Here’s how Henry Ford could have been a better leader

The business textbooks are rightfully kind to Henry Ford – kinder certainly than to his only recognised son, Edsel Ford, after whom the least successful automobile in the company’s long and proud history was named. Ford Snr rightly garners much credit for the democratisation of the motor car, propelling it from aspirational to attainable in a generation through efficient production processes and widespread availability via innovative franchising models.

Despite imparting much wisdom over his decades in leadership, he is most commonly remembered for two memorable quotes.

The first one – “You can have it in any colour you want, as long as it’s black” – surely was one of those jokes where you had to be there? Perhaps Ford’s team had grown used to the idea that his jokes needed to be laughed at, whether funny or not. “You can respond to my bad jokes any way you want, as long as it’s with uproarious laughter” might be closer to the truth.

‘You invest in your customers not to mine for the solution but to understand the problem’

It’s his second famous quote that forms the basis for this tome, however: “If we’d asked our customers what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.”

At first glance, this appears to suggest that customer research is the enemy of innovation; however, I hope to argue that the opposite is the case.

The reason? Because you invest in your customers not to mine for the solution but to understand the problem. In fact, it’s because of the complementary nature of understanding the customer and innovation thinking that all of the respected methodologies around product, service and experience design insist on first understanding the problem before designing the solution.

If Ford had spoken to his customers, he would have learned that they wanted a faster way to travel from A to B, that horses were smelly and high-maintenance, and that carriages were too expensive for all but the upper-middle and upper classes. In other words, he would have realised that there were real transport problems that could be solved through innovation.

His customers therefore would have helped him define the problem statement. It was always going to be the job of Ford and his boys to innovate the solution.

‘The real lesson learned was not that Ford’s failure was one of not listening to his customers, but of his refusal to continuously test his vision against reality’
– PATRICK VLASKOVITS

Ford, like other famous visionaries such as Jobs and Branson, was born with an innate intuition that allowed him to distil shifts in society, technological advances and commercial opportunity to innovate and make money. However, for mere mortals like you and I, the componentry of innovation has been deconstructed into structured methods that help guide the origination process.

Five whys (an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem), the magic question (if you had a faster horse, what would you let it do?) and innovation sprints all provide means by which designers and strategists give themselves the very best opportunity for good outcomes.

Ford’s intuition was to fail him in the 1920s, as General Motors’ research-led approach gave it competitive advantages in trade-ins, innovative ownership models, and variations in car colour and style. Its approach to the market, underpinned by research, was simply titled: ‘A Car for Every Purse and Purpose.’ The competition halved Ford’s market share from two-thirds in 1921, to one-third five short years later.

Harvard Business Review’s Patrick Vlaskovits summarises it best: “The real lesson learned was not that Ford’s failure was one of not listening to his customers, but of his refusal to continuously test his vision against reality, which led to the Ford Motor Company’s failure of continuous innovation, resulting in a catastrophic loss of market share from which it never recovered.”

It is only right that one applauds Ford’s mettle in introducing an innovation as revolutionary as the motor car into the mainstream. Part of that involves admiring his intuition and his nerve in following through on his vision. But, to tell the whole story, one must also reflect that this same belief in his own intuition stifled his success and his company’s growth.

Throughout, he would have got further and faster if he had complemented his own genius and bravery by investing in better understanding the needs and desires of his customers in the short, medium and long term.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their digital products by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing, customer journey planning and accessibility. Clients include Three, Bord Bia, Firmus Energy, Kingspan, AIB and Tesco Mobile. 

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