Faster horses and customer-centered innovation

Open an insightful dialog with customers by asking what keeps them up at night.

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

The quote, although disputed, is attributed to Henry Ford and suggests talking to people about their needs is a waste of time. Similar quotes from Steve Jobs and others seem to serve as fodder for entrepreneurs looking for assurance they’re on the right path to marketplace success.

However, for every Henry Ford or Steve Jobs success story, there are myriad failures littering that path.  The challenge to build products people want is real.

So perhaps the question is not quite right.

As it was at the turn of the last century, innovation is often fueled by new technologies and processes that open the door to solving problems in new ways, and tackling problems previously viewed as intractable.

As a technology vendor, we are committed to staying current with new technologies as they navigate the “hype cycle” to maturity.  The key to serving our customers better, however, is to understand their most pressing needs and challenges.

So rather than asking “what do you want?”, which is solution-centric and expects the customer to have thought through the problem-technology fit, a better question is, “What keeps you up at night?”

It’s a broad, open-ended question by design that opens a dialogue about customers’ challenges.

To overcome our inherent biases, we want to hear directly from the source – the customer – and while interviewing them, avoid leading the witness.

The answer to this simple question will seldom result in immediate clarity, but it begins a conversation exploring their greatest pain points, and narrowing in on the root cause.

The need to understand our customers’ biggest problems is particularly true for the intrapreneurs in the CA Accelerator, our organic innovation program.

To help inform the program, we have ongoing outreach efforts open to all levels for customers to share what keeps them up at night, including an iPad giveaway contest. We’ll also have staff on-site at our annual customer conference, CA World, to learn about and discuss their problems.

In our view, only by listening to our customers and gaining an intimate understanding of their problems can we deliver beautiful solutions.


David McNierney
David is an enterprise software veteran who has held a variety of roles ranging from…

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