We are all familiar with the idea that a short time to market is one of the keys to profitability. I own at least five books on fast product development, and there are common themes: tight integration of design, engineering, marketing, and manufacturing; clear communications in a flat structure; and of course, good direction. To pull that off, there are some prerequisites that are outside the control of the development team. Once a project is approved in most organizations it moves into a feasibility phase, with limited budget and people and goals. If the feasibility results look good, then the project is given additional food, water, and light in hopes it will grow up into a huge profitable product. Usually there are executive reviews of progress, based on the project phases and the budget cycle in some variation of stage-gate. Note that the project becomes a process as soon as it is approved, and that process takes over with increasing power as the project progresses. Design controls, verification protocols, risk analysis, building a technical file, UL certifications…and the list goes on. Often, the process takes over and the goals can be lost along the way. So before considering the product design process as a process, we need to look at the process as a tool to achieve a strategic goal. By the time product development starts there should already be a clear definition, and executive commitments must be made unambiguous. Product design is an activity whose results strongly depend on team culture, another executive responsibility. And only the executives can delegate the required authority to align with the project team’s responsibilities. And that executive responsibility is the key driver of project success.

My experience as a consultant has been that much of the time, when a project is “stuck” in some fashion, the fault lies not with the team, or the process, but with the way that executives are working with the team. If the product team reports on a lot of dotted lines to multiple C-suite or V-level executives, then there’s no sense in the team that they have authority to make decisions.

Usually this happens because the goals aren’t defined and agreed at the executive level. If you want to get the best results from a product team, with minimum delays, make sure that the project manager has authority based on clear strategy and defined goals.