Are Faster Horses Our Future?

When I sat down to write this post, it was going in a whole different direction. Given the hot topics of innovation and the future of the legal industry, I was thinking I might add to the growing discussions around the recommendations of the CBA Futures Report (see here, here and here).

Then, about half way down the social media rabbit hole I was following as part of my “blog research”, I came across this interview (thanks @karenskinner) with Alex Novarese, editor-in-Chief of Legal Business, discussing the future of the legal industry in the UK. In the interview Mr. Novarese makes the following observation about the relationship between clients and innovation, I quote:

There is a cliché that clients drive change: it’s often not true. Innovation in many industries often comes from the suppliers. There’s a famous quote Henry Ford was reputed to have said along the lines of: ‘If I just sat around asking what the customers wanted, I’d have invented a faster horse.’

This got me thinking about whether or not Mr. Novarese is right. And, more disturbingly, if the recent reports on access to justice by the CBA and the Action Committee on Access to Civil Justice and Family Matters – both of which suggest putting the public first and involving those who use the system in the reform process – are wrong.

Do people really not know what they want and need? By focusing on user experience are destined to simply get faster horses?

I’m happy to say I respectfully disagree with Mr. Novarese, as do plenty of designers, innovators and researchers who see real value in including users in the innovation design process. In fact, user experience and increased collaboration is seen as particularly important in public sector innovation (see for example, here & here)

That said, working with others on complex justice problems is hard. So hard, in fact, that the HiiL, a première justice innovation lab located in the Hague, has identified developing guidelines for inclusive participation in justice innovation as a challenge for regulatory bodies. Nonetheless, many, like those in BC experimenting with an inclusive family justice social lab and those working to establish local access to justice committees, are already trying.

As those of us working in the justice sector continue to deepen our commitment to collaborative work we need to develop better strategies for working together productively in multi-disciplinary stakeholder groups. “Consulting” with others, is not enough. Users and “non-legal” stakeholders have important skills and experiences we need to draw on. To solve a complex social problem like access to justice, we need to learn to work closely with others who may not share our views, our experiences and maybe even the same perception of the access to justice problem (and solution) that we do.

Luckily there are plenty of resources out there that can help. Many of them are being developed in the social innovation field (from which we can learn a lot). Below are a few randomly selected resources that we’ve begun to adapt, develop, “think on” and practice at the Winkler Institute for Dispute Resolution and the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice in our A2J projects and research.

  • HDC Connect offers a number of great resources for innovators wanting to strategically engage with and include multiple communities in the innovation process. Among the many great resources it offers, the website provides a (free) online toolkit containing recourses to help innovators recruit the right participants, build empathy skills in multi-stakeholder settings, and engage in community driven discovery processes. The methods toolkit is based on a human centered design model that – you guessed it – puts people at the center of the process.
  • Similarly, NESTA a UK innovation hub offers a wide range of practical tools, such as “value mapping” exercises that can be used to help multi-stakeholder groups clarify their goals and develop shared values that can assist groups (whether loosely formed, permanent, or project based) in retaining their focus, working productively as a team, being more creative, and better engaging outside stakeholders.
  • For those more interested in inclusive law and technology design, the youtube channel UXrevu offers a few short videos that demonstrate how user experience can aid the design process. Although they no longer appear to be actively posting videos – the few available will at least make you stop to consider how useful user experience can be when designing new online justice innovations.
  • Finally, the social innovation lab model (which will be familiar to slaw readers thanks to Kari Boyle’s posts, here & here), developed by Adam Khane and the Reos group offers several insights into how to improve our ability to work together on difficult social problems. My own personal favorite challenge put forward by Khane in his book Solving Tough Problems, is to avoid “talking politely”. Too often when working in groups that include participants from beyond our own professional network, we defer to speaking politely in the hopes of minimizing conflict, out of fear of political reprisal, etc. However, to work collaboratively – with users, colleagues and other stakeholders – we need to be able to talk honestly about how we understand the problem and the solution.

Much of the innovation work we need to do in the justice sector will depend on creating the rights conditions for innovation. This starts with bringing together the right groups people to work on the right problems. It will also involve building trust among groups that have not previously been invited into the process. Bottom line: if we don’t create a space where users (and others) feel safe suggesting a car, then we will, indeed, end up with more horses.

— Nicole Aylwin


  1. “There are those who look at things the way they are and ask why … I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” (Robert Kennedy) You’re correct in surmising that user or customer/client input is important. I would suggest that Henry Ford did listen to his customers but applied not only his skill but “imagination” to meet their needs. In other words, they said they wanted a faster mode of transportation and that’s what he provided — more horse power. He didn’t do what others would have done, he chose to be exceptional therein lies the difference.

  2. Some great points. At the CBA Legal Futures Initiative we also often cited that quote attributed to Mr. Ford. I wonder if the way this played out was if his customers had said “faster horse”, he heard “faster”, and from there focused on their needs and expectations, letting his imagination take over when it came to the means of meeting those needs and expectations. To be valued and to properly play our role, the legal system, including lawyers, needs to engage with our clients in ways that resonate with them. I think they would be happier with a faster legal system, but perhaps happier still with a legal system that was transformed like travel was with the invention of the car. Creating the conditions for the required innovation is key.

  3. This article offers some very useful insights and resources about working with diverse people in complex situations. It will be good to have it as a quick reference to them.

    Though catchy, I don’t think the Henry Ford quote holds up to very much scrutiny. For one thing, he didn’t invent the automobile; he invented, or certainly used effectively, production-line manufacturing that let him reduce the costs of a car and make it accessible. That was not a new product.

    One could look at Steve Jobs – there was no particular demand for a tablet computer when he decided the world would want one if he produced it. (Older models of tablets had not done well.) Ditto phones with computer features for consumers. Jobs could ignore what the customers wanted until they saw what he was offering. Their lives were fine with out it, even if they became better (by some meaures) with it.

    But the access to justice problem is much different. Human beings are inextricable and non-ignorable, because justice is a measure of how people get along in society, and people are inevitably and constantly mixing in society and getting along more or less well.

    They may or may not understand their problems as justice-system problems, and the solutions may or may not best focus on the justice system. (A bee in my bonnet is that access to justice is not just access to dispute resolution; it is access to better social ordering, and indeed effective law reform may not be what the people know they want.)

    But people who work on A2J can’t ignore that it will affect people’s lives and people care about their lives (in a way that they did not care about Model Ts or iPads before they saw them, or even afterwards) and are involved in them in a way that does not permit outsides to tinker effectively in their absence.

    The ‘customers’ of A2J may not be able to give a systemic description of what they want, and what they say they want may not be the best solution to their actual problems, but a would-be improver who decides to invent something in his/her/its social laboratory will have problems marketing the solution later.

    So: nice way to lead us to read the article – ‘what could he be talking about?’ – and a good article once we’re into it, but Messrs Ford and Jobs had a very different challenge from those of us who care about access to justice.

  4. The people know they want a justice system that doesn’t send them into bankruptcy should they require its use. Most want a justice system that is truly just and not manipulated for political interests and “big” money. Justice is symbolized by a woman blinded (supposedly to bias) and holding a balanced scale. Is it not up to those who possess the skills and the know-how to “create” or reform the system to adhere to the qualities that justice represents? Or, are we the public to be told that we don’t know and understand what we want so hold tight until those who have the expertise can tell us what is good for us and what we need? Ford didn’t create the automobile nor the assembly line but he understood what the public wanted whether or not it was clearly articulated. On the other hand Jobs understood how to create a cult following and understood enough about his customers to persuade them that he could give them the next big thing — if that’s the route a2j is going to take I don’t think the public is going to take kindly to false promises that doesn’t deliver what they always knew they may have wanted but wasn’t adhered to nor understood.