Customer Experts Lose Influence When Teams are Pressured

The Harvard Business School writes in its current newsletter about a tricky topic, which gave me a bit of an „aha-experience“.

I do not want to miss to share this experience with you, as it is important, if you intend that your company works customer centric.

Performance Pressure on Teams

Article → Customer Experts Lose Influence When Teams are Pressured includes an interview with professor Heidi K.Gardner, and explains under which conditions teams start to actively neglect customer needs, and namely the collegues, which have special knowledge about these needs.

She basically states that the following relation exists between performance pressure, and customer needs:

„..why performance pressure makes team members do what seems irrational: defer to high-status „generalist“ experts among them and ignore colleagues with special knowledge of client needs.“

Translated into a practical project, this means that even teams, which normally work very customer centric, might stop under certain conditions with this orientation. This is really not good news, at least not for product management.

However, she also offers a solution to this problem, which consists of the following elements:

  • Although often only few participants in the team are blamed for neglecting customer needs, managers should keep in mind that the entire team is responsible.
  • The managers should take counteractions against this development, and in particular should make sure that every contribution counts.

Other Changes

In my experience, and as she says, the described effect it might indeed happen – in particular under time pressure, or if the expectations are high, and everybody wants to speed-up.


One reason for this is that it is complex and time consuming to consider customer needs within a development project. Often it would be much easier to develop according to an internal-out approach, and to concentrate on the straight-forward case.

In addition, customer intimacy often costs extra-effort. Where people would present a draft to an immediate collegue, most  people would try to prepare something more impressive to present to the customer (and this generates workload). Depending on how the relation of the customer expert to the team is, the same effect may happen here as well (i.e. if the customer expert plays an intermediate „messenger“ role between customer and development).


In my experience the following works:

  • Lower the pressure
  • Find a more direct relation to the customer
  • Do smaller loops
  • Keep the management out

Often it is not easy to lower the pressure. However sometimes it is a good method, if the team learns to say „no“. If – for instance – the reason for the high performance pressure is that everybody expects 100 requirements to be implemented, it might be an option to say „no“ to 10 of them. Either you work with the agile development method, where the team is entitled to decommit work, or you need to take care by yourself that you manage expectations.

If you wait too long with the feedback gathering from customers or customer experts, you might have left the correct way behind you for a long time. If you include customer feedback within each project phase, this basically might lower the pressure, and does normally not increase it. So in particular in times of pressure: include more customer view, and not less. A further effect is the commitment on customer side, which you buy in.

Further helpful is, if you make sure that the teams receive direct feedback on customer priorities in smaller and direct doses, as this helps the team to decide what it really important, and what is not. Alternatively you could include customer representatives directly into the team, as Gardner suggests.

Sometimes management has the tendency to micromanage, in particular if projects burn. On the other hand management normally is less an expert than the team is, but has a lot of decision power. This constellation might rapidly lead to wrong decisions, which turn out to be more demanding at the end than required.

In the long run, I have made good experiences with the agile development approach. The implementation of such an approach helps teams to lower the (contraproductive) pressure, and is one important contribution for the group of employees in management positions.

Further Information

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No Responses to “Customer Experts Lose Influence When Teams are Pressured”

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Andreas. Product management should focus on impediment reduction and support the team in tough times instead of beeing an impediment by themselves.

  2. Thanks Paul for your comment. I think Gardner have us all freedom with her article to support our teams