to the marketing.

    - Michael


    • Oh, here’s the other Henry Ford quote I was searching for:

      “Wealth, like happiness, is never attained when sought after directly. It comes as a by-product of providing a useful service.”

      • Saeed says:

        Yup, totally agree. And that’s how I’ve seen it used unfortunately. i.e. to justify not getting information from external sources.

        Once CEO at a startup once said that he didn’t believe in market research because “By the time you finish the research, you could already have built a product.” What was most shocking was that this was at a company that had just spent 18 months building something that no one wanted to buy.

    • Saeed says:

      Michael

      Thanks. That’s a great quote.


  42. RT @onpm: New Blog post: Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! #prodmgmt http://t.co/ZyH0mr6H


  43. Four years into the search for a solution to a new democratic media I tend to agree with this quote about a faster horse. The problem isn’t seeking advice from others. The problem is others opening their mind to new ideas. It’s not intelligence, it’s motivating others to see possibilities beyond the existing realities. Creativity is difficult, sharing creativity is more difficult. The horse quote attributed to Henry Ford describes the problem of acquiring public feedback with a new idea. Solutions are unlikely to be developed with the agreement of the majority. A smaller group must build on ideas, incrementally exposing the progress to the public. The smaller group can then gauge the response from the majority to refine the product.

    Four years into the Do Good Gauge idea I have yet to recruit interest in the unrealized possibility of the human populace. The Do Good Gauge describes a democratic communication system. Democracy will not improve the human condition through chaos and mayhem. Thoughts and solutions percolate from the masses through a process of refinement. Refinement through smaller groups which incrementally develop quality of thought.

  44. Carlo says:

    It’s interesting to see so many posts about so-called “good” product managers. Because I’ve met many good product managers, and with all the market research and analysis decks and in-depth questioning, none of them ever came up with an innovation analogous to a car vs. a faster horse. Most PM’s come up with faster/stronger horses. Keeping in mind that the quote doesn’t say faster horses are bad; a faster/stronger horse would have been a great value to the 1900′s market.

    But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with assuming that most customers are incapable of imagining a revolutionary idea – individually or as a group. Which is common sense, because history proves that level of foresight and genius is rare. I see this quote more as a reminder of common sense that modern technology management teams and boardrooms seem to lose sight of too often. The common sense that people capable of leaps that impact an entire society are rare, and when those people come around, regardless of focus group or committee or mob or even an entire consumer market’s demand, we should get our horses out of their way if we want to be amazed. Or if we don’t want to get run over :)

    The other point in this quote that I always infer, is some people are gifted at bringing something to market that a customer never asked for but immediately desires. And that desire can be based on the customer’s daily needs or their daily dreams. And look out for magic when those two are one in the same.

    • Saeed says:

      Carlo

      Thanks for the comment. One thing to keep in mind is that Ford didn’t invent the automobile. They had been around for quite a while before Ford came out with the first Model T. What Ford did do though was automate the manufacturing process thus providing CHEAP cars to the market. The irony though, if you read about Ford’s life, is that the manufacturing process that made him famous and wealthy was also his undoing. As the market matured and changed, his manufacturing process was so rigid that he couldn’t innovate and provide more choice to buyers which is what the market wanted. This opened the door to other companies who were more nimble than he. Sound familiar? This story has played out many times across many industries over the decades, most notably recently, with RIM and the smartphone makers. Why don’t CEOs learn from history?

      WRT PMs coming out with innovations like car vs. faster horse, I believe it happens regularly but in many cases we don’t see it because the opportunity for change in society happens so rarely. How often do we have massive structural or cultural shifts in society that are akin to moving from an agrarian society (horses) to an industrial society (cars). Not often.

      Saeed

      • Carlo says:

        Excellent points! It would be interesting to understand the perspective that buyers of Ford cars had about the technology prior to Ford. Was there buzz about Ford in households leading up to his release of the Model A or T?

        Ultimately I wouldn’t say that Ford was undone though. Nimbleness and choice is a lot easier to pull-of after someone else has already paved the way and expanded what people are willing to pay for. His simplification of choices allowed him to get a foothold in the market that arguably has never been fully supplanted. Whatever success his competitors had, Ford’s decisions sufficiently earned the company a spot in our psyche – branded if you will – to survive until today. Even recently being able to weather the American industry’s near collapse better than its competitors.

  45. Joel says:

    I love the quote. It does remind me that we don’t need to do a bunch of useless research to just do what we want and what is our passion. That’s the point behind Steve Jobs repeating it. When he innovated, he never asked for opinion. When a product came out, and people hated it, he listened and changed the product to make the customer happy. People don’t know what the hell they want aside from eating, shitting and sleeping. They go to the store, see something that someone like Steve Jobs developed, and go “oh, yeah, I could really use that.” Something becomes a want that they didn’t know they wanted, and then becomes a need. That’s Steve Jobs.


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  47. Andy Cowin says:

    'If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.' Why I hate that Henry Ford quote! http://t.co/cS3ktg3y

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