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Faster Horses? Look Again! Helping Henry Ford Innovate Differently in the 21st Century

Updated: Oct 7, 2023

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

This quote is so popular it’s almost cliché, but it captures so well a common pitfall facing many well-meaning innovators: directly going from what the user said to the 'limited' solution expressed by the customer, but entirely missing the point of their underlying need. While we’re huge proponents of staying anchored in what the customer said, something is missing to get to a rich insight…

In our experience, the missing link is the concept of 'abstraction' that leads to different points of view. Abstraction provides the potential to see the underlying needs from a fresh perspective versus surface-level symptoms that lead to status quo solutions.

Here are some practical steps to take customer inputs, abstract them, and turn them into rich insights:

  1. Listen to the customer: write down their actual words (quotes) to preserve and stay rooted in their needs. Example: Miles said, "I’m always late for work because my horse is too slow.”

  2. Take time to 'wonder and leap' (abstract): this is often where the magic happens … one of our favorite lead-in quotes from the d.School at Stanford is – “I wonder if that means…” Use this to extrapolate and 'try on' different perspectives taking logical 'leaps' to a new but potentially non-obvious perspective. Example: “I wonder if it means Miles leaves late for work but then blames it on his horse? (interesting, but maybe still too obvious). Here’s another one – “I wonder if Miles perceives the hectic pace of the world around him as moving faster than the pace of his mode of transportation?” (hmmm … deeper and more provocative)

  3. Formulate a gamechanger: based on the above, choose the abstractions/leaps that stimulate the most inspiration and ideas and formulate a couple of gamechangers. These will become your prompt(s) for ideation (you should have multiple). Example: it would be gamechanging for Miles to feel like the pace of his transportation matched the dynamic improvements and pace he’s experiencing in the rest of his life.

…from here you would go to ideation and reflection on ways to act upon the gamechanger.

In summary, the point of abstraction is not to get untethered from obvious needs … in fact it’s the opposite. When we're anchored in the needs of users, we can understand them at a deeper level by digging below the surface and 'trying on' new perspectives which will lead us to fresh insights on old problems. This is where the rich soil of underlying emotions, feelings and pain-points is found and the seeds of new innovation can germinate, take root, and grow.

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