Five principles to leading groundbreaking product design

At the Oct. 15 Weidman Center Leadership Lecture, Brad Dolbin, president and general manager of Global Motion, ElectroCraft Inc, gave students five principles to practice to be leaders in product development.

“Product design can be maddening at times,” Dolbin said. “Leadership is essential to keep lows not too low.”

In his presentation, entitled “Leading Development of Groundbreaking Products,” he told students that they “don’t have to be the boss to be a leader.”

Develop a vision and create a positive environment by remaining flexible

Developing vision should be a bricolage process (an art term that pulls materials from different places to create a piece). Psychological bricolage is the process of pulling a diverse group of people together and using those backgrounds to create something better. A leader facilitates that process, recognizing that the vision may be obscure at first, but it will become clearer as the team continues working together. Being flexible and adaptable will make these moments of obscurity easier and more productive.

 “A product development leader creates a positive and safe environment to promote brainstorming for the purpose of discovery,” said Dolbin.

Consider all aspects of the business

Engineers tend to focus on the product development; however, they must look beyond that. The products engineers create have to work within the confines of the tools and resources available. Product development needs engineering, but is also equally depends on marketing, sales, finance, etc…

“While engineers are well trained to tackle some of the world’s most difficult problems, they are not uniquely suited to solve all the world’s problems by themselves,” he said. “A good product development leader considers all business aspects to ensure the team will be successful.”

All is not lost: build team confidence

“It is inevitable that the team will face fear and doubt. These feelings can destroy projects,” Dolbin said.

This is an opportunity for leaders: they must recognize these feelings quickly and take the opportunity to build the team up. Act as a sounding board, a listening ear, offering suggestions where possible. Leaders can rearticulate the vision in a different way to find solutions.

He summarized, “As leaders we can remove real or perceived barriers…spread courage and boost the team’s faith in their own ability to solve the problem.”

Keep the big picture in mind to avoid focusing exclusively on minutiae

In product development, it is essential to focus on the details because a small detail can have a significant impact on the success of a project. Unfortunately, this focus on detail can cause engineers to lose sight of the big picture and what makes us more successful.

“To develop innovative and ground breaking products a leader needs to safeguard the view of the big picture while paying attention to the details,” Dolbin said.

Once your energy is spent, get food and rest

“This is one point we know intuitively but struggle to implement,” he explained.

Leaders need to make sure their engineering teams recognize that every day is not game day. If this was an engineer’s motto and they left everything at work every day, “We’d get burned out and be no use to ourselves, the company and most importantly, our family,” Dolbin said.

“This is about balance, which when achieved you really can be part of ground-breaking discoveries. You don’t have to be a team leader or manager to put your arm around a colleague and say ‘I think you’re burning yourself out’ and help them take a break.”

A leader recognizes the signs of burn out in themselves and others, and takes appropriate action.

Internalizing these five principles has taken Dolbin 20 years, and he said he’s still not perfect at any of them.

“But to the degree that I remember and practice these principles, the teams I lead are more successful,” he said.

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