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The One Question that will keep you ahead of the competition

The One Question that will keep you ahead of the competition

This blog is brought to you by Alan Payne. Alan is not only my brother but he is a technology and strategic Vice President with Navy Federal Credit Union. Alan specializes in combining data driven strategies with his honed qualitative business instincts. Alan is a thought leader in his industry and is a highly sought out speaker on the topics of using data to drive strategic change. Alan lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and three young children.

You can reach Alan via LinkedIn. Click here to view Alan’s profile and connect with him.

“What Business Are We In?”

Over my career, I used to get really frustrated by designers and innovation experts retelling the quote from Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

I honestly thought most of these people never really knew what it meant. Having been around strategy and business planning for 20 years I have seen this question misapplied and in situations that I felt were nowhere near the level of discussion that Henry was referring.

In the last few years I have developed a deeper appreciation for the quote and three tests that are needed to use it in context.

Test 1 – Has the World Changed?

In Henry Ford’s day, the industrial revolution was transforming the world. Manufacturing techniques, availability of materials, machines, and new designs to harness energy were an emerging pallet of paint to industrial artists allowing an evolution in creative thinking and problem solving. Henry Ford – and others tackled the same problems with the new pallets of resources.

Test 2 – Are There Better Ways to Solve the Root Problems?

The new pallet of tools and resources in the industrial revolution meant that Ford and others could re-approach solutions to problems in new ways. The issue wasn’t the squeaks in the buggy seat (product improvement), it was getting from a country home to the city in under half a day – quicker transportation. Ford didn’t breed faster horses because he saw what the root problem was and built his product to solve it.

Test 3 – Can Someone Else Do It Better Than We Can?

New materials, processes, products, and services focused on root problems. This focus on old issues with new methods and opportunities means the traditional or old way of doing things may be in jeopardy. In 1890 wagon sales dominated the personal transportation market – but what about 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930? Why didn’t the wagon and horse companies see it?

Henry Ford had a situation where all three of these tests were met and he could apply new technology made possible by a changing world in a market place where businesses where still perfecting their traditional ways (product and process improvement).

So why do I bring up the one question that could keep you in front of competition and open up unbridled growth? What if (and maybe it happened) you were at a wagon company in 1900 and said, “What business are we in?” If it were the “personal transportation business” and not the “buggy business” maybe you would have developed horseless carriages to offer your customers. However, if you answered the question, “We are in the buggy business”, then you would have been in an industry that was soon doomed to a slow death despite how much product improvement you made.

That said, almost all of my education and work experience has been around making my employer (a buggy company) better at what we do (process, product, and communication improvement). These are noble pursuits except for the fact that now many years later, the three tests are being fulfilled again in almost every industry!

Test 1. The world has now tipped again and we are in a digital world, the rules and games have and are changing (well beyond www.).

Test 2. These new digital technologies, smart machines, sensors, blockchains, cryptocurrencies, data bases, cloud, and auto code are on the new artists palette

Test 3. If you thought the .com gold rush was big…we haven’t seen anything yet. Ubber, Allibaba, Wayz, Tesla, PayPal.

The best thing entrepreneurs can do is ask “What business are we in?” and use the new resources to solve your customer’s root problems or your competition and customer’s alternatives will.

May you stay ahead of your competition and find unbridled growth by asking the question “What business are we in?”

Just look at the brands in the above image and see what the alternative will be.


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