FRANK TALK ABOUT WHAT WE DO WITH OUR LIVES

Improper Etiquette

In Essays on February 1, 2011 at 8:49 am

By Michael T. Heath

I’d been working in the company test garden all morning—checking on water lines; picking stray potato beetles by hand. In one corner stood the latest composters under development. I liked the rain-catching pyramid, but alongside that one sat a barrel-shaped tumbler on a slippery base. This one just begged to be turned each time I passed, and I obliged it, rolling the food scraps and garden trimmings yet again. My invention had been the foot ‘steps’ which allowed no-hands compost turning. I’d also helped design the rain-catching lid on the square one (patents for both were in the works). A little further in the garden I looked over our tomato crop, ripening nicely. A hinged trellis around each plant was another of our new products, made to slide over the tops of full-grown plants. I stopped to run my hand along the red, vinyl-coated surface of the sturdy tomato holder. These should sell well, I thought. They’ll stand out in a marketplace full of cheap green ring supports that weren’t designed to fit over big plants. My eyes moved down the row and settled on a rusting spike marked off in inches. It stood 30 inches tall (as measured by the gradients), and told the owner how much snow had accumulated. The snow stake had a fatal flaw as a product, in my eyes. It was topped by a sunburst pattern, complete with individual rays poking up from the top of the stake. The sample I had put out had already begun rusting in just a few weeks. But I could imagine a worse outcome—one which exposed the company to real liability. Since I was charged with discovering just such problems during product testing, I was determined to torpedo the snow stake before it made it into the gardening catalog my company put out.

Just before noon, the managers assembled in the conference room. A few of them carried mock-ups of the upcoming catalog in black-and-white, while others had folders bulging with color pictures of past hot sellers and the pet favorites they were hopeful to place. There was a general anarchy of voices and shuffling as folks acquired seats and valuable table space to spread out their materials. Barely noticed, I wheeled in a cloth-shrouded cart and parked near the door. In my left hand was a generous pumpkin about the size of a large basketball. A few of the managers took note that I was in the meeting and nodded towards me. The meeting was quickly called to order by the company president. He handed moderating duties off to the marketing director who was readying the next catalog. She thanked everyone for coming to the meeting and told them I would be giving a brief presentation before they got underway. I nervously wheeled my funky cart out from the wall for all to see. It stood approximately four feet tall with a white sheet draped over something pointy in the middle. I began by saying that I had been asked to test a new product idea and that I felt it was one of the most dangerous things to come along since I’d started. At this point I raised the ripe pumpkin above my head. “Imagine you’re walking along in your backyard. It’s winter, and there has been a lot of snow. You stumble on some tool left out in the yard…” I smashed the pumpkin down on top of the cloth-covered spike in the wagon, getting it to penetrate completely through the gourd. I then pulled back the cloth to reveal the rusty snow stake, neatly impaling my fresh pumpkin. I looked around the room to see more than a few startled faces. Only one showed annoyance: my boss, head of product testing and close to the marketing director. It seemed that my show and tell time was up, so I gathered up the pumpkin parts and my death spike and beat it out of there. The smashed veggie went into the composter. The snow stake returned to its spot in the test garden and immediately continued rusting. Throughout the day, I carried the feeling that I had done a good thing in the meeting.

The next morning I was summoned into the office. A stern boss asked me why I had felt it necessary to intrude on the manager’s meeting with my demonstration. Normally I’d submit a report to marketing, who’d make a final decision on what we sold. I tried to explain that I had done the report but was concerned that this item was super-dangerous, and wanted to make sure the people who had the authority to choose didn’t choose this one. “Well, they have decided to carry the snow stake anyway. It sold well in our competitor’s last winter catalog.” That was the beginning of the end, for me. Within the year I was out. My numerous product inventions live on, printed quarterly and mailed to every state.

Photo provided by Michael T. Heath.

  1. Not confidence building. Definitely not confidence building. Makes for a good story though, thanks!

  2. I loved your description of the test garden; you put me right in with the veggies and the tomato cages and I felt myself walking amongst the rows looking, touching and evaluating-I love that! I also wanted to know more about the things you invented after testing various products. You gave me a bit of a teaser about it, but never went into detail.

    But it’s my opinion that the the essay is about the conflict between your testing ethics and the company marketing/management. If this is the case, then I feel the story would have been stronger if you had focused more on the tension and undercurrent between you and the sales teams and the disparity between your goals of finding good products and theirs of making a profit for the company.

    • Thank you for your insights. I agree with your conclusions – and have thought about making this into a longer story with greater detail about the very things you mentioned. I’m not done kicking them in the shins yet.

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