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3 Ways CEOs Can Influence Product Development Success

It’s far too easy for CEOs to derail the product development process. Make sure you’re using your influence to set your team and company up for success. 

Lauren West
Lauren West

November 11 th 2021 | 5 Minute Read

If you’re a CEO or another executive leader, it’s probably rare for you to receive honest feedback from your team regarding your own performance. You may not even be aware of the impact you have on each step of the product development process. What’s more, you might not know what your people actually need from you to increase their odds of achieving product success. 

What you say and how you say it carries enormous weight. You can propel your design team forward or derail and delay progress. In the worst case, you can disrupt innovation (not in a good way).  

The good news is we’re here to tell you what you need to hear. We’ve worked with many executive leaders and their teams and know exactly what leads to positive outcomes. We’ve also seen firsthand what throws a wrench in a program’s best-laid plans. So take it from us — positively influencing the product development process begins with a moment of self-reflection and these 3 essential behaviors. 

1. Provide the Strategic Vision and Goals for the Product at the Onset

If you want your new product to deliver the outcomes you expect, you need to tell your team exactly what those goals are. 

As a leader, you possess big picture information about your business that the rest of your team simply doesn’t have. You have a strategic vision for where your company is headed. You understand exactly how your new product fits into those overarching plans. You’re also well aware of your product portfolio’s profits and losses.  

Don’t keep all that knowledge to yourself. Share it with the product development team so they know how their work impacts specific business objectives. 

Early on in the process, make time to: 

  • Explain your product’s business objectives. Tell your team how the new product fits into your existing product portfolio. Are you iterating on an older design? Filling a newly identified gap in the market? Launching something that has the potential to transform your business? Define your goals and present a holistic vision to help your team understand the strategy around where you’re headed. 
  • Communicate performance targets. Be clear about the desired development timeline, ideal product launch dates, and budgetary limitations. Inform the team about the success drivers for the design project. Let the team know which KPIs matter most and which ones are more flexible. For example, maybe your primary goal is to beat a competitor to market. You’re not interested in bells and whistles, you just need a product that meets minimum viability requirements. Tell your team exactly what you’re looking for so they don’t waste valuable time going down the wrong road. 
  • Establish your progress report expectations. Rather than ambush your team whenever it crosses your mind — which might cause undue stress for everyone involved — ask for progress reports at pre-established, predictable intervals. This could be at phase gates or project milestones. For the inevitable disruption to the perfect project plan, such as major supply chain delays, it’s also wise to set triggers for when irregular communication is needed. Establishing guidelines around communication allows your team to focus on its tasks, provides clear deadlines to show progress, and prevents misreporting caused by sharing incomplete information. 

When your team is crystal clear on your vision and expectations, they’ll be fully equipped to deliver the result you’re after. They’ll be more confident in their direction, drive quicker toward a successful solution, and ultimately feel more purposeful in their work. 

2. Take a Step Back and Give Designers Space to Innovate

Since your voice has tremendous power, be thoughtful with how you use it. It’s especially important to be mindful of this in the concept phase when designers are exploring broad and far out ideas.  

We’ve seen leaders dominate brainstorming sessions and effectively silence everyone around them in the process. Are the leader’s ideas actually best? It’s certainly possible. However, more often than not, the group generates a narrower scope of concepts because they feel unable to explore ideas that question the leader’s idea. The real innovation typically can’t begin until the leader leaves the room. 

It’s also important to remember that your personal experience doesn’t outweigh the user research your team performs on your company’s behalf. We have seen a CEO insist that the team change elements of a design based on something his 10-year-old daughter said in the car. Ignore the fact that we had talked to thousands of customers to understand their needs and preferences. That research informed the design choices we made and it was supplanted by the casual feedback of one individual. Please remember that you are not the (only) customer. 

Before you start injecting your personal preferences into the design process, ask yourself some important questions. Do you want your designers to please you or the customer? Are you empowering your team to come up with the best possible design solution? Is there a chance they’re placating you out of a mixture of fear and respect? Are you using your influence appropriately and productively?  

There are two individuals with whom a project team will never argue: 1) the customer, and 2) their CEO. Don’t put your team in the position of having to choose between the two. If you truly want an end result that will deliver the business objectives you need, sometimes your best move is to get out of the way.  

3. Give Design Feedback at the Right Moments — and in a Timely Manner

Your constructive, timely feedback can make or break the success of your product. Make it a priority to deliver your input in the right way and at the right time. 

  • Pay attention to regularly scheduled project updates and status reports. This is your opportunity to collaborate and foster transparency with your team while providing guidance on how they should course correct when necessary. It’s perfectly acceptable and reasonable to ask for justification on design choices so you understand where the team is headed. At the same time, you need to communicate any changes about overarching strategy so the team can pivot and respond appropriately. 
  • Respond promptly to requests for feedback. You’re busy. Weeks fly by and you may not even realize your team is waiting for your input on a product-related question before they proceed. If you can’t respond to feedback quickly, consider appointing a decision maker to act in your stead. If approvals simply must come from you, don’t blame your team for timeline delays when you held them up along the way. 
  • Ask questions to address your concerns rather than assuming the design is off track. Off the cuff remarks— especially when you don’t initially like or understand a design — can be frustrating and demoralizing for your team. Rather than make sweeping statements, approach your team from a stance of curiosity. Ask them to explain why they made certain decisions so you can get a clearer picture of what is going on before jumping to conclusions. You know what they say about assuming…

Keep in mind the limits of your own expertise. You may have a preference for a particular cosmetic finish or design choice, but you might not understand the far-reaching ramifications your request leads to. Instead, lean on trusted team members who have the technical expertise to fill in your knowledge gaps. 

Thoughtful Executive Leadership Empowers Superior Product Design 

Your employees want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They’re eager to contribute to your organization’s bottom line. They’re passionate about using their talents, expertise, and creativity to design products that deliver the results you expect. To do that, they need to know what you’re trying to accomplish and understand how each product fits into the larger picture. 

Tl;dr: Knowing how your role impacts the product development process is your first step toward leading effective teams and creating successful products. Lay out your vision. Share the organization’s goals and objectives. Give timely, thoughtful feedback. Step out of the way so your team can do what you hired them to do.