Did Henry Ford’s Customers Really Want Faster Horses?

Portrait of Henry Ford (ca. 1919)
Portrait of Henry Ford (ca. 1919) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t know if the use of “celebrity quotations” is a new trend that I noticed, or if I’m just fatigued from reading such worn-out proclamations and overly sensitive to them.  The quote that caught my attention recently was the oft-referenced quote that is attributed to Henry Ford about innovation, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, then they would have said a faster horse.”

The problem with this particular quote is not only that Ford may have never said those words, but that so many people seem to have latched onto the quote as some kind of proof source in support their world view.  The recycling of the quote seems to have cemented it into the mythology of our times.

I’ve certainly been guilty of tossing out celebrity quotes myself as a kind of short-hand answer that is usually met with knowing-nods as a perfectly acceptable response.  This horse quote in particular doesn’t ring true to me.

Doesn’t gaining insight into innovation really depend upon asking the customers the right questions and then listening not only to what they say but to what they mean — seeking the answers that may lie waiting “between the lines” of what they say?

Isn’t it possible that Ford listened to horse owners’ talk about the effort involved in feeding, shoeing, harnessing and all the myriad related issues related to horse ownership, and arrived at key features other than speed?   After all, although the Model T reportedly had a top speed of 45 MPH, it is unlikely that the roads of the time would have permitted such sustained speed, so perhaps other customer needs were of higher value to the customer?

Couldn’t Ford have listened to customers’ comments unrelated to speed, and still arrived at a horseless carriage that was equally innovative?  As noted on the Henry Ford Museum website:

Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. He didn’t even invent the assembly line… Innovators change things. They take new ideas, sometimes their own, sometimes other people’s, and develop and promote those ideas until they become an accepted part of daily life.

I’m going to work on avoiding the use of celebrity quotes in the future, opting instead to view the use of such quotations as a cautionary flag that I may need to discount the information that accompanies the quote as equally recycled, possibly untrue, and too simplistic to be of much use.


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