How Should Product Teams Engage Senior Management?

New product development is the lifeblood of your organization and all levels of management are involved in some manner in the process. Although most of the work of developing products is accomplished at the team level, it is the management that establishes the environment in which the team operates and writes the rules of engagement that govern its activities. We have found several behaviors that help product teams and senior managers mutually engage in a way that enhances product development performance. When they come from the mouths of top executives, small comments can have a large impact. Top management’s words and actions have an enormous impact on the day-to-day activities and focus of the team – and they become even more important when companies wish to break old habits and drive improvement. The smallest question, the most seemingly off-hand comment can cause a great deal of churn at the team level. This collective spin-cycle can lead to delays and unproductive changes in the team’s direction.

Because executives tend to be extremely busy, communication between senior management and the team is usually quite limited. This means that it takes a long time for the team to clarify senior management’s requests or directives. Communication is so constrained that a misunderstanding at the team level can mean weeks of blind alleys or wasted efforts with little or no course correction. When managers meddle there’s a high likelihood of unintended consequences.

If the team sees room for improvement in product development and if it sees that senior management is part of the problem rather than a part of the solution, then it must issue a call to action. Team leaders and members need to have the courage to face senior managers and in an objective, neutral way present their evidence. The team needs to demonstrate a gap between its performance and the competitions’ and it must also explain why the gap exists.

Often the existence of a performance gap is clear enough. The levers that drive performance are often much less clear. The team and management must come to an agreement regarding the key drivers of success. The senior management also needs to understand that if they wish to have better product development performance then they need to be a part of that journey. The improvements aren’t made solely at the team level. Senior management also needs to be involved.

The executive team also needs to understand their role in the product development process itself and how they can support it. Management’s goals are best served when team leaders have responsibility and accountability for the team’s activities. This means senior management must let go of the tendency to micro-manage and trust and empower teams to be successful. Senior management also plays a key role in resourcing teams and prioritizing projects that are assigned to them.

Top management also needs to understand the specifics of the change they wish to foster in their organization. The changes required are often subtle and delicate. In most cases, the bull in a china shop approach will not work. Senior managers need to use the right words and reinforce the right behaviors, based on their knowledge of the specifics that apply to the change they wish to make. Absent knowledge of the specifics, managers can undermine, impede, or even derail change efforts.

A senior management staff that follows the guidelines above will enjoy a range of benefits that ripple throughout the enterprise including:

  • Less time spent in firefighting – far less wasted time and effort caused by poor communication
  • Significant improvements in productivity – Return on Work will increase since the teams know that they have the support of senior management and that they are trusted and empowered to deliver
  • Greater customer satisfaction – no need to explain to customers why products are late or do not have the right features

The most important thing for senior managers to realize is that everything they say and do becomes magnified by the time it filters down to the team level. If top managers are cognizant of this fact, then they can begin to implement the recommendations above. The primary benefits will return to the senior managers and the entire organization – and in relatively short order.