faster horse or model t?

At the AIGA Business and Design Conference I attended in October, Tom Kelley, general manager of IDEO, served as moderator. IDEO is a 450-person product design pioneer known for its groundbreaking work for Apple, Caterpillar, Kraft, and other manufacturing icons.

Tom Kelley told us the walls of the IDEO corporate conference room are adorned with an insightful remark by Henry Ford: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Focus group studies are notorious for this. If you ask people what you want, they almost always want more of the same, just with better features or a lower price. Real innovation produces ideas that no customers would come up with in the normal course of researching their wants. This is possible because designers try to conceive what people will want in the future, rather than what they want now.

As Marty Neumeier describes in his new book, Zag: The Number 1 Strategy of High Performance Brands, the best way to judge a new idea is to map customer feedback against a success pattern. When you draw a chart with two axes, one for “good” and one for “different,” you can see how you stack up against other options.

Just like Stephen Covey’s famous urgent-important matrix, the best place to be is in the upper-right quadrant — in this case, where good and different combine to create a successful idea. Unfortunately most companies feel more comfortable in the upper-left quadrant, good but not different, and end up with just a faster horse. Judge that new proposal against the good-different matrix. You can’t be a leader by following the leader.