Model T Ford
June 27th, 2017

Courage and Tenacity in Design Can Change the World

Fun fact: Did you know that roughly 100 years ago, after Henry Ford shook the world with his Model T, both he and Thomas Edison collaborated to create a prophetic concept—the electric car?  The vehicle represented a novel vision of what efficient, affordable, gasoline-free travel could look like. So, what happened? In short, personal politics and battery limitations intervened.

Despite the fact that the “Fordson” concept boasted an efficient and effective drivetrain, competitive with the best internal combustion had to offer, Edison’s battery technology could not keep up. The electric motor’s incredible performance alone was not enough when neutered by Edison’s weak link. Rather than developing the batteries further, the electric car of the day fizzled. Gasoline became the dominant fuel source for cars in the century that followed.

Gasoline engines developed at a rapid pace, with the lion’s share of resources and passion going into their expansion. Battery technology was left by the wayside, despite the fact that an electric motor drive was already superior in capability, simplicity, efficiency, and price. The best ideas don’t always find the light of day … at least not at first.

Today’s world is still ruled by gasoline. One could hypothesize that present struggles against carbon emissions and fossil fuels would look quite different had the electric car been developed further in Henry Ford’s day. Perhaps our transportation infrastructure built atop fossil fuels, wouldn’t have us struggling to emerge from our own carbon footprint. Yet, even now, the limits of battery technology hobble many of our most innovative high-tech products.

No one could have accused Edison and Ford of having a lack of daring or foresight, so blaming them for today’s fossil fuel dependence would not be fair or accurate. However, no one can deny the ripple effect of their decision during a critical era in America’s transportation history.

So, what can we learn from this?

Perhaps to play the long game and invest in your own success. When a current technology falls short of your team’s ambitions, resist the urge to pivot away and find safe harbor in compromise. Instead, understand that a technological stumbling block could be your call to action. It’s possible that you’re looking at the very edge of untilled, fertile ground. In short, if your design is being held back by what is currently possible, you have three options: abandon the design, create and develop the technologies yourself, or find someone else who can.

While the second two options may seem like high risk / high reward propositions, stay the course. You may be more able than you think to blaze a trail for not just your organization, but for your entire industry. Roll up your sleeves and surround yourself with people and resources that push you. With a little courage and tenacity, you might just end up inventing the future and forcing everyone else to play catch-up for years to come.

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