People Don’t Always Know What They Want

Malcolm Gladwell at TED. Clipped from www.ted.com

By: Bill Hennessy

Henry Ford put it best 100 years ago: “If I asked my customers what they wanted they’d have said ‘faster horses.’”

And Steve Jobs echoed the idea: “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.”

People don’t always know what they want. Malcolm Gladwell explained the phenomenon in a famous TED talk (embedded at the bottom of this post). The subject was a man named Howard Moskowitz–credited with reinventing spaghetti sauce:

Assumption number one in the food industry used to be that the way to find out what people want to eat — what will make people happy — is to ask them.

And for years and years and years and years, Ragu and Prego would have focus groups, and they would sit all you people down, and they would say, “What do you want in a spaghetti sauce? Tell us what you want in a spaghetti sauce.”

And for all those years — 20, 30 years — through all those focus group sessions,  no one ever said they wanted extra-chunky. Even though at least a third of them, deep in their hearts, actually did.  (Laughter)

People don’t know what they want! Right?  As Howard loves to say, “The mind knows not what the tongue wants.”

It’s a mystery!

And a critically important step in understanding our own desires and tastes is to realize that we cannot always explain what we want deep down.

If I asked all of you, for example, in this room, what you want in a coffee,  you know what you’d say? Every one of you would say, “I want a dark, rich, hearty roast.” It’s what people always say when you ask them what they want in a coffee. What do you like? Dark, rich, hearty roast!

What percentage of you actually like a dark, rich, hearty roast?  According to Howard, somewhere between 25 and 27 percent of you.

Most of you like milky, weak coffee.  But you will never, ever say to someone who asks you what you want that “I want a milky, weak coffee.” (Laughter)

I hear people say about incentive programs, “my people only want cash.”

What they usually mean is: “if you asked them if they’d prefer cash or something else, they’ll say cash.”

Of course, they would.

But we’re not in the business giving people what they say they want anymore than Henry Ford was in the business of breeding faster horses.

We’re in the business of performance improvement. Yes, we help people get what they want, but not the the glittery, simple, short-term thing like “cash” or “bigger Doritos bags.”

We’re helping them get the big stuff they really want but don’t know they can ask for.

Offer $250 cash now or $25,000 in increased commissions a year from now and see how many take the cash.

We don’t provide extra cash for the immediate gratification. We design programs that help people get what they really want–autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Success. Feelings of mastery and accomplishment. Pride.

We help people ignore the $250 cash temptation and earn the $25,000 commission. With little rewards all along the way.

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