A faster horse is not enough

Most people prefer a faster horse, something they’re familiar with, to a major change in how they do things. But that won’t be enough in digital transformation.

You’ve probably heard it a million times, the story about Henry Ford who is supposed to have said ”If I had asked my customers what they wanted the would have said a faster horse”. Ford probably never said this, but its often used,especially when someone is trying to claim that there is little point to doing market research. I’m not going to get into that debate.

But another way of looking at the quote, and one that has been much on my mind recently, has to do with digital transformation. Especially the resistance against digital transformation in organisations that are large and/or have been around for a while. In that context, the desire for a faster horse takes on a new meaning, and one that is very relevant to many people.

It’s not natural

The reason why people at the time of Ford’s innovation would have preferred a faster horse to a car is partly due to the fact that we are naturally averse to change. I’ve quoted Douglas Adams’ great take on how we view technology before, but it’s well worth doing again:

“Anything that’s in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary, and you can probably get a career in it.

Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.”

A society built on horse-power

But another reason, and perhaps a more important one, is that the society around them, back in the early 20th century, to a large degree was built around horses. There was an entire economy surrounding them, from black-smiths making sure they were shod to farmers producing feed. There were markets for buying and selling animals, and of course there were a number of people who made a living breeding and raising horses. And then there were companies built around using horses for transportation and other things. All in all, the car was not just an outcome of new technology, it represented a total shift from an existing infrastructure, a way of life, job security, a shared knowledge and acceptance of how things were done.

Playing Moneyball

If you’re interested in baseball (I’m a huge fan myself) you probably recognize that a similar development happened when the A:s started using Sabermetrics. Even if you don’t care about baseball you may have read the book Moneyball or seen the movie with Brad Pitt. It details this change, which again was not just about starting to use a new way of evaluating players or build a team. What it did was question the whole infrastructure of scouts, managers, coaches that were in charge of finding players and developing teams.

The exact same thing is happening in companies that have been around for a while. Just like a baseball team or early 20th century society there is a complete system, an infrastructure, built around doing things a certain way. There are managers who have risen to important positions in this system, and there are a lot of people in general who feel safe and comfortable with doing things a certain way. Few employees in a company have a reason for wanting the existing system to change or be transformed. They prefer a faster horse, something that will work within the existing structure, to a car that will require new ways of working.

Digital disruptors – it just takes one

But in the end the car won, and forced a change into the society we have today. And the same thing will happen in terms of making digital tools and methods a prerequisite in what most companies do. It will happen for the same reason that the car won over the horse – it’s enough that one company disrupts an industry to force the rest to follow or disappear.

Because that is what companies like Uber, AirBnB, Netflix and many more are dong today – they disrupt industries and force the horse-based companies to either transform or disappear. And this can happen to any industry. You may think that the one you work in is too complex to be disrupted, but it’s not.

My point is this: Before you settle for a faster horse, understand that the car has already arrived and will transform everything around you. If you want your company to survive and develop you better get behind the wheels.

Over to you

What’s your take on why many companies, especially bigger ones, are reluctant to transform. Share your insights in the comments below.


Image credit: Al_HikesAX – Cruising to the finish, Flickr

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