American industrialist and pioneer Henry Ford was a prolific generator of quotes. One of his most famous lines, sometimes debated as the source, was “If I had asked people want they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Regardless of whether the great man did supply this prose, it is a line close to the modern innovator’s heart.
Innovation is not the process of trying to make something simply “better”. This most vague of words can mean absolutely anything, which is why innovation is a detailed journey including a great deal more than just the process of overcoming a challenge. Nor is innovation about early adoption of new technology. It’s about delivering all of these things in a significant step change.
Often, customers don’t really know what improvement looks like. They might know what’s needed in their business, perhaps an urgent need to save time or money. They may have seen some new technology that looks like it might make a difference but have no real understanding why it might. It’s here the relevance to Mr. Ford’s quote comes in.
Let’s abstract things a little. Go back 100 years and a haulage business owner, having reliably used horse and cart for many years, has just seen a car for the first time and immediately feels that they need one. The car is newer, a definite step change in personal mobility, and therefore must yield many more benefits at lower cost than a horse.
This is where the process of innovation is so vital. Determining the challenge and the business need is part of the process, but it’s only by working it through with wider stakeholders and teams, plus conducting some research or trials, do you prove the real need and what success looks like. In some instances then, our customer looking to replace his horse with a car, may actually need a lorry.
The lorry has a much larger payload capacity than a horse could pull, can travel further, more quickly and deliver its goods at lower cost than a horse. It’s those combination of factors that bring about innovation; seldom is one factor alone enough to warrant the label. Had a trial been conducted, the car would likely have delivered on many of its promises except its ability to carry cargo. Thus the lorry would have been selected.
The owner would measure the status quo, to baseline how the business currently operates, before trialling the lorry. The results would be enough to not simply select a new piece of technology just because it is the latest fad, but because it delivers a measurable, tangible benefit to the customer.
Henry Ford was a powerful innovation icon. It wasn’t just the successful deployment of low-cost mass production, or the franchised dealer system we know today, or his pursuit of welfare capitalism. It was the way he was able to combine several ideas that could benefit both the customer and his business.