Tim Vanderpoel

Tim has extensive experience in the design and development of consumer products and electro-mechanical devices with unique perspectives that lead to creative and innovative solutions.

Leveraging Empowered, Cross-Functional Program Management to Accelerate Product Development

The expectations for cutting edge consumer products and customized user experiences have never been higher, and companies are under enormous pressure to meet these demands under ever tighter development timelines. Significant advances in analytical modeling and accelerated prototyping can help reduce time to market, but companies need every advantage to squeeze precious time out of the development cycle and into ROI. Adopting an empowered, cross-functional model for program management is a means to streamline the development process while delivering maximum value to end users.

Classic program managers are the backbone—and frequently the unsung hero—of the product development team. Tasked with overseeing project execution and outcome, they work to keep the project on rails: driving timelines, managing project budgets and personnel, interfacing with key stakeholders, and proactively identifying project risks. The Program Manager (PM) is an essential role on any project team, but through a model that pairs empowerment with accountability, they have the opportunity to achieve their full potential and greatest impact.

The foundational mindset is to view the PM as a small business owner supported by a board of directors. This mindset encourages PMs to adopt a broad view that starts with a clear understanding of what success looks like. It then empowers them to create a holistic plan that considers risks and consequences, and encourages them to be vigilant for obstacles. A small business owner is certainly responsible for administrative oversight, but the “ownership” mindset takes a more holistic view of their entire “business” and requires wearing multiple hats to guide their venture toward ultimate success. In a similar way, the empowered PM fuses classic program management with technical leadership, plus key finance and marketing principles, to more effectively assess and direct the course of their project. Most importantly, a business focuses on its clients, and this mindset drives the PM and team to seek a deeper understanding of the clients’ success and to think dynamically about how to achieve it.

The empowered PM is a technical/content veteran, with a mastery of the multidisciplinary process to innovate and develop solutions. This allows them to step in and mentor the team, often bringing their experience to bear to tackle tough decisions or navigate bouts of uncertainty. In more traditional frameworks, barriers often form between the classic PM and the technical team, with the PM sometimes viewed as a bureaucratic obstacle. This serves to add an unnecessary layer of communication, causes information siloing, and impedes decision velocity. An empowered PM breaks down those silos with the technical expertise to communicate effectively with their team and with the client in real time, enabling them to provide rapid feedback or quickly engage planning arms when technical challenges or opportunities arise. The empowered PM becomes a conduit for information and assessment, able to make rapid yet informed decisions or recommendations. This broad understanding and perspective also helps to identify potential changes of project success criteria which, when identified and tackled in a timely fashion, may yield greater overall ROI.

Bureaucratically driving project execution to a rigid plan without regard for evolving stakeholder needs, market shifts, or new technical or financial information is a missed opportunity. Through finance and marketing empathy, the empowered PM engages stakeholders to continually assess the existing approach. Is the project’s charter and current trajectory still appropriate? Are there new opportunities or challenges that warrant refinement or course correction? This attitude creates a fundamental shift from the project as a relatively static entity, to a constantly evolving engagement (a business!) focused on delivering maximum value.

Adopting an empowerment model for Program Management may seem like a stretch for some companies, with a concern that greater flexibility will cause timelines or budget to increase, or encourage unchecked risk taking. At Radius Innovation & Development, we actively employ an empowerment model and have found that the opposite is true. Radius PMs are technical experts that are assigned to lead projects based on their unique skill sets. Additionally, since new PMs often do not possess every skill set required, best practices are well documented and there is a training and mentorship framework in place to provide them with the background they need to be successful. Radius leadership adopts a rigorous project review process by reviewing project “health” with regularity to ensure that PMs are properly supported. In this process, the PM and Radius leadership assess risks and opportunities, client needs and goals, and ensure that we are all still doing the right things to achieve the project goals. While senior management provides high level oversight and close collaboration with our project teams, the PM is given significant autonomy in managing the project and recommending course corrections. As a result, PMs at Radius take personal ownership of their projects and are incentivized to identify creative solutions that minimize development timelines while yielding greater value. Team cohesiveness and effectiveness benefit from eliminating the silos between classic program management and the technical development team, as well as other stakeholders in finance, marketing, and beyond. The demands for streamlined product development are not going away and empowering PMs to more holistically manage their projects and enable their team is a key ingredient to long term success.

Will an empowered program management model work for your business? What are the obstacles in place that hinder such an approach?

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