The relationship between senior executives and tech teams can often be transactional: Executives devote attention, money, and people; teams output code, releases, and fixes. Understanding is often lost in this transaction. When senior executives and tech teams operate in silos they can’t respond well to changing priorities in their products, fix root problems, and serve their users. Only 13% of large government software projects succeed, according to the Standish Group’s ‘Haze’ report. We have to work differently.

In “A Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide,” Cyd Harrell wrote that “a significant part of the work for practitioners is to actively seek partners and allies, and invest in being strong partners and allies themselves.” Because they direct the resources that can determine the success or failure of your product, senior executives are the most important allies a product team can have.

The relationship between senior executives and tech teams needs to be dynamic, not static. It must support action and change, so as user needs mature, the security landscape shifts, and organizational priorities change, executives and teams will build a shared understanding of the situation as it develops. This shared understanding will enable senior executives to trust what we call a product team with both the strategic direction and execution of a product, rather than just the delivery.

So how do you do that, in reality? Which decisions should be made together, which separately? What should a senior executive own and what should the product team own? Senior executives do not often have the bandwidth to participate in every team ceremony, and adding another person to the core team creates more work to manage. 18F has learned how to overcome these challenges and bridge the gap between executives and their teams.

This post is part one in a series that proposes four specific recommendations to reset the relationship between senior executives and product teams, including:

  1. Work outside the traditional hierarchy to set up an initiative for success
  2. Invest in short-term initiatives to build confidence in long-term decisions
  3. Initiate more direct interaction to build rapport
  4. Use stories as leading indicators

Special thanks to the following people for contributing to this series, including Daniel Yi, Matt Cloyd, Mike Gintz, Anne Petersen, and Waldo Jaquith.