People can’t tell you what they want so give them something else

“You can’t give people what they want. You can give them something else.”

This quote by the late Anthony Martignetti stopped me in my tracks because it perfectly encapsulates what organisations struggle with and provides the answer – all neatly presented in two sentences.

The problem isn’t that people can’t tell you what they want. They can and sometimes they even will. But then before you can do anything it has changed. Or it was a bad day and today it’s different. Or what they think they want is based on that they know today and that’s a really bad predictor of what they will want tomorrow.

And if you get sucked into playing that game you will die trying and probably get stomped on by the people running past you to do ‘something else’.

There’s a famous quote by Henry Ford.

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

You could easily rewrite that quote for all the great things people love but didn’t know they wanted and couldn’t have said they did even if they’d been asked.

“… they would have said a smaller phone or better CD player.”

“… they would have said cheaper taxis.”

“… they would have said more convenient film processing.”

You get the idea.

So why do companies spend so much time asking and trying to give finicky, capricious people what (they say) they want, when it would be so much better to give them something else?

I’m not saying that asking people what they want and then giving it to them is necessarily easy or a complete waste of time. Depending on how you company is wired even doing what they say they want might be a stretch. But given there is likely to be an expected quality to what they say, it’s still likely to be a whole lot easier than “something else”. Why? Because people have notoriously bad imaginations.

There was a survey by Pew Research Centre in 2014 into the future of technology where they asked 1001 people: “If there was one futuristic invention that you could own, what would it be?” When given the opportunity to name ANYTHING they could think of, roughly one in 10 people said they would like some way to travel through time. It tied with cures for diseases at the top ranked thing people wanted.

Offering “something else” is hard. Going back to my blogs of the past few weeks, to get to “something else” you’ve got to dive deep and that takes time and commitment. It means you have to know what you care about so you don’t get hijacked into trying to invent a time machine.

And “something else” doesn’t have to make a huge life changing difference for everyone. It can also be a wonderful small something else that makes things just a bit easier. It might even be inspired by what people say they want, that you then run through your “what we care about” filter and come up with your version of “something else”. There are no rules. Just please don’t ask me what I want from your company.

See you next week for “So you have a new web site. Yay for you.”

Michel Hogan is an Independent Brand Thinker and Adviser dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. You can find Michel at or you can follow her on Twitter @michelhogan.


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