Two Great Innovation Misquotes

There are two popular quotes that often get used when discussing innovation that were never actually said or written by the people to whom they are attributed. Despite the fact that they are fake quotes, there are still things that we can learn from them.

The first common quote is attributed to Henry Ford:

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

This quote usually comes up when people are discussing focus groups, or design-driven innovation. However, there’s no evidence that Ford ever said or wrote it.

Even though it’s not a real quote, it raises some interesting points. You can interpret it as meaning “you should ignore customers,” or some people even seem to think it means “customers are stupid.”

But that’s not really what it’s saying at all. People do have limited vision if you ask them open-ended questions. And as innovators, our job is to invent the future. Nevertheless, there is useful information in the faster horses idea.

If people really had told Ford that they wanted faster horses, what would that mean? If you frame it in a jobs-to-be-done way, it means that the main job that they’re trying to do is to get somewhere fast. That actually is a pretty good argument in favour of automobiles.

In his HBR post on this topic, Patrick Vlaskovits sums up the issue well:

An innovator should have understanding of one’s customers and their problems via empirical, observational, anecdotal methods or even intuition. They should also feel free to ignore customers’ inputs. Because by now it should be clear that Ford’s adherence to his vision of the mass-market car and how to materialize that vision was instrumental in both his early success in growing Ford Motor Company as well as his later failure to respond in a timely and effective manner to rapid innovation in the marketplace.

The real lesson learned was not that that Ford’s failure was one of not listening to his customers, but of his refusal to continuously test his vision against reality, which led to the Ford Motor Company’s failure of continuous innovation, resulting in a catastrophic loss of market share from which it never recovered.

So the quote is useful, even if Ford never said it.

The second quote is a bit more problematic – this one is frequently attributed to Charles Darwin:

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

As with the Ford quote, Darwin never actually said or wrote this (he never wrote “survival of the fittest” either – that was Herbert Spencer building on Darwin). This one is a bit more problematic too, because it is actually a major misinterpretation of Darwin.

Consider the Large Ground Finch, one of the species from the Galapagos Islands described by Darwin:

Darwin's Large Ground Finch

In a remarkable research project that has spanned nearly 40 years now, Peter and Rosemary Grant have studied the evolution of Darwin’s Finches in the Galapagos (the work was beautifully described in The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner – a terrific book).

Here is their key finding. When times are good, there is wide variation in the beaks of the finches. However, the Galapagos are subject to the El Niño/La Niña weather cycles, which means that they have frequent droughts. In times of drought, the finch populations dive. In the case of the Large Ground Finch, the individuals that survive these events have the biggest beaks. Why? Because the bigger beaks enable them to crack larger seeds, which would be ignored as too hard to crack when there are plenty of seeds around.

In other words, it is precisely the strongest of the species that survives.

The fake Darwin quote is completely wrong with regard to which individuals survive. But it might tell us something about which species survive. The reason that Large Ground Finches have been around for as long as they have is that there is enough variation in the species that whenever conditions are extreme, some individuals in the population will be able to adapt to the change.

If we apply this to innovation, you might think of it this way: products are like individuals and organisations are like species. To do well, products need to be the best at getting some job done for some group of customers.

However, for an organization to do well over time, it needs to be adaptable. This means that unless its environment is unusually stable, it needs to generate variety. Even though economic evolution is directed by the choices that people make, we still don’t have much control over which ideas work and which don’t. Or over which take off, and which never really click.

To maintain variety, to improve responsiveness to change, we must experiment.

Why have these two quotes become so widespread? It’s not the internet – both incorrect attributions were made in books. Both quotes are catchy and short, and they capture ideas that seem like they reflect what Ford and Darwin thought. Even though the Darwin quote is not very Darwinian, it reflects a very common misinterpretation.

The catchiness is one thing, but also, we like to argue from authority. If we don’t want to run focus groups, it’s easier to get Henry Ford to make the argument than it is for us to do it ourselves.

I wanted to think through these quotes for a couple of reasons. One is that they do offer some useful lessons. The second is that we need to figure out how to make compelling arguments ourselves. This is the key to getting our own ideas to spread – not by arguing from authority.

(The superb Large Ground Finch photo is from flickr/Steven Bedard under a Creative Commons License)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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15 thoughts on “Two Great Innovation Misquotes

  1. No, it was not the “strongest” finches that survived. They did not engage in physical contests to the death. The finches which survived were those which had changed and adapted to meet the physical conditions. In this case, those whose beaks were big enough and hard enough to break the seeds open. You have misinterpreted this as “strongest” because it suits your ideological stance.

    Darwin’s theory of evolution is accurately summarized by that quotation, regardless of whether he said those precise words.

  2. “In other words, it is precisely the strongest of the species that survives.” You have misinterpreted the data. The most adaptable of the species survives, with the adaptation of having the ability to access difficult food sources.

    Interesting how you were able to deconstruct the fake Ford quote so much better then the fake Darwin quote.

  3. Hi Suzanne and Frank – thanks for stopping by and thanks for your comments. In this particular case, I disagree with your contentions that I’m misinterpreting the evidence. There was a huge population crash – roughly 90% died between field visits by the Grants’ team. The finches that survived were in fact the strongest – they required strength crack open the only remaining food.

    I agree that this doesn’t generalise to all cases of natural selection. It is often the quickest, or the sneakiest, or the smartest that survive in changed environments. I handled that part poorly.

    However, the important point is that individuals don’t adapt to survive – that’s Lamarckian evoluation, not Darwinian. It is the variety within the species that enabled those stronger individuals to stick around, even though as the Grants document, they were at a slight disadvantage during good times. Here is a quote from The Origin of Species:

    ” ‘… if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterized will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterized. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.”

    It’s the variations that lead to survival and then change in the phenotype of the species. Beyond that, Darwin didn’t say much about adaptations – he worked very hard to avoid anything that looked Lamarckian since that view was very out of favour in the mid-19th century. Rebecca Stott’s book Darwin’s Ghosts has a wonderful account of pre-Darwin evolutionists, including Lamarck, and is well worth reading on the topic.

    The adaptationist debates are more of a modern synthesis issue. See, for example, The Spandrels of San Marco by Stephen Jay Gould & Richard Lewontin:

    http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/205/1161/581.full.pdf+html

    and this recent reply to it:

    http://oikosjournal.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/why-the-spandrels-of-san-marco-isnt-a-good-paper/