Building tomorrow’s markets: Lessons from Henry Ford to Nokia

“If I’d asked my customers, we’d have built a faster horse,” is a quotation often attributed, probably incorrectly, to Henry Ford.

The point of the quote is that asking today’s customers about tomorrow’s market is pretty pointless when new products change consumer behaviour.

Just as the farmer of 1906 had no inkling of how the motor car, truck and tractor would change their business, the cellphone user of 2006 had no idea of how the iPhone would change the way they used a phone and communicated with the world.

Which brings us to Nokia.

The Sami Consulting blog discusses how Nokia lost their lead in the cellphone business as the market migrated to Apple and later Android smartphones.

Nokia’s problem was they spoke to their customers about their existing mobile phone use rather than considered how the technology might evolve.

When the inventors of the touchscreen approached Nokia, the company carefully evaluated the technology, consulted their customers and decided it wouldn’t work for their products.

What does this story tell about foresight? First, it shows that innovation creates futures that are fundamentally unpredictable. We do not have facts or data about things that do not exist yet. When a mobile phone becomes an internet device with sensors, touch screens, and broadband access, it becomes a new thing. If you ask your existing customers what they like, the answer will always be about incremental improvements. When you ask about the future, the answer will always be about history.

In many ways Nokia were the beneficiaries of a transition effect, they took advantage of a brief period of technological change and were caught flat-footed when the technologies evolved further.

To be fair, it’s hard to see that change when you’re focused on incremental improvements.

The motor car turned out to define the Twentieth Century – even Henry Ford couldn’t have foreseen how the automobile would change society and the design of our communities.

Both the motor industry and smartphone industries are going through major change, particularly as the internet of everything sees the two technologies coming together.

One thing is for sure, how we use our phones and cars over the next 50 years will be very different to how we use them today.

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