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The Cure for the Highway Hi-Fi Blues

The other morning I was driving to an appointment, inserting a CD into the player, and I couldn't help smiling. I was thinking about my father and his career as a mechanical design engineer for RCA. After the war, he helped design the innards of the first record players RCA mass produced.

Remember the plastic cylinder you stacked 45's onto, that slipped over the 78 spindle, and dropped records down one at a time to be played? Well, my dad holds the patent on that handy little device. Because of his ingenuity, teens all over America could dance or make out uninterrupted for a whole evening.

One of the neatest things he worked on at RCA was a record player for cars. The year was 1958. Our '57 Plymouth Fury was one of only two test cars in the whole country retro-fitted with a record player. It played 45's only and was mounted upside down beneath the dash, just over the transmission hump. You first had to push a stack of records up into place, and then the diamond-tipped arm came in from underneath to play them.

The record player was set in a terrific suspension system, allowing you to drive over railroad tracks and potholes without causing Peggy Lee to skip a beat. I remember how cool I felt as we drove through town secretly playing the Everly Brothers on a record player and not the radio. "You watch, in a few years ever car in the country will have one of these in it," my dad would tell anyone who would listen. "This is going to be big."

Chrysler Corporation, RCA's partner in the project, went on to feature the "Highway Hi-Fi" in their Plymouth and DeSoto models in 1960 and 1961. But after only two years on the market the whole concept of car record players quickly fizzled out, mostly for technical reasons.

My dad was pretty disappointed. His invention wasn't holding up to the rigors of daily use in a moving automobile. (For a brief history of car record players: <http://www.>).

So how has the market treated your genius? Have you and your design team ever worked long and hard on a project, really put your heart into it, only to have it bomb in the market place, or get buried by senior management for any number of good or bad reasons?

Here's my real question: how do you keep your own and your team's morale level and creativity from sagging when that happens? How do you keep your team from singing the Highway Hi-Fi blues or getting as cynical as Dilbert?

T., one of my coaching clients, created a fresh vision of success for her human factors software design team after several marketing disappointments. Their previous two designs were not embraced by customers due to financial considerations despite the high quality of their end product.

They were beginning to feel that they weren't making a difference. Her plan was to separate their sense of achievement from the market's response to their final designs.

She accomplished this by emphasizing her team's overall value to the company and to their industry as a whole. In other words, she shifted their paradigm for "making a difference"—based on actual facts that they weren't seeing because of their single-minded focus on the end result.

One of the things she did was to demonstrate to her team how they gave the company a high degree of credibility in the industry. Their forward thinking was gradually having an impact, and she reminded them of this fact as often as she could.

For instance, whenever one of her people went to an industry conference, she had that person give a report to the whole team on how their ideas were being slowly embraced by others. They really loved hearing that, she said.

So the skill I'm stressing here for maintaining morale in the fickle world of new product development is to broaden your team's definition of success. Shake up their paradigm.

Try to identify the actual value your team is adding, such as giving the company credibility in its industry, a reputation for innovation, being perceived as a leader of technological change within the company, etc. These perceptions alone can attract new customers and qualified new employees.

So with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, I can see how my dad's work with the primitive Highway Hi-Fi in-car audio system paved the way for my simple act of inserting a plastic disk into a CD player while driving. He helped open a technological door.

In 1965, just four years after the car record player, Ford introduced the 8-track system into their new models. You know the rest.

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