“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Success is one of the leading causes of failure. Market and customer research is a leading cause of tunnel vision.

  • When trains were first developed, the King of Prussia confidently predicted, “No one will pay good money to get from Berlin to Potsdam in one hour when he can ride his horse there in one day for free.”
  • In 1903, the president of the Michigan Savings Bank gave this market advice to Horace Rackham, Henry Ford’s lawyer, “The horse is here to stay. The automobile is only a fad, a novelty.”
  • A British Parliamentary Committee assessed whether Edison’s light bulb would ever be useful. They concluded it was “unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.”
  • Edison himself made these market assessments, “the phonograph is not of any commercial value” and “the radio craze will die out in time.”
  • In 1946, Darryl Zanuck, then head of 20th Century Fox predicted, “Video (television) won’t hold any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”
  • News item in an 1868 New York paper: “A man has been arrested in New York for attempting to extort funds from ignorant and superstitious people by exhibiting a device which he says will convey the human voice any distance over metallic wires so that it will be heard by the listener at the other end. He calls this instrument a telephone. Well-informed people know that it is impossible to transmit the human voice over wires.”
  • In 1980, a Wall Street auto analyst told a Senate committee, “General Motors, already the automotive king of the road, will become even more dominant by the mid-1980’s and will be the only auto company capable of building a full range of cars and trucks.”
  • And from some early market research on steam ships — “What, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you excuse me. I have no time to listen to such nonsense.” — Napoleon Bonaparte to engineer and inventor Robert Fulton

Management is concerned with understanding and improving what is. Disciplined management calls for rigorous market and customer research to pinpoint the performance gaps seen by our current customers and partners.

But as vital as that is, it’s just the beginning. Far too many service and quality improvement professionals, customer satisfaction specialists, and market researchers stop here. They become prisoners of the present. Like the old elephant that finally has the chain removed from his leg, they’ve become conditioned to never go beyond the radius of past experience.

Seizing the opportunities of tomorrow calls for leadership. It means taking off the blinders of what is, in order to see what could be. To lead is to look beyond prevailing products, current services, today’s competitors, and existing markets. Customer, partner, and market leadership means exploring, searching, and creating new and unique pathways that lead to our vision.