Comparing Apples and Oranges – Why Politics Should Learn from Henry Ford and Steve Jobs

September 9, 2014 — Leave a comment

In 2007 Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness walked down the steps of the Great Hall at Stormont  in Northern Ireland and a new era in devolved government was born.  It was a remarkable day.  I was there, hosting live coverage from the BBC’s bunker studio in the basement.  It was a partnership I would never have imagined.  In my childhood, growing up in 1970s Belfast, such a scenario was beyond imagination.

That same year, 2007, Steve Jobs launched the iPhone.  Being a bit of a tech addict I made sure I got one as soon as I could.  That was a remarkable day too.  This was undoubtedly the most futuristic product I had ever experienced.  My childhood fantasies of jet-packs had met the diesel-fumed reality of bus lanes, but with the iPhone I was holding a genuine piece of the future.

2007 springs to mind again today as Stormont sits once again on the brink of collapse

and Apple unveils its latest gadets

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: in the seven years it took Apple to revolutionize the way we live and in the process amass more cash at times than the US government; Stormont’s most memorable achievement has been a 5p tax on plastic bags.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare a huge, global, private corporation with a small, regional, public administration.  It’s not comparing apples with oranges (excuse the pun), I suppose.

But what if Stormont was run like Apple?  What sort of government would we have?  Much the same, perhaps, serving the apparent consumer demand for sectarian stalemate?

Or maybe not.  Nobody ever told Steve Jobs to build them an iPod, or an iPhone.  How could they?  They didn’t exist.

As he said himself: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Henry Ford put it somewhat pithier a century ago: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Innovation that makes a real difference – in business or politics – requires the kind of leadership and insight that gives people what they want before they know how to ask.  Modern politics, across the globe, has largely forgotten that.

Northern Ireland politics tried such a strategy, along with Steve Jobs back in 2007 – don’t ask people what they want, design something new you think they’ll like and sell it to them. Apple has stuck with that strategy, but the Northern Ireland parties got scared and went running to their narrow-minded focus groups.  I’m not sure what question they asked because we haven’t  got faster horses, but at least we’ve got expensive plastic bags.




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