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VOL. 128 | NO. 40 | Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Graber Atkinson

Michael Graber & Jocelyn Atkinson

Alas, Poor Henry and the Problem

By Michael Graber & Jocelyn Atkinson

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According to legend, Henry Ford scoffed at market research and what we now call Consumer Insights, proclaiming, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” While there is a certain degree of wisdom in this statement, it has been misquoted to justify bad, hubris-inspired product failures by too many corporate egos.

Yes, to Ford’s credit, sometimes the visionary impulse of the inventor lives outside of convention. However, Ford made a mistake by thinking of his customers as unimaginative drones and an objectified, uncreative herd.

In reality, this quote is an act of fiction and cannot be traced back to the writings or sayings of Henry Ford. Ford was too smart and too shrewd to ignore customers or to act like a tone-deaf, singularly gifted inventor. He knew his audience – and this insight drove him to find ways to design a process that enabled the vision of an affordable car for the masses. The key to success and good design that wins in the market: knowing your audience.

If you give people a chance – and also employ formal discovery, ideation, and brainstorming processes and methods – they can help your company define the real problems in the market. You have to let consumers or customers (if you are a B2B company) co-create with you to identify the unmet needs and their real desires. After you understand their world and their perspectives, you can validate these findings with a mix of empirical, observational, and even intuitive modes and methods.

The real key to creating a disruptive, breakthrough innovation is discernment. By knowing the context of the people in the market, you know the gaps. In these gaps dwell the seeds of future market leadership.

The issue is one of orientation. If you approach an innovation project or a venture with a rigid, fixed notion of what the market needs, and you have not actually bothered to check with the market, you have paid a great disrespect. You have also created a wall between you and reality. You are creating in vacuum.

Consumer or customer insights can help your company define the real needs and design a wildly new solution that solves a human problem.

So, if you walk into a new product meeting and the pipeline manager begins by saying “Henry Ford said … ,” just laugh, tell him or her that you find the brazen notion amusing and you appreciate the creative thrust that birthed the product concept; however, we need to test the need and validate that it is a problem the market will pay for.

Here, your customers can give you visceral context of what the market will or will not accept. Letting them back up into problem solving around the market need will give you many more product concepts. A few of these ideas may be pure gold.

Jocelyn Atkinson and Michael Graber run the Southern Growth Studio, a strategic growth firm based in Memphis. Visit www.southerngrowthstudio.com to learn more.

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