The art of product

Getting from ideas to delighted customers

John Maynard Keynes v Henry Ford

John Maynard Keynes

Over the course of his career as perhaps the most famous economist of all time, John Maynard Keynes despaired as he saw the stock market behaving more irrationally. As company stocks were held less by managers/owners and more by private individuals with stocks, some of the valuations he saw made no sense (e.g. ice companies being more valuable in summer didn’t make sense – company shares were supposed to representative of the long-term value of the company). His reaction was to liken the stock market to a beauty contests

in which the competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from 100 photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice most nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a whole: so that each competitor has to pick, not those faces that he himself finds prettiest, but those that he thinks likeliest to catch the fancy of the other competitors, all of whom are looking at the problem from the same point of view 

John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest & Money (1936)

Henry Ford

Henry Ford is famous for the model T ford automobile. His legendary riposte to being asked about available colors (“you can have any color you like as long as its black”) was indicative of the fact that Ford was visionary that knew the outcome he wanted to achieve. Ford set out to make a car that was going to bring the automobile to the masses (and the masses didn’t know they were soon going to have a car, let alone give their input to Ford in a customer discovery session). Rather, Ford built what he felt the world needed. He wasn’t asking the world what it needed, he was showing the world what it could have. He said:

I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.

Henry Ford

So there you have it.

The customer discovery question

Let’s relate this now to customer discovery

KeynesValue is often determined by what we think other people wantIt’s not so much what I want but what I think other people in my organization want and what I think they will approve
FordPeople are not fully capable of describing what they want (they would ask for a faster horse, not an automobile)I want X, Y and Z (oh, hang on, we have modernized our processes- we bought something else instead even though you built all those things)

Both of these points-of-view are somewhat counter to the wisdom of customer discovery. We should ask our customers about what issues they care about – and validate which solutions will work, right? Both these visionaries advocate against doing that.

You might argue that the Ford case is happening at the dawn of industrial civilization in the early 1900s. The iPhone story with Steve Jobs is similar, however. He didn’t develop an iPhone by asking customers what a better phone would look like.

The truth is however that unless your company has serious funding and is looking at a discontinuous innovation (i.e. there is no continuity between horse and automobile in the sense that automobile is not “better car”), then you do need to dive deeper with customers. Continuous innovations do require that we gauge if the problem is really a problem and what “job” the customer wants to do and how to do it.

It’s valid to take customer feedback without asking the customer what to build. Rather than ask “what should we do”, the question becomes “what do you think of this”, “what would stop you from using this”, or “if this was available, would you use it today” and in particular “what would having this enable you to do”. In other words, you can be a bit Ford with the “what” and use customer development to see how that is perceived, what dangers may lurk and what details might need further attention

Regarding Keynes, I see regular situations where some B2B decision-makers are answering through the prism of what they think are decisions they won’t get criticized for or fit within the status quo. I’ll introduce some interview questions to prompt a little bit about this to see if I can get to the history. Did an event happen in the past that causes people in the organization to now prioritize and think in certain ways.

But ultimately, sometimes group decision-making will be a consensus that eliminates options that anyone feels strongly about – leaving an ‘average medium’ option. Observing this in your customer interviews and not taking as gospel feedback that is based on ‘what others think’ is a good starting point…

About Patrick O'Malley