Playing Mum to my Product Family

I spend my days shifting wildly between shouting at board directors for not following the advice I’ve given them (and wondering why they are in the s**t again) and shouting at my children for not using the toilet paper correctly (and wondering why they are in the s**t again). In these roles I find myself constantly drawing parallels between being a businesswoman and a parent.

Recently I’ve been looking for inspiration to develop MadAbout’s services more effectively. My hubby keeps bugging me to go and watch the new Steve Jobs movie; but frankly I’m getting more than a little tired with the name ‘Jobs’ being associated with running a business well. I’ve looked into his leadership a bit. His style was not the stuff of university textbooks – he wasn’t known for a consultative or consensus building approach. How then was he able to be a significant part of such an innovative and creative product family for Apple?

Maybe part of the reason why I’m avoiding the crowd of Jobs fans could be as simple as jealousy. Sometimes the pedestal we put people upon is so high, the lessons we might learn and apply from them feel as out of reach as the TV remote for my youngest son. It will never be me. Jobs was one of a kind – Touched by Genius.

Except he wasn’t. We’ve seen his like before. And if you believe in the science that the key to predicting the future is in understanding the past, then we don’t have to look far beyond Apple to see a similar story. Who remembers the Sony Walkman?

For many of you reading this, Sony’s portable tape player and its spongey orange headphones will have played a part in your younger life. Personally, I never used the Rewind or Fast Forward features because Simon Mason told me on the school bus that they used up all the battery. This meant I had to listen to T-Pau’s Bridge of Spies album all the way through – even the songs I didn’t like.

The Sony Walkman story has since been reflected on and heralded as holding strong lessons for business owners aiming to manage complex product families. From 1985 to 1995, Sony held a dominant market share in the portable stereo market worth £1 billion worldwide. For over 10 years Sony maintained this position through rapid development and deployment of new products and features. During this time, many of Sony’s product design teams changed too. Teams were assembled or disbanded and managers moved through and around the business. Whereas at Apple currently, designers are given near-rockstar status; at Sony in 1985 one person’s work would be indistinguishable from the next.

In an interview in 1992, Sony’s founder Mr Akio Morita said

My personal view is that as long as MBA’s, lawyers and financial wizards are valued over engineers and product planners, society is in danger of moving in the wrong direction”.

In these words it appears that Mr Morita places the highest regard on Product Planners – the people who research and forecast what features the Sony customer is going to want and when they are going to want it. Sony would then work everything back from this plan, ensuring that patterns in manufacturing processes were recognised and systemised. Costs and time in design and production were drastically reduced, this enabled Sony to have low risk and low cost to its innovation ideas. If a product or feature failed (My First Sony – deemed by sales) it could be dropped at minimal cost and quickly replaced (Sports Walkman) using the lessons learned.

Engineers weren’t under pressure to find the ‘next big thing’. At Sony, they operated in a world where all ideas were worth listening to. The ultimate test would be whether the product or feature was bought by the customer.

For my product family then, I’d better start with my long-term plan:

  • What is MadAbout’s version of their ‘smaller and better’ mantra?
  • What are our customers going to need in the next 3-6 months and 1-3 years?
  • How will we provide innovative responses to these needs?
  • How will we create fast, low cost processes to design and development?
  • What will we look for when an idea isn’t working?

As for my own family: I’m going to stop sweating the small stuff. So what if Finlay likes to use spaghetti hoops as a face pack?

I’m going to stop worrying about doing the right thing all the time. I’m sure letting Ollie watch Power Rangers isn’t really going to do him any long-term damage.

I’m going to let them express their innovation and creativity but in a (slightly) controlled environment. They can paint whatever they like, however they like – just as long as they wear an apron and stay away from the windows!

And I just need to hope that nobody invents another solid-state portable, personal music device…..