Reflections on Monitors, Microwaves and Modern Product Management

Guest blogger and Product Camp participant Nigel Dalton takes us through dizzying highs and lows, from wisdom to whimsy and beyond with his own personal journey as Product Manager

At Melbourne P-Camp in 2011 I spoke of my fond memories of being introduced to the profession of product management at a company called Melco in NZ in the late 1980s – the kiwi branch of the Japanese giant Mitsubishi Electric. Ah the 80’s, when a 37″ television took six of us to load onto a truck, and microwave oven cost $799!

Melco NZ garnered considerable respect within the Mitsubishi Electric Group globally for their amazing market share in video players, microwave ovens and televisions, and their uncanny talents for product innovation.

The role of product manager at Melco was a well-defined and prestigious one (as it was in most large corporations in the 1980s), and the aspiration of many of us was to somehow reach those heights.

We were often told the inspirational tale of how kiwi ingenuity and the many dedicated hours spent by the product manager for microwave ovens on the shop floor of NZ retailers, just listening to customers complain they couldn’t reheat a tall pot of mince in the wide, rectangular microwaves, had led to the development of the revolutionary design of the Mitsubishi Cube Microwave*.

* A story I would dearly like to validate sometime, so I’ll save the interesting details for another post!

Computer Monitors: entering the first circle of hell

My own career took a turn towards these exalted heights when I was awarded the sideline role of Product Manager for computer monitors. I trace back to this moment in my life as being when I started to understand the challenges of simultaneous changes in technology, consumer tastes and economic conditions – and hopefully developing my zen-like calm when faced with calamity.

Where the video and microwave product managers at Melco were working in product life-cycles of years, I found myself faced with product (or more accurately ‘customer’) life-cycles of mere months.

Within 5 minutes of my new title being printed on my business card, the massive stock in hand of monochrome monitors (a miserable 320 pixels wide x 200 pixels tall, over 12 inches corner to corner – whereas your iPhone4 has 960 x 640 pixels spread over 3 1/2 inches diagonally), which had been reliably demanded as the staple solution for cloned IBM computers, suddenly became the undisputed star of the slow moving stock report (your worst enemy as a product manager).

F*CK! I didn’t even order all those monitors! How could I suddenly be responsible for this problem!!???

The cause? CGA colour monitors had suddenly become cheaper and more readily available as Korean tube technology matured (think Samsung et al). Then, just as I was getting over the Monochrome to CGA product crisis, CGA screens were superseded by EGA monitors – 640 x 350 pixels with 64 colours, a technology already 3 years old by the time I started, but so expensive consumers had resisted it.

My horror debut as a product manager was not over yet – multi-scan monitors that could do mono, CGA and EGA all in the one unit came out – and my entrepreneurial boss kindly bought us a few thousand on the spot market to keep me at the leading edge of technology.

For the curious, Wikipedia tracks all these nerdy engineering changes in its usual erudite way here.

The brand and model TVM MD-11 is actually still burned into my brain 20 years later. Ten metre high mountains of these complex and flaky multi-scan monitors filled the Lower Hutt warehouse as soon as the new 640 x 480 VGA monitors became cheap enough – a fact which warehouse manager Paul would remind me of on a daily basis, usually accompanied by a special brand of profanity reserved for people who were certifiably incompetent.

The speed of the changes and the fickle nature of the buyers confounded me.

I was just starting to wish I had never taken the ‘Product Manager (F$%&ing Monitors)’ job when VGA was superseded by SVGA, then by the time I moved on, XGA had rolled out. Computer graphic standards have barely stopped changing since.

I learned quickly that wishing the rate of product change would slow was futile, and getting ahead of what was driving customer’s demand, vital. Besides, I rationalised that the worst screw-ups weren’t my fault anyway –
I’d just inherited someone else’s problem.

Ogori cafe: a useful lesson for product managers

My formative Japanese company experience was brought back to me last year (much the same way a bad prawn revisits you) when this amazing case study from Japan was revealed on Cabel’s Blog on the web

Imagine going into a cafe, ordering your meal, then receiving something utterly unrelated to what you ordered. The mystery of what you received is solved when someone explains that you received what the person BEFORE you ordered and paid for.
The experiment was designed to observe what would happen over time as people realised this – would they continue to participate, or quickly descend to buying the smallest possible items so that they never felt ripped off personally?

The lesson for me was quite different. Getting someone else’s order would feel exactly like inheriting someone else’s product strategy!

It perfectly crystallised the situation product managers and business strategists are perpetually finding themselves in – inheriting the product or strategy that SOMEONE ELSE ordered! So often product people are promoted, have moved on to a good job in marketing, have changed focus, or even changed employer before their product strategy actually reaches the customer.

And as trends and technologies move faster, and financial crises are spread by machines across undersea cables at the speed of light, we had better figure out what each of us should do when faced with inheriting (and creating) Ogori Cafe-type products and strategy.

Just like the cafe hypothesis, will you retreat to miserably ordering the minimum quantity of innovation and investment? Or will you show largesse and potentially suffer/enjoy watching someone else consume your large order of excellent new products?

I don’t have an answer, but given that I live by the principles of Agile and systems thinking (the final great product of Japan to be mentioned in this blog, I promise), I have to think that ordering a smaller serving of good strategy each time, but following up quickly with another (and another, until you are full) is a smart way of ensuring the occasional bad prawn or TVM MD-11 monitor is not fatal to the company you work in, or your health.


Nigel Dalton writes at Luna Tractor

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