It's more or less obligatory to begin any discussion on the subject of innovation with the famous comment of the great if very peculiar American industrialist Henry Ford: ‘If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have asked for a faster horse’.
Like many well-known and often-quoted quips, his words express an important truth – in this case, that you can't expect your customers to possess the imagination and insight to do your innovating for you – but at the same time, they express two untruths as well.
The first and lesser untruth is that on closer examination, it seems Ford never actually said this – at least, no evidence has emerged to prove that he did.
The more important untruth, though, is that while experience suggests that he was half-right, it also shows that in the end he was half-wrong. If asked back in the early days, his customers would have indeed said they wanted a faster horse. Consider the consequences of his autocratic approach in the first two decades of the twentieth century, when the Ford Motor Company succeeded on a truly staggering scale and built a vast industrial empire at a speed that even today's most successful tech giants would envy, and you'd think he was right not to bother too much with what his customers might say. But fast forward 20 years and look at the near-collapse of the company in the century's third decade, and you'd find Ford's customers would have been a good deal more demanding. ...