Mind the Gap: Executives and Engineers Differ Wildly in How They Perceive Their Companies
Jon Hirschtick posted on October 16, 2020 |
Executives are optimistic, while engineers are realistic about product design capabilities.
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Between the optimistic executive and the pragmatic engineer is  the perception gap of a company's capabilities.

Product engineers, are you always on the same wavelength as your manager or CEO? Executives, do you think you have an accurate grasp of what’s going on right now on your factory floor? To identify the most urgent engineering and manufacturing problems facing companies today, Onshape recently commissioned the independent third-party research firm Isurus to conduct a broad-based industry survey of nearly 1,000 product development professionals worldwide.

One of the most fascinating aspects of The State of Product Development & Hardware Design 2020 survey is how it captured the honest feelings of executives, project managers and engineers, who were protected by anonymity. The first revelatory finding was that there is a “capabilities gap,” quantifying the difference between how much value professionals place on specific product development areas versus how proficient they believe their companies really are in those same areas. 

Think about a baseball manager who may publicly tout the value of speed and defense at a press conference, but who privately believes that some of his players are sloth-like and clumsy. In the product development arena, we first asked respondents to rate the importance of 15 different criteria for success in the design and manufacturing process—and then asked them to candidly assess their companies’ current capabilities in those categories.

The Capabilities Gap: Product Development Criteria for Success

(Image courtesy of The State of Product Development & Hardware Design 2020/Onshape.)
(Image courtesy of The State of Product Development & Hardware Design 2020/Onshape.)

The difference in length between the dark blue lines in the figure (where companies want to be) and the light blue lines (where companies really are) underscores that no company is perfect and that every company has room for improvement. Interestingly, the capability gaps are widest in the following three areas:

  1. Minimizing time spent on non-design related activities and overhead, such as IT tasks and data management (˗41%). 
  2. Increasing early communication, visibility, and clarity in the design process (˗37%).
  3. Making CAD and other design data less siloed (˗33%).

As someone who has devoted the past three decades to improving product development tools, these three priority areas certainly resonate with me. Engineers and designers want to spend their days doing what they were hired to do—solving problems and creating innovative products—not worrying about version control and whether the latest design is really the latest. Collaboration and early communication across departments have become even more vital in the age of COVID-19 when colleagues are more likely to be working remotely than sharing ideas over each other’s shoulders.

Looking at the full list of capability gaps, we thought it would be interesting to reexamine the survey results through the lens of different job roles. Would executives and hardware engineers judge their product development teams’ strengths and weaknesses any differently?

The bar graphs below compare the percentage of respondents who rated their companies “good” or “excellent” in each category.

The Perception Gap: Executives Versus Frontline Engineers

(Image courtesy of The State of Product Development & Hardware Design 2020/Onshape.)
(Image courtesy of The State of Product Development & Hardware Design 2020/Onshape.)

Who’s giving their teams the higher grades? Across the board, it’s the executives.

Are the executives being overly optimistic? Are the engineers being overly pessimistic? Or does one group just have a better grasp of reality? I suggest giving the benefit of the doubt to the frontline engineers who are fully immersed in the day-to-day product development process.

In any case, it’s not hard to imagine why these wide disparities could be problematic at a company. Executives and engineers having different assessments of the same situations could lead to unrealistic expectations, missed deadlines, inaccurate budgets and overall poor business decisions.  

What especially stands out to me is the question of whether individual “contributors always have access to the tools and data needed for the job” (70% of executives rated their company as good or excellent in this category, while only 56% of engineers did so).

Executives may think they have the right technology in place, but in some cases their firsthand information is outdated. They might think, “Oh, this software would be great for doing ‘blank’ because that worked great for me when I was an engineer.” Well, guess what? The world’s changed—and you may not even realize it. This is about matching technology with the job. Execs are no longer on the front lines (and may never have had any experience there), which gives them a distant and dated view.

Another area screaming for attention is the question of whether there is “enough early communication, clarity, and visibility in the design process” (67% of executives rated their company as good or excellent, while only 54% of engineers did so).

Even though business experts frequently talk about the importance of communication, this is a common problem at many companies. Executives have constant access to much bigger-picture information than engineers, and sometimes critical details aren’t shared in a timely manner. An executive might say, “I don’t know why they’re saying we don’t communicate. When I call someone, they call me right back,” failing to realize that’s because they are the boss! 

Also standing out in the State of Product Development report are sharply different views about companies’ readiness to support remote work. Only 50 percent of engineers said their employer provided access to remote collaboration tools compared to 62 percent of executives. Asked if their company offers a flexible work environment “allowing employees to sometimes work from different locations and shift their hours,” executives (77%) and engineers (58%) differed widely again. 

Same company. Same policies. Different perceptions of the word “flexible.”

This “perception gap,” not to mention the recent upheaval of the workplace itself, should be a wakeup call for product development executives across every industry. Most of us have already experienced how vital cloud communication and productivity tools, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, have become for holding companies together during the COVID-19 crisis. Cloud product design and data management tools have become just as essential for maintaining business continuity. Well before the pandemic, cloud CAD rapidly evolved from a “nice-to-have” to a “must-have” platform, giving executives the ability to check their engineering team’s real-time progress 24/7 and always be on the same page.

Going back to the survey data in the first “capabilities gap” chart, 76 percent of product development professionals identified remote collaboration tools as critical for success, but only 53 percent said their companies were currently proficient in that area. That’s another gap that needs to be closed ASAP. The traditional office won’t disappear tomorrow. But now that engineers have experienced more freedom to work from anywhere, we’re unlikely to ever fully go back to the old way of doing things. 

As Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has noted, supporting a flexible and remote distributed workforce will soon be more universally recognized as a competitive advantage. From a recruitment standpoint, why settle for choosing from the best candidates within a 100-mile radius when you now can attract the best talent from anywhere in the world?

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