Are heads of development and design still “on the ball”?

Steinbeis study on work in development and design

This was the burning question posed by the Steinbeis Transfer Institute for Development and Management at Steinbeis University Berlin to 275 managers working in development and design. The findings: it’s high time they start thinking differently about their role within companies! Over the past two decades Development and Design departments (D&D) have become one of the most important critical success factors within companies. The old tendency to think reactively on projects, assignments, and their departmental role must be done away with – in favor of a more proactive attitude towards their role, becoming more directly involved in senior management activities. 

It would be safe to assume that the process of adding value is shifting more and more away from production, and sales and marketing, towards development and design – especially in product-oriented and small and medium-sized (SME) manufacturing companies. Their aim should be to gain – and safeguard – competitive advantage by coming up with innovations and new products. Heads of development and design are increasingly expected to act as managers of their D&D department, which entails a broad range of methods and management issues. At the same time, they are expected to know about leading from the front, managing people, and even thinking entrepreneurially. Their role in modern business is less about the traditional aspect of inventing things and more about acting as a coordinator and moderator, working within a team. They also have to keep people motivated and well trained. Heads also need to actively shape their “upward” responsibilities as a member of senior management. To achieve this, certain prerequisites have to be fulfilled and managers need the right attitude, i.e. “willingness to lead” and “willingness to implement”.

The study carried out by the Steinbeis Transfer Institute for Development and Management sheds light on the current situation affecting many heads of development and design in SMEs. The study focused mainly on the following issues:

  • The extent to which D&D heads are included in the “senior management circle” of the company

    Management activities of D&D heads within their area of responsibilityD&D heads’ personal skills and prospects

    Design and development is the area of the business most likely to be “officially” represented at the senior or board level of a company. Despite this, according to the survey, D&D heads at a senior level are more “receptive to passive”, or “adapt their behavior”. Only to a lesser extent are they “active to dominant”. It is therefore interesting to find that only just over 50 per cent of D&D management respondents are “not” or “not satisfactorily” prepared for senior management meetings, or that preparation is “enough to get by”. Anybody attending a board meeting with enough preparation to get by, adapting their behavior or acting passively is highly unlikely to seize the opportunity to promote the interests of their area or other issues, or input with (or even push through) ideas. D&D often sees itself as a “reactive innovator”. At only 18 per cent of companies do D&D heads see their role and their department as one that initiates innovation. Given the need for D&D to see itself as a “driver of innovation” within the company, this low percentage could be considered quite alarming.

    The findings of the study show clearly that D&D heads are heavily involved in the dayto- day running of the business and dealing
    with live projects, as well as detailed product issues. The day is dictated by fire-fighting rather than managing opportunities. Extrapolate this insight to the whole area of responsibility, and other aspects of business management (management responsibility), and heads of D&D are only left with a relatively small amount of time: 12 per cent. This does not look like much time, given the significance of the activities a manager has to carry out. An analysis of the numbers also highlights an astonishing “Proportion of time put aside to think about the future of the D&D department”: 4 per cent. The fact that around 44 per cent of D&D heads answered this question with zero per cent speaks for itself. If heads of D&D are spending almost 90 per cent of their time on the day-to-day running of the business and are spending little or no time thinking about the future of their own department, then it is hardly surprising that their role in senior management circles is considered more “passive” – and that other senior managers perceive things the same way. This situation is far from ideal, for the company and the personal standing of the head of D&D.

    Not one of the D&D heads questions felt “bad” about the recognition they gain for technical expertise. This reflects the considerable technical knowledge and self-confidence of D&D heads working in their roles. However, the respondents always felt “bad” or “average” when it came to business management issues in senior management circles. The picture was similar with overarching strategic issues. Examining the causes for this at a professional level points to deficits with issues such as “goal setting and strategy planning”, “business management knowledge” and “negotiation techniques”. The extent to which these deficits could be crucial can be demonstrated by looking at the nature of goal setting and strategy planning: technological strategies, technology management, strategic product planning etc – these are all part and parcel of setting goals and planning strategies, and thus exactly the sort of topics D&D heads are there to talk about in senior management. This turns into a daily tightrope walk between the day-to-day running of the business and the challenge of being a senior manager within the business.

    Heads of D&D should be able to stand back, to a sensible degree, from the day-to-day running of the business and detailed technical issues, to free themselves up to fulfill strategic obligations. If time is short, the only solution would be to shift the responsibilities of D&D heads from the bottom right area of the matrix shown in the diagram to top left. Plotting technical or specialist skills against strategic responsibility is not supposed to show that managers assuming “more” strategic responsibility will lead to “less” skills. It is more about highlighting how “technical (detail) aspects” dominate D&D’s everyday work.

    The study resulted in a number of “missed opportunities” being identified. The study findings clearly indicated that most D&D heads fail to use (or only partly use) the opportunity presented by the important position D&D holds within the company – and
    the role D&D heads play as a member of the business’s senior management circle.


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