I have mixed thoughts about innovation. As much as I tell boards and organizations to be open to innovation, there are risks.

Henry Ford is famous for saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses.” There’s no evidence that he really said that, but the message is clear and was reiterated by Steve Jobs. Jobs actually did say: “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

The lesson is that innovation comes from an isolated genius; that people don’t know what they want.

But this father knows best attitude flies directly in the face of so much else we get through received wisdom: build relationships; engage the people to find out who they are, what they like, and what they want; build consensus to agree on a vision and work together to achieve it.

Are these actually in conflict?

No. Sometimes you need one. Sometimes you need the other. As Patrick Vlaskovits says in the 2011 Harvard Business Review post, Henry Ford may have innovated, but then he continued to ignore his customers. By not listening to them, he lost out on the market as others, who did listen, built an incremental market beyond Ford’s initial dominance.

Innovation isn’t only the province of the commercial market. If you see a way to radically address a problem in society, go for it. But the paternalism of Ford and Jobs isn’t going to cut it. People may not be able to ‘blue-sky’ what they want – they may still ask for faster horses – but they almost certainly can tell you how your great innovation will work in the real world.

If you want to envision a radically different world – or figure out how to react to the changes you’re already encountering – let’s talk.  You can reach me at sdetwiler@detwiler.com.