Can the Pressure to Innovate Warp Time?

By: Jackson Hogen

Published: September 4, 2018

Reflections on the Product Lifecycle

I recently had occasion to re-enter every one of the 240 ski reviews I penned prior to the 2015/16 ski season, in order to clean up the review archives maintained in Realskiers’ members’ site. It surprised me how ancient the model names seemed, as though the skis on the list were from an era as bygone as crinoline gowns and spats.

Trying to rationalize the sensation of premature aging, I immediately theorized that the past is indeed receding at an ever-accelerating pace. My mind drifted to Max Planck, and what the founder of quantum mechanics must of have thought when he realized that the unimaginably distant stars were in fact moving ever farther away. I conjured memories of Alvin Toffler, who with wife Heidi in 1970 introduced the world to the idea of Future Shock. Today, the notion that the future is RIGHT ON TOP OF US seems so engrained in the way we consume and discard information its veracity no longer merits discussion, while the corollary concept that the past is receding ever faster isn’t, to dip into today’s patois, trending.

Three years isn’t much of a life span, but the torrid pace of model turnover in the recent past has resulted in a nearly complete changing of the guard. There are only a handful of models in any major brand’s 2019 catalog that haven’t undergone at least one renovation since 2016. Among those who passed on shortly after their 2016 tour of duty include some with devoted followers, such as Atomic’s versatile Nomad Crimson Ti, Fischer’s carvilicious Progressor series, Nordica’s bullet train Fire Arrow 84 EVO EDT and SkiLogik’s entire line, including its sublime flagship, Ullr’s Chariot TT.

A model can assume many identities in the course of its lifecycle. Above, several generations of the Volkl Mantra, minus its current incarnation, the M5.

Technologies that are cornerstones of current lines are only a glimmer in some product manager’s eye in 2016. Head had yet to apply Graphene to its men’s collection and its All-Mountain and Big Mountain models toiled in obscurity; in 2019, Head’s Kore 93 is likely to make everyone’s short list for Ski of the Year. Three years ago, Rossi hadn’t applied its Carbon Alloy Matrix to its main models; now it’s a standard feature. The Women Specific Design that would make Blizzard’s Black Pearl the best selling ski in America was still on a draftsman’s desk. Nordica’s Enforcer didn’t need “100” after its name because all of its namesake offspring were still in an embryonic stage.

As you’re reading this, the 2018/19 selling season has been officially inaugurated by a slew of nationwide Labor Day sales. Ski salesmen have been briefed on the official story line that they’ll soon regurgitate in sales clinics. Gearheads are parsing the details divulged in umpteen buyer’s guides, sifting through the shopworn adjectives in search of a single nugget that will illuminate their search for the ideal ski.

While the multifarious factions that compose the ski market are busy digesting the present, the product managers charged with making the skis being so avidly dissected have already turned their attention elsewhere. For them, 2020 isn’t the future, it’s now, today; in fact, they’ll all be submitting a detailed forecast for 19/20 this month, and it won’t have been the first. The clever ones have already vetted their direction for 20/21 with a circle of confidantes who have served this role for years, if not decades.

The theory of relativity won’t work unless time is a variable. This observation could serve as the product manager’s credo. Today isn’t today; it’s tomorrow, or tomorrow’s tomorrow. (The French have a word for this, le lendemain, which I love.) If someone asks the product manager about an issue being contended in the present, as in now, it takes a shift in time consciousness to realize the question is about today. The product manager feels a jolt of deceleration as he abruptly rejoins the present.

In case you imagine I’m either way over- or way under-medicated, please understand that I was a product manager at Salomon North America when we made five-year plans. The planning cycle never really ended, but its ability to warp time would run hottest in the fall. The product manager struggles furiously to analyze the past, down to the last detail, hopes the reps in the field remember the story recently incanted (and don’t derail The Grand Strategy), all the while squinting into the future, line by line, model by model, pretending he or she has a clue what will happen next month, let alone two year’s from now. Like snowboarding, perhaps. (Didn’t see that one coming.)

Here’s why the pace of model turnover ought to be of interest to the avid skier: real innovation takes time to industrialize. Given only 18 months or so to “innovate,” suppliers can only hope to tweak an existing technology. Of course some of the models introduced in recent seasons are indeed the product of a longer development cycle, and there’s no harm in trying to genuinely improve a ski throughout its lifecycle, which is the rationale for most product renewals. But the savvy consumer should realize that there are different levels of “new.”

As skiers, we tend to forget that the debut of every new ski means the extinction of somebody’s beloved old one, as it reaches an expiration date set long ago. Our present is in the product manager’s distant past, our future foretold in his or her yesterday.

The point of this Revelation, Dear Readers, is that time isn’t the inflexible tyrant we were told it was, is, and ever shall be, but a mutable entity that can be shrunk or expanded. Time’s course may be intractable, but how we play it is up to us.

The mutability of time is a challenge to illustrate; perhaps it helps if one imagines the fabric of time as a funnel instead of a line. [Photo from Stephanie Hogen’s Lightmosphere series.]

Have a great ski season. Let the dance continue and the ravages of time be damned.

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