Imagine how shocked I was to discover that everything I knew about Henry Ford’s Leadership was wrong.

I’ve always loved Henry Ford’s quote when reflecting back on designing the Model T car “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” I use it all the time, most recently during one of my Future Is Coming Workshops. I use Ford as the example of a businessman who can successfully forecast the future by seeing what the market NEEDS in contradiction to what it says it WANTS. I saw Ford as a man who could seek out the pockets of future that exist around him by finding disconnected innovations; and then combine those innovations in new and exciting ways.

This weekend, I was reading How Google Works by Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg. In one of their footnotes they share they too love this quote but that it may be apocryphal.

I hate being wrong. Even if I’m in good company with most everybody else on the planet.

So I set out to seek verification.

Quote Investigator can find no good evidence that Ford ever said those words. Their research suggests that “the earliest linkage … between the saying and Henry Ford appeared in ‘The Cruise Industry News Quarterly’ in 1999.” So for 18 years when we all thought we’d been quoting a famous industrialist we were actually parroting a niche trade magazine.

But maybe you’re like me and you think that it doesn’t really matter if Ford actually said those words if they accurately reflect his thinking?

Patrick Vlaskovits posted a pithy analysis in Harvard Business Review. He concludes thatFord’s “tone-deafness to customers’ needs (explicit or implicit), had a very costly and negative impact on the Ford Motor Company’s investors, employees, and customers.”

The car, the assembling line and interchangeable parts were all stunning innovations. But Ford didn’t invent any of them. He combined them in a unique way that enabled him to sell his design cheaper than anyone else. Combining different existing technology into a new model is itself a definition of innovation and that can be properly attributed to Ford. So good on him. It allowed Ford to dominate car the market for 20 years.

But it all changed in the 1920’s when General Motors offered newer innovations such as better cars, with better financing options. Ford persevered stubbornly with his business model and failed mightily. “In 1921, the Ford Motor Company sold about 2/3 of all the cars built in the U.S. By 1926, this share had fallen to approximately 1/3. And in 1927, when Ford belatedly responded (at tremendous financial cost and internal strife) to changes in the market’s tastes and competitive innovation … that percentage fell to about 15%.”

I was so wrong.

Henry Ford is not the innovative future-focused forecaster I took him to be. In fact, he much more closely fits the stereotype of the businessman who ignores customer feedback, discounts the data provided to him and doubles down on his gut feelings only to lose his shirt. Henry Ford is the man who sticks to his story about the future even when the real future is bearing down on him like a freight train.

The next time I conduct a Future is Coming workshop, I’ll still be using a story about Henry Ford.

But, in light of the facts, it’ll be a different story.


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