Innovation leadership is difficult. Leaders are expected to deliver growth, fueled by new product successes. Leaders feel pressure from above, from below, and from the side.
From above, the C-suite, the board of directors and stockholders have high expectations. These stakeholders demand growth now, next quarter, next year, and in perpetuity. When the innovation leadership beat expectations with a great new product, they barely are afforded a moment of appreciation. And in fact, they’ve just set the bar higher to meet for next time.
From below, leaders must cope with the challenges of product management and engineers to deliver results. Their product managers push for more time to better understand customer needs. The engineers likewise request more time to resolve technical problems.
From the side, peers in other functions such as supply management, finance or HR, will count upon new product performance from the innovation leadership. After all, leadership bonuses are based on financial results. Everyone is counting on successful new products. And if not delivered, frustration mounts.
Therefore, it’s no wonder that innovation leadership struggles to meet expectations. Unfortunately, perhaps in part due to this pressure, leaders often commit the greatest of all new product development sins. This mistake sabotages new product success while also destroying product team morale. This error, born of desperation and arrogance, is the sin of dictating product decisions to development teams.
It’s easy to understand the temptation to provide a bit too much help. After all, many leaders were once engineers. They may recall with fondness, how they used to make product development decisions.
Teresa Torres, in her book, “Continuous Discovery Habits,” described the reason why she left a lucrative product manager position with a high-flying venture-backed start-up. Torres explains that she left because:
“…I was tired of the day-to-day reality of evangelizing product management at yet another founder-led start-up. I was tired of sitting in conference rooms arguing with executives about our product strategy when I was the only one who had spent time with our customers.”
Ms. Torres’s quote reminded me of a couple of instances when I was working for John Deere. Once, a director assembled all the product managers in a room to help us to understand his role and ours. He said, “You guys are like the little kids in the backseat of the car with the pretend steering wheel. You think you’re driving the car, but actually, we are.” This was an insanely ignorant remark. The product managers spent all their days with customers, conducting and analyzing research. And afterward, working with engineering to develop new products. In fact, product managers (good ones, at least) had more influence over product strategy than any other role. In the end, product success was driven by how well customers prefer those products over their alternatives.
So, what happens when the innovation leadership provides a bit too much help? Chaos.
The sequence of events begins when a leader becomes obsessed with a product idea. They push teams to pursue it. Deere tried an ill-fated attempt at ATVs that was driven all the way from a division president. Further, in the early 2000s, when zero-turn radius mowers were exploding in popularity, executives – on their own – decided that customers didn’t really want the popular new ZTR mowers, and instead would rather have a lawn tractor-styled machine that could turn like a ZTR. As a result, launched a ZTR/lawn tractor hybrid called the “SpinSteer” It was a colossal failure of innovation leadership.
As product manager for Deere’s compact utility tractors, I received more executive “help” when a group of leaders insisted that a tractor project of mine should feature a gas-powered engine rather than the typical diesel engine. However, I had conducted a lot of market research and knew the pulse of the market’s needs. I knew that the gas-powered tractor was going to be a massive failure. Under immense pressure to consent to this decision, I continually pointed the executives back to the customer insight research. Unmoved, they kindly offered to fund more research. And so, we did more research. And yet more research. They were hoping that the more they studied this question, that perhaps just once they might finally receive the answer they wanted. But the opposite happened. “No”, customers did not want gas engines in their tractors.
With the data on my side, amongst significant pressure, I declined to add the option. As a result, I was berated in many meetings openly and I certainly didn’t help my personal goodwill with these influential folks for career advancement. In those situations, you can only do what you think is best for the company and hope that it works out for you personally as well. In the end, the tractor launched with a diesel engine, and the project would ultimately enjoy great success. However, the “help” from innovation leadership did not contribute to this success, certainly not in the engine selection.
There would have been initial waste in the form of engineering development. Further, there would be losses to the schedule as the larger scoped project would take more time to complete. And yet more losses would materialize in the form of dead inventory. The gas option would have been eventually discontinued. But that’s still not the end of the story. The base diesel tractor would have additional costs due to the design change to make it modular to accept two engines. And as of the time of this writing, those additional costs would have burdened that program for the past 11 years over units numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
In summary, it’s a major failure of innovation leadership when executives dictate product decisions and strategy.
To better understand, let’s think about a product team as a professional basketball team. Bad innovation leaders imagine that they’re the coach. Calling the plays and running the team. But they are more like the owner of the team. Their job is to hire the right people and then let them do their job. It’s certainly acceptable to have an opinion and to express it. However, it’s imperative that innovation leaders be mindful of the power differential.
When pressuring teams and product managers to make a particular decision, a leader puts these folks in a difficult place. The American economist Thomas Sowell said, “When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.” With sufficient pressure, many product managers will make the rational decision to just go along with it out of fear of pushing back.
Again, it’s obviously no problem for an innovation leader to express an opinion, to push for logic, and to ask questions. They should do all these things. But if the product manager has done their job well, they will be the most knowledgeable about the customer, competition, and the market. They should lead the product decisions.
For more insights about innovation leadership, click here to view AIM’s Organic Growth Series, a series of 50 innovation lessons for leaders.