Take the Horse off the Chart

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”- Henry Ford

Whether or not Henry Ford actually said this quote, that has been long attributed to him, is debatable. But, the spirit of the quote, certainly permeated Ford's approach to innovation. He was less concerned about what customers said they wanted, and much more focused on what he felt customers needed, whether they knew it or not. This forward-looking approach is at the heart of an innovative culture.

The first Ford Model T was introduced in 1908. While other automobiles had been available to purchase for over a decade, this was the first car that could be afforded by the masses. This is why most people remember the Model T and not the Model A, which was actually the first automobile produced by Ford. The Model A, first brought to market in 1903, was a 2-cylinder vehicle, but it was not affordable for all. Hence a key learning point on innovation: form, function, and price are often equally important.

Ford's reputation as an innovator was cemented by the 38 years of innovation that followed the Model A. Ford quickly ramped up to 1 million cars sold by 1915. The first Ford truck arrived in 1917 (it had a Model T engine), followed by an enhanced 8-cylinder Model A in 1932. Then, came the Ford Mercury in 1938 and the Jeep in 1941. Thirty eight years of innovation, never once looking back.

The product roadmap is an all too familiar chart seen across product development companies today. It doesn't matter if its hardware, software, machines, or even consumer packaged goods; everyone has a view of where the product is today and where it will go in the future. The challenge most successful companies face, which is well documented by Clayton Christensen in The Innovators Dilemma, is the trade-off between sustaining innovation (enhancing/improving your current products) versus investing to build transformative products, that attack new opportunities. The former is very easy, while the latter is technically difficult, not to mention the inherent cultural challenges.

If Ford had been pre-occupied with sustaining innovations, there would have been a horse (albeit a better horse) on his roadmap chart circa 1903.

Since we all agree that is ridiculous, then why iso many companies fail at this task? Culture, inertia, existing client requests, existing skills, etc., are among the reasons.They all make this hard, but that doesn't mean that its not necessary. Next time you are in a meeting where you see a team falling into this trap, use the phrase, "Take the Horse Off the Chart".

I'm interested in your views.


  1. Greetings Rob!
    First off, it's been a while since the Informix days that we actually connected on anything! Secondly, I do read your blogs more often that I get to comment :-). Innovation is fascinating. Like you point out, the Ford example probably is the one that's often used often when discussing innovation. But I often wonder what Ford would have got if he actually asked that question. I ask that because in today's day and age, crowd sourcing does hold the potential for radical innovation simply given the resources that customers have at hand today. Not to forget that today's customers are ever so much a part of buiding a product than yesterday's customer. I guess my view is that today's customer may not be the same as the 1903 customer, and the 2050 customer may not be the same as the 2014 customer. All that being said, I am glad to have re-connected :-)


  2. Rajesh- great to hear from you...and I agree with your points. I especially like your point about today's clients being a part of building products. That is a key point..and some organizations don't allow for that.