My product management toolkit (22): how to create a product culture?

What can you do when you’ve joined a company that hasn’t (yet) got a proper product culture? Making it harder for you to do your job or get people’s buy-in. Unfortunately, this tends be harsh reality for a lot of product managers, who then become increasingly frustrated with a lack of progress or an unchanged mindset.

However, there’s no need to despair, as there are a number of techniques and tools to start instilling a product mindset and creating a product culture. In this piece, we’ll first define what product culture means and then explore ways in which you as a product manager can contribute to the creation of a product culture.

What is product culture?

Fig. 1 – Martin Eriksson, “What Is A Product Manager?” – Taken from: http://www.mindtheproduct.com/2011/10/what-exactly-is-a-product-manager/

If you look at the famous product management venn diagram by my friend Martin Eriksson it quickly becomes apparent how the three components of Martin’s diagram feed into my components of a strong product culture:

  • Customer understanding – We all know how easy it can be to pay lip service to ‘customer empathy’ or ‘understanding user needs’! However, a strong product culture begins and ends with your customers. In organisations with a strong product culture, all staff members interact with customers or are at least fully aware of their customer needs. Companies like Zappos and Amazon are well known for their focus on customer centricity factors (see Fig. 2 below). In my experience, signs of  non customer centric companies are those where only a small part of the business ‘owns’ the customer relationship or where the customer has become this imaginary persona for most staff members. Also, I encourage you to pose a healthy challenge to those people in the organisation who claim to “know what the customer wants” based on their experience.
  • Everything is geared towards creating great products – Throughout the company with a strong product culture one can find a strong sense of innovation, a desire to experiment in order to create great products. Etsy is a good example of a company that develops new products and services iteratively, constantly testing and improving on previous product releases. One of the telltale signs of a strong product culture is when employees possess what Marty Cagan refers to as a product mindset (see Fig. 3 below).
  • Value proposition and business model – A shared understanding of your business’ value proposition and business model is a clear sign of a good product culture. Alignment around the value you’re aiming to provide to your customers – combined with an awareness of who those customers are – is a critical part of a strong product culture, as it underpins the products and services that you put out there.
  • Curiosity and experimentation – You know that things could get challenging if you, as a product manager, turn out to be one of the few people in an organisation to ask ‘why’ and be curious. These are traits that can be learned and adopted, and the more innovative and customer centric businesses are those that aren’t afraid to be curious, learn and ‘fail well’. I heard a colleague of mine phrasing it quite well the other day when he spoke about “taking calculated risks”. In other words, taking risks in such way that you learn a lot – quickly and cheaply – about your riskiest assumptions, whilst any negative ramifications are limited or non-existent.

 

Fig. 2 – Steven MacDonald, How to Create a Customer Centric Strategy for your Business – Taken from: http://www.superoffice.com/blog/how-to-create-a-customer-centric-strategy/

 

Fig. 3 – Marty Cagan, Product Mindset vs IT Mindset – Taken from: http://svpg.com/product-vs-it-mindset/

  1. Purpose.  In an IT mindset organisation, the staff exists to service the perceived technology needs of “the business.”  In a technology-enabled product organisation, the staff exists to service the needs of your customers, within the constraints of the business.
  2. Passion.  In an IT mindset organisation, product and technology are mercenaries.  There is little to no product passion.  They are there to build whatever.  In a product organisation, product and tech are missionaries.  They have joined the organisation because they care about the mission and helping customers solve real problems.
  3. Requirements.  In an IT mindset organisation, requirements are “gathered” from stakeholders, prioritised in the form of roadmaps, and implemented.  In a product organisation, we must discover the necessary problem to solve or product to be built.
  4. Staffing.  The IT mindset shows up very visibly in the staff and the roles.  The lack of true product managers (especially strong product managers), the lack of true interaction designers, the prevalence of old-style project management, engineers unfamiliar with the demands of scale and performance, the existence of old-style business analysts, and heavy use of outsourcing, are all clear examples of this.  I would argue the most telling manifestation of the IT mindset problem is that the product managers in IT mindset companies are typically very weak, and at true product companies they are necessarily very strong.
  5. Funding.  In IT mindset companies you find them still funding projects (output) rather than product teams measured by business results (outcome).   There are many serious problems with this antiquated model, and it generates all kinds of bad behaviour in the organisation as they try to work around the constraints of this system, but most importantly, it results in very poor ROI for the company because of the very high cost of finding out which ideas work and which don’t.
  6. Process.  In IT mindset companies, you usually find very slow, heavy, Waterfall processes, even when the engineers consider themselves Agile.  The only part that would be considered Agile would be at the tail end of build, test and release.  Much of this stems from the Funding issue above, but deciding what areas to invest in, staffing a team, defining and designing the solution, and release planning are all typically very Waterfall.  Technology-enabled product organisations simply must move much faster, and work differently, in order to deliver the necessary solutions for our customers and our business.
  7. Silos.  In IT mindset companies, people align by function, creating silos between the different areas of the business, product, user experience design, engineering, QA and site operations.  In contrast, in a product organisation, we depend on true collaboration between product, user experience design, technology and the business units.  In a product organisation we optimise for product teams, not for the individual functions.
  8. Organisation.  In IT mindset companies, engineering is often under a CIO, and “product” (if it exists at all) is often under marketing or absorbed directly in the business units themselves.  In product organisations, there’s a big difference between the engineers that support “true IT” and those that work on the commercial products,  The True IT engineers usually report to the CIO, and the commercial product engineers report to a CTO.  Similarly, product is not a sub-function of marketing.  It is a top-level activity on par with marketing and technology.  It is not so much the org chart that matters here, as much as a recognition that the way we manage True IT work is very different than how we manage commercial product efforts.
  9. Accountability.  In IT mindset companies, accountability frankly is a farce.  The people actually working on a project typically have no real say in what they are building, and sometimes even in how it’s built, and even when it’s due.  In theory, the leadership team could try to hold the requesting stakeholders accountable for the results, but if they do they immediately hear complaints that they didn’t get what they actually wanted, and because of delays and costs, critical things had to get cut, and so it’s certainly not their fault.  So management writes it off as yet another failed technology initiative.  In contrast, in a product organisation, we are measured by results.
  10. Leadership.  As with so many things, much of this boils down to leadership.  In IT mindset companies, the technology is viewed as a necessary evil.  It is a source of fear more than a source of inspiration.  Leadership in IT mindset companies is always looking for a silver bullet when it comes to technology.  Maybe they should outsource the whole mess?  Or maybe they can acquire someone else that hopefully has a better track record than they do.   In contrast, in a product company, technology enables and powers the business.  It is embraced and valued.  The people that create the technology are respected as the key contributors they are.  Leadership in a commercial product company understands that it’s their job to create the culture and environment necessary to nurture continuous innovation.

Where to start?

As daunting it may sound, starting to create a product culture doesn’t have to be overly complicated or onerous. As always, my advice is to smart small. Kick things off with some simple but targeted initiatives:

  • A visioning workshop to create a shared product vision – A product culture starts with a shared vision of what the product is (not), and what we’re trying to achieve with it for our customers and our business. Lack of a shared vision usually manifests itself in a product that wants to be too many things to too many people. As a product manager you can drive both the creation and the shared understanding of a product vision, starting with the facilitation of a visioning workshop.
  • Agree on a mission statement (and make sure it’s omnipresent) – Whereas a product vision is typically more aspirational and future oriented, a mission statement is all about the problems your business is aiming to solve right now (see Fig. 4-5 below).
  • Live and breathe clear values that underpin your (product) culture – Naturally, every organisation will have its own unique values – both explicit and implicit. However, there are a number of values that I believe underpin most product cultures: curious (see above under “what is product culture?”), courageous, innovative, open, trying and learning. Formulating and agreeing on such values is the easy part; truly embodying them on a daily basis tends to be much harder. For example, within my current product team, we’ve got a ‘team manifesto’ which encapsulates our core values and principles, and we use this as a living reference point, asking ourselves regularly whether we’re actually living up to our principles.
  • 5 simple ways to become more customer centric – Especially if you find yourself in a business with an IT mindset (see Fig. 3), bringing the customer into the picture can be difficult. However, I’ve discovered and applied five simple techniques that have helped me in making organisations and colleagues to think more about the customer and their needs (see Fig. 6).
  • Hire and fire for the right behaviours and values – A successful product culture depends heavily on the people within the organisation. This means that when you’re hiring product people, you’ll be looking for some of the key values that underpin your product culture. For instance, when I recruit new product people, I always try to filter out any ‘product janitors’ as quickly as I can, simply because it doesn’t fit with the values that I’m trying to instil into my product teams. Equally, this also implies that you sometimes need to make tough decisions and fire those employees who might be great people but don’t form a good fit with your product culture and its underlying values (see above).
  • Clear goals, celebrate success and failure – Outcomes over outputs. I understand people’s obsession with certain features or ideas, but I believe that businesses benefit from a continuous focus on goals and problems instead of of fretting over features. I’ve found a goal-oriented roadmap to be a great tool in terms of driving an understanding of common goals.
  • Continuous learning – In my experience, the ‘learning’ aspect comes from continuously exploring different ways to tackle a problem, celebrating success as well as reflecting on the ‘failures’. The more you can share these learnings with the wider organisation, the better. This helps in creating a culture where there’s full transparency with regard to both achieved results as well as those things that didn’t go according to plan. In turn, this breeds a culture of experimentation, taking calculated risks, experimenting and being open about the outcomes, whatever they are.

 

Fig. 4 – Elements of a mission statement:

For (target customer)

Who (statement of the need or opportunity)

The (product name) is (product category)

That (key benefit, compelling reason to buy)

Unlike (primary competitive alternative)

Our product (statement of primary differentiation)

 

Fig. 5 – Mission statement examples from Patagonia and Cradles to Crayons – Taken from: https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/inspiring-company-mission-statements

 

Fig. 6 – How do we become more customer centric – Five simple ways to get there:

  1. 5 customers every fortnight – User research and usability testing don’t have to part of massive projects, getting input from thousands of customers. In contrast, engaging with 5 (target) customers every two weeks goes a long way in my experience. It gives you an opportunity to learn continuously, in tandem with your development work and product / feature releases.
  2. Team based user research – I learned from UX expert Erika Hall about the importance of collaborative or team based research. The key point here is that user research isn’t a one person job. People across the business will benefit from learning from and about their customers.
  3. Exposure hours – Similar to team based user research, the idea behind so-called exposure hours is to share customer learnings directly with team members and stakeholders, by them sitting in on a user interview for example and being directly exposed to customers.
  4. Feeling what users feel – In my previous company, Notonthehighstreet, we had a programme called “In Your Shoes” which meant that all employees had to spend one day at a customer and be part of their businesses and lives for a day. It was a great to experience first hand the problems and needs customers have, and understand their contexts better.
  5. Product retrospectives – Finally, I’ve found product retrospectives to be a great way of instilling a more customer focused mindset. Regular product retrospectives are a great opportunity for a team and the wider business to reflect on its products or services. How are our products performing? What did we release last month and how is that release doing? What are our customers saying, thinking and feeling? Product retrospectives are explicitly not about the team or process improvements. Instead it’s all about the product and its users.

Main learning point: Creating a product culture is by no means easy but as a product manager there are number of tools and techniques one can use to instil a product mindset and a more customer-centric approach.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.slideshare.net/abrahammarc1/how-to-create-a-product-culture
  2. http://svpg.com/establishing-a-true-product-culture/
  3. https://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664
  4. https://medium.com/we-are-yammer/onboarding-as-a-product-manager-cc7ad1d618c9
  5. https://www.quora.com/What-companies-have-a-strong-product-management-culture-and-how-do-they-achieve-it
  6. http://www.walkingthetalk.com/zappos-customer-centric-culture/
  7. http://www.superoffice.com/blog/how-to-create-a-customer-centric-strategy/
  8. https://leanstartup.co/heres-how-5-companies-create-remarkably-innovative-cultures/
  9. https://apptimize.com/blog/2014/01/etsy-continuous-innovation-ab-testing/
  10. http://www.svpg.com/the-product-manager-contribution/
  11. https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/inspiring-company-mission-statements
  12. https://articles.uie.com/user_exposure_hours/
  13. http://www.tommyandlottie.com/in-your-shoes
  14. https://hbr.org/2012/11/its-not-just-semantics-managing-outcomes
  15. https://www.playbookhq.co/blog/lean-product-development-positive-economics-of-failing-fast
  16. http://www.cleverpm.com/2015/08/25/fail-fast-fail-cheap-and-fail-often/
  17. https://techcrunch.com/gallery/internet-trends-2017/

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