Indeed, product design and development is a complex and multi-factored field. It’s also a very competitive one -- especially for upper-level positions. Which begs the question: What attributes can help aspiring product design and development leaders get ahead? In addition to “hard” skills like design, product development, end-user research, and product management, senior staff look for the following  “soft skills” during the hiring process. If you’re wondering how to learn these skills, we have got that covered too. 

1. Communication skills

From live presentations and reports to interactions with clients and crisis management, product design and development managers have many communication demands, both internally and externally. They are also tasked with facilitating interpersonal and team communications. Ultimately, even the best design and development ideas require excellent communication skills to bring them to life.

London-based designer Bronwen Rees explains in Toptal, “While we are in an age of infinite communication channels and inspirational conversations around design, our ability to communicate design competently is an area in which designers need to improve. Where is the gain in being extraordinary if you can’t communicate your ideas and processes, design concepts, and principles effectively?” 

According to Rees, the ability to communicate design demonstrates several vital attributes, including intelligence, a level of confidence in a person’s abilities, and respect for others. Being a functional design communicator ultimately helps design and development leaders garner the support of their teams; convey design decisions to non-designers, and take a seat at the table when it comes to talking business. 

2. An understanding of team building and organizational behavior

In today’s global economy, doing business is more complex than ever before. Given the multifaceted nature of design and development, as well as the many touchpoints and stakeholders involved throughout the design and development process, skills like cross-cultural understanding, team building, motivation, change management, feedback, and mentoring can help make workplaces more fulfilling and productive. 

Investopedia explains, “The study of organizational behavior includes areas of research dedicated to improving job performance, increasing job satisfaction, promoting innovation, and encouraging leadership. Each has its own recommended actions, such as reorganizing groups, modifying compensation structures, or changing methods of performance evaluation.”

Organizational change, in particular, has become an area of focus aimed at bettering an organization’s internal processes toward improved efficiency. This can manifest itself in many ways, including through steady workflow supporting increased productivity; smooth operations with few interruptions;  reduced overhead costs; and the ability to attract and retain brainpower. The more leaders understand all of these inputs and outputs, the better positioned they will be to drive transformational change. 

3. Design Thinking and Problem Solving

Uncertainty and ambiguity are impediments to progress. The ability to understand problems and make informed decisions using analytical thinking supports optimal outcomes.  

In Ideas Made to Matter, Rebecca Linke writes, “At a high level, the steps involved in the design thinking process are simple: first, fully understand the problem; second, explore a wide range of possible solutions; third, iterate extensively through prototyping and testing; and finally, implement through the customary deployment mechanisms. The skills associated with these steps help people apply creativity to effectively solve real-world problems better than they otherwise would.” 

Developing a culture of team problem solving, meanwhile, can leverage even greater results thanks to the different perspectives different people bring to a problem.

4. Creativity and innovation

Design thinking and problem solving go hand-in-hand with creativity and innovation, as outside-the-box thinking leads to exciting new ideas and applications. 

One example of a tool used to spur innovation is a dedicated innovation lab, where product development teams, designers, engineers, and scientists work together to experiment, test, and explore new ideas in a collaborative space. 

Again, creativity and innovation are top-down priorities which are embedded in the culture of a firm. 

5. Vision

Great products don’t exist in vacuums. They are a response to real problems in the real world. The same is true for great ideas. They aren’t enough on their own. What brings them from an idea in someone’s head to a tangible product? Vision. 

Silicon Valley Pioneers Surfaceink founder and CEO Eric Bauswell asserts, “Why is vision so vital? Simply put, every product idea needs a clear vision that addresses things like: What is the purpose of your products? Does it help fill a need in the market? Will it enhance customer experience? Does it create new revenue streams or grow your brand? From the C-suite down, having a clear understanding of your goals and expectations is a must for turning concepts into reality.”

6. Negotiation and conflict resolution

From negotiating toward mutually satisfying terms to resolving conflicts, product design and development managers often find themselves tasked with negotiation and conflict resolution. Indeed, due to the complex nature of product development and the degree to which it requires coordination, cooperation, and communication, team conflicts are common. Further, these conflicts have been linked with negative impact on new product development and performance

Employers looking to come out on top, in terms of both negotiating with clients and managing conflict on teams, value managers with negotiation and conflict resolution skills. Research has shown cooperative approaches, with integrating and obliging at the forefront, are most effective when it comes to conflict management. 

The value of these skills becomes even more evident when you factor in research indicating that on the most successful design teams, open disagreements are often harnessed toward the mitigation of uncertainty.

7. Leadership 

Product design and development managers face many challenges when it comes to leveraging the talents of their teams in both corporate or entrepreneurial environments. Leading ethically and managing growth are also common issues which arise. The more experience and knowledge candidates have with these imperatives, the more effective leaders and managers they’ll be. 

Characteristics found in most successful product leaders, according to Product Leadership by Martin Eriksson, Nate Walkingshaw and Richard Banfield, are lifelong learning, strong communication, empathy, diversity, business savvy, cross-functional representation, collocation, autonomy, interdependence, and accountability. 

8. Basic skills required by managers

In a longitudinal study of senior management needs for leadership in this field, 'Can Product Design and Development Management Pedagogy Respond Better to Management Needs?'; Herbst 2017, conducted under the direction of Coventry University, it was concluded the following subjects are “most important”: Problem Framing; Leadership; Strategic Thinking; Design Strategy; Communications; Overview and Understanding; Innovation; Project Management; Research methods and a Capstone to include those plus basic business skills such as accounting and finance.

You can get an inside edge

If you’ve been working in the field of product design and development and have aspirations of leveling up, enhancing your resume in these key areas can make all the difference. There is a program that satisfies the needs confirmed by ‘leadership’. The program is the Master of Product Design and Development Management (mpd²), at the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering.

The program’s co-directors Walter B. Herbst, PhD, and Stephen H. Carr, PhD, say, “We recognize there are many others like us with a passion for product development. mpd² was conceived as there was no venue for fine-tuning product design and development skills that so many of our colleagues wanted for themselves and for their organizations. Thus the mpd² program was born in 2003 at the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, as the first program teaching this subject matter.”

To that end, mpd² brings together high-achieving mid- to senior-level professionals with at least two years of experience to share a collaborative and rigorous experience. The cutting edge, hands-on curriculum is designed to help participants acquire the knowledge and skills they need to best manage creativity, execute design and lead product development. 

The program also recognizes that different people have different scheduling needs. Participants choose between full- and part-time master’s degree programs, as well as a three-day certificate program. It also recognizes that time is money: the full-time program can be completed in as little as nine months, while part-time students who commit to a single day of class a week complete the program in two years. 

New products have world-changing potential, but not without strong product design and development leading the way. Product design and development management studies can make all the difference for leaders looking to acquire and apply critical knowledge and managerial skills in the practical world. Evidence suggests the Northwestern University program can put you in the perfect position to land your dream job in design.

Article written in association with Segal Design Institute.