“If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse” is something attributed to Henry Ford. It was Ford’s ability to see the unseen that fuelled an entirely new habit of transportation in America. The innovative mass production of the Model T was underpinned by his dream to make the automobile something that was affordable to every American household. It was a revolution rather than evolution; it didn’t just raise the bar, it changed the entire game.

In the same way that Ford’s thinking led to the Model T and the emergence of an entirely ‘new game’, his refusal to ‘ask his customers’ proved to be his downfall. Irony at its very best! Ford was not one to pander to customer wants believing that his role was to simply produce as many model T’s as possible in what was an era marked by a, “we make it – you buy it” mentality.  Alfred Sloan of General Motors is credited with recognizing that the ‘make and sell’ approach was flawed and that it paid to be more consumer orientated. His recognition of this reality found expression in the offering of a colour range when it came to GM products, is recognized as having played a significant part in GM overtaking Ford Motor Company in the market.

So, do you ask your clients / customers ‘what they want’ or do you go ahead and innovate regardless of such feedback, creating a need or a market based on your understanding and vision? In other words does one follow the market or create the market? Is it about improvement or invention? For many years accepted wisdom was that it was all about improvement – or what was termed ‘continuous improvement’ – taken from the Japanese management practice of ‘kaizen’. This was around the time when the Western management thinking was enamored with all things Japanese and there was a proliferation of imitating anything to do with Japanese management thinking and practice. It was understandable given the remarkable phoenix-like emergence of the Japanese economy following the devastation of World War II. With the accent on improvement, hearing customer complaints and suggestions was an important part in ‘getting it right’. We built our feedback loops and measurement criteria around consistently improving on delivery and efficiency. This in turn was reflected in the kind of organizations created – it could be seen in the culture, mindsets, behavior and measurement that pervaded these organizations.

Then someone comes along (blame any one of the technology geeks here) and the word  ‘innovation’ surges to the top of the ‘what’s hot’ list in the corporate and consulting lexicon. Suddenly we are being told that failure to innovate will translate into failure to survive the future. Stories of amazing feats of innovative genius – such as Oakley (motorbike handgrips to sunglasses…I mean come on!), are made case studies and innovation appears large in the curriculum of any self-respecting business school. And so we try to innovate but more often than not fail dismally for one obvious reason: we have build organizations primed for continuous improvement and not for innovation. The rules for each game plan differ – as do the mindsets, measurements and incentives. In a sense it is what rugby union is to rugby league; ice hockey is to field hockey; formula 1 is to Indy car. Similar but different; and success in one does not necessarily translate into success in the other.

If you are in the business of developing faster horses know that it will take a major shift to build cars. Are the two linked in some way? Yes, of course – one can often lead to the other, but don’t confuse listening and responding to market trends with seeing what nobody else can see and creating entirely new market needs. Smart leaders know that somehow they need to harness both within the context of their organization. They know that very little remains as it always has in the world of globalized economies and markets and that change is as inevitable as it can be sudden. Smart leaders know how best to combine faster horses and new transportation without losing focus and market share. It is not easy and very often a dominance in one or the other can make balancing difficult to maintain – but then who said leading in the context of the new world of work would be easy?

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