The Perception Gap: Why Do Executives and Frontline Engineers View Their Team Capabilities Differently?

Are you as skilled as you think you are?

In a July 2021 survey of 1,000 Americans conducted by OnePoll, 40% of respondents said they believed they are fit enough to compete in at least one sport at the summer or winter Olympics. The survey skewed male (60% of respondents) and young (70% of respondents were under age 35).

The premise that 2 out of 5 Americans watching the Olympics from their couch could just jump inside the screen and hold their own against the world’s most elite athletes is absolutely ludicrous. Olympians train their entire lives to be immortalized on a Wheaties cereal box – not only to get into top physical condition, but also to perfect the skills of their sport.

Take a look at the official list of summer and winter Olympic sports. Are you part of the delusional 40%? Is the reason you chose not to win Gold this year because you felt it wasn’t worth the hassle of getting off the couch?

In sports, the consequences of significantly overestimating your own abilities could range from emotional embarrassment to missing teeth, broken limbs or drowning. The consequences of your coach thinking you are better than you really are would likely just be defeat. But what about in the product design and manufacturing world?  What happens if your team or your boss thinks they are more capable than they actually are?

In The State of Product Development and Hardware Design 2021 report, an independent industry survey commissioned by Onshape, we asked nearly 800 engineers, project managers and executives to identify the product development processes most important to their success – and then we asked them to candidly rate their team’s actual performance in those areas.

Then we further broke down the data by three different job roles: executives, project managers and individual contributors. Of course, the view from the top is dramatically different from looking up from the trenches. But how would someone’s job role impact their outlook on their company’s ability to innovate and be productive with their current tools and technology?

The bar graphs below measure the percentage of respondents who rated their company “good” or “excellent” in each category. The difference between the frontline engineer ratings and the executive ratings define what we call the “Perception Gap.”

The Perception Gap: Current Capability Ratings By Product Development Role

We asked: How would you rate your company’s capabilities in each of these areas?
(Percentage rated “good” or “excellent”)




Base: Designers/Engineers: 413-455 respondents; Engineering Manager or Team Lead: 172-189 respondents; Executives: 74-87 respondents

Executives Have a Rosier View of Their Design Capabilities than Individual Contributors

In all of the product development areas mentioned in the survey questions above, there is a consistent pattern of executives believing their company is doing a much better job than their engineers and project managers believe they are accomplishing.

It is interesting to note the feedback from middle management. While one might expect project managers’ ratings to be halfway between frontline engineers and executives, they are actually much more aligned with the individual contributors here. This further underscores the conclusion that executives may be out of touch.

The survey finds a measurable disconnect between how executives and their product development teams perceive the efficiency and quality of the design process. Logic would weigh in on the side of the engineers and project managers, who are the ones closest to the day-to-day product development.

Regardless of the psychology at play here, these survey results should raise concern amongst executives. Are they overestimating their firm’s current technological capabilities and the effectiveness of their processes?

Design and manufacturing is a world of precision, where a difference of a few millimeters can cause costly mistakes and delays. Could these different perspectives about their company’s true capabilities lead to unrealistic goals for delivering on critical project deadlines or customer expectations? Could these different views of the same reality be a result of poor internal communication?

How Cloud-Native CAD Bridges Perception Gaps

With executives often focused on big-picture planning and strategic initiatives, and engineers busy with daily hands-on tasks, it’s easy to see how perceptions about the status of a project are not always aligned. One immediate way to improve communication between executives, project managers and rank-and-file engineers would be to provide anytime/anywhere access to the latest design – even for company stakeholders who ordinarily do not use CAD.

Using PTC’s cloud-native Onshape product development platform, executives can check on the progress of a design 24/7 without waiting for a formal scheduled design review. Onshape’s real-time business analytics offer an up-to-the-minute snapshot of who’s working on what and when – and help identify potential bottlenecks before they become problems.

Onshape’s Sharing tools enable the core design team to incorporate earlier feedback from across the organization, including sales, marketing and manufacturing. By clicking a web link, internal stakeholders can receive view-only, commenting or editing access to in-progress designs without requiring an additional CAD license or special viewer. Live chat and commenting tools enable more frequent real-time design reviews. Teams that collaborate with cloud-native product development software find it easier for everyone to always stay on the same page.

Interested in learning more about potential areas of improvement for your product development team? In addition to exploring the Perception Gap between management and frontline engineers, this 2021 industry survey also offers insights on the following topics:

The Capabilities Gap – Companies self-rated their actual performance vs. their desired goals across specific areas of the design and manufacturing process. The two biggest priorities for improvement this year are “minimizing time spent on non-design related activities” and increasing “early communication, visibility and clarity in the design process.”

Reducing Wasted Time – 85% of teams say they sometimes can’t access the correct version of their design data; while 83% say they sometimes can’t even find it in a timely manner. Another 71% of teams say they have lost work due to CAD system crashes and data corruption.

Data Management Challenges – Half of on-premise PDM/PLM users say that their software gets in the way of team collaboration and slows down the overall product design process. While 45% say PDM has only replaced one problem (version control) with another problem (delays).

Workplace Flexibility – Companies that view themselves as “highly productive” are better at supporting “work from anywhere.” While 74% of high-productivity companies say they are good or excellent at giving employees flexibility for when and where they work, only 41% of average or low-productivity companies give themselves similar marks.

Pandemic Impact – As a result of the product development lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, 63% of engineering professionals say remote collaboration tools are now more of a company priority. Another 58% of respondents say they now have a greater need for seamless access to design documents from any location.

The Generation Gap – Across multiple categories, Millennial and Gen Z engineers give their employers lower scores for offering workplace flexibility and for enabling real-time access to information than their later-career colleagues. This perception gap is important for executives to consider as they think about their future recruiting efforts.

Download your free copy now and discover the best opportunities for improving business agility, by understanding the The State of Product Development and Hardware Design 2021: