Your Flagship Project is Now ObsoleteI have been a history documentary junkie for about 20 years now, and Netflix streaming is certainly doing nothing but fueling my insatiable appetite for those voiced-over visual presentations of historical information. Last weekend I discovered that Netflix has several episodes of the PBS show American Experience, so I started peeling through those and landed on one about Henry Ford. While the documentary certainly pays tribute to Ford’s genius, it also holds no punches where his weaknesses were concerned. One of his primary weaknesses was his complete and myopic devotion to the Model T.
Ford’s son Edsel, along with many others, started to warn the innovator early on that other car companies were surpassing the genius that had been the initial Model T. Part of the problem was that Ford didn’t like these updates to his idea. New colors, new kinds of upholstery, and other additions did not strike his fancy. But he also believed strongly that his Model T was the perfect car. He not only refused to hear otherwise, but he actually went so far as to humiliate people who refrained from being “yes men.” As the years went on, the Ford business began to suffer. Henry Ford finally had to admit that the Model T had become obsolete.
This scenario is one that many entrepreneurs and innovators are probably susceptible to over the course of their careers. The thrill of creating a product that is unique and that people find useful is long-lasting and it can seem hard to believe that anything will ever surpass the brilliance you happened upon with that first product. The product becomes your baby. No one can say anything bad about it, and while you might be willing to tweak a few things here and there, the thought of you ever ceasing production is squarely in the realm of impossibility.
The fact is though that in any industry, no matter what it is, the leading product also becomes the leading target. Setting the bar of achievement high just inspires other equally innovative people to jump even higher. For the customers and for the market that is a saving grace. Products continue to improve, reaching new spectacular heights that no one previously thought was remotely possible. Who would have thought, for example, that anything could ever beat those first Nintendo machines, or those first very tiny Mac computers, or those first car phones that enabled you to talk to people while you were on the road without having to find a pay phone? Yet all of those inventions now seem entirely antiquated to us. Soon our tablets and smart phones will become equally obsolete even though we can’t get enough of them now. That is what time does to industry.
How can you stave off the curse of obsolescence? The key, I believe, is to keep your company customer-centric. This can be challenging when you are infusing so much of yourself into your products. Henry Ford almost certainly felt that the Model T had become a representation of him as a person, and that clouded his judgment in the end. If you keep your eye on the customer, the demographic you initially created your product for, you will have no choice but to continually move forward because you will want to continue to create something that will benefit your customer over time. This was not true of Henry Ford. While he believed that everyone should have a car, he wanted everyone to have HIS car. He wanted people to use cars HIS way. Ultimately it became all about him and not really about the people who were buying his products.
To enjoy long-term success, do not become tied to any single product, and do not take it personally that time takes its toll on your flagship product. That is all as it should be. Rather, take the challenge of continuing to serve your customer in the best way you know how. The rest will take care of itself.
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