The Right Culture
We’ve worked through quite a lot of information, and I believe it would useful at this point to step back and consider the range and scope of how the product manager role is defined, how these people work collaboratively with their product team, and the techniques they use to quickly come up with products worth building and delivering to customers.
It’s easy to get hung up on the minutiae of all this, but what’s really important here is creating the right product culture for success.
In these final chapters, I’ll push your focus to what’s most important to your success. In particular, how does a great product team behave, and how do strong product companies provide these teams with an environment where they can flourish?
Good Product Team/Bad Product Team
“Good teams have a compelling product vision that they pursue with a missionary-like passion. Bad teams are mercenaries.”
I’ve had the extremely good fortune to be able to work with many of the best technology product teams in the world—the people creating the products you use and love every day, teams that are literally changing the world.
I’ve also been brought in to try to help with companies that are not doing so well. Startups racing to get some traction before the money runs out. Larger companies struggling to replicate their early innovation. Teams failing to continuously add value to their business. Leaders frustrated with how long it takes to go from idea to reality. Engineers exasperated with their product managers.
What I’ve learned is that there is a profound difference between how the very best product companies create technology products and all the rest. And I don’t mean minor differences. Everything from how the leaders behave to the level of empowerment of teams to how the organization thinks about funding, staffing, and producing products, down to how product, design, and engineering collaborate to discover effective solutions for their customers.
With a grateful nod to Ben Horowitz’s classic post “Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager,” for those that have not yet had the opportunity to participate in or observe a strong product team up close, in this chapter I provide you with a glimpse into some of the important differences between strong product teams and weak teams:
- Good teams have a compelling product vision that they pursue with a missionary-like passion. Bad teams are mercenaries.
- Good teams get their inspiration and product ideas from their vision and objectives, from observing customers’ struggle, from analyzing the data customers generate from using their product, and from constantly seeking to apply new technology to solve real problems. Bad teams gather requirements from sales and customers.
- Good teams understand who each of their key stakeholders are, they understand the constraints that these stakeholders operate in, and they are committed to inventing solutions that work not just for users and customers, but also work within the constraints of the business. Bad teams gather requirements from stakeholders.
- Good teams are skilled in the many techniques to rapidly try out product ideas to determine which ones are truly worth building. Bad teams hold meetings to generate prioritized roadmaps.
- Good teams love to have brainstorming discussions with smart thought leaders from across the company. Bad teams get offended when someone outside their team dares to suggest they do something.
- Good teams have product, design, and engineering sit side by side, and they embrace the give and take between the functionality, the user experience, and the enabling technology. Bad teams sit in their respective silos, and ask that others make requests for their services in the form of documents and scheduling meetings.
- Good teams are constantly trying out new ideas to innovate, but doing so in ways that protect the revenue and protect the brand. Bad teams are still waiting for permission to run a test.
- Good teams insist they have the skill sets on their team, such as strong product design, necessary to create winning products. Bad teams don’t even know what product designers are.
- Good teams ensure that their engineers have time to try out the prototypes in discovery every day so that they can contribute their thoughts on how to make the product better. Bad teams show the prototypes to the engineers during sprint planning so they can estimate.
- Good teams engage directly with end users and customers every week, to better understand their customers, and to see the customer’s response to their latest ideas. Bad teams think they are the customer.
- Good teams know that many of their favorite ideas won’t end up working for customers, and even the ones that could will need several iterations to get to the point where they provide the desired outcome. Bad teams just build what’s on the roadmap, and are satisfied with meeting dates and ensuring quality.
- Good teams understand the need for speed and how rapid iteration is the key to innovation, and they understand this speed comes from the right techniques and not forced labor. Bad teams complain they are slow because their colleagues are not working hard enough.
- Good teams make high-integrity commitments after they’ve evaluated the request and ensured they have a viable solution that will work for the customer and the business. Bad teams complain about being a sales-driven company.
- Good teams instrument their work so they can immediately understand how their product is being used and make adjustments based on the data. Bad teams consider analytics and reporting a nice to have.
- Good teams integrate and release continuously, knowing that a constant stream of smaller releases provides a much more stable solution for their customers. Bad teams test manually at the end of a painful integration phase and then release everything at once.
- Good teams obsess over their reference customers. Bad teams obsess over their competitors.
- Good teams celebrate when they achieve a significant impact to the business results. Bad teams celebrate when they finally release something.
If a significant number of these items strike too close to home, I hope you’ll consider raising the bar for your team. See if you can’t use the techniques in this book to experience the difference.
Top Reasons for Loss of Innovation
“Customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf.”
I define consistent innovation as the ability of a team to repeatedly add value to the business. Many organizations lose their ability to innovate at scale, and this is incredibly frustrating to both leaders and the members of the product teams. It’s one of the main reasons people often leave large companies for startups.
But losing the ability to innovate is absolutely and demonstrably not inevitable. Some of the most consistently innovative companies in our industry are very large—consider Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Netflix as examples.
Organizations that lose the ability to innovate at scale are inevitably missing one or more of the following attributes:
- Customer-centric culture. As Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon says, “Customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf.” Companies that don’t have this focus on customers—and direct and frequent contact with them—lose this passion and critical source of inspiration.
- Compelling product vision. By the time many companies reach scale, their original product vision is now largely realized, and the team is struggling to understand what’s next. This is often compounded because the original founders may have moved on, and they were likely the keepers of the vision. In this case, someone else—usually either the CEO or the VP product—needs to step up and fill this void. “Customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf.”
- Focused product strategy. One of the surest paths to product failure is to try to please everyone at once. Yet large companies often forget this reality. The product strategy needs to spell out a logical and intentional sequence of target markets for the product teams to focus on.
- Strong product managers. The lack of a strong and capable product manager is typically a major reason for lack of product innovation. When a company is small, the CEO or one of the co-founders usually plays this role, but at scale, each product team depends on a strong and capable product manager.
- Stable product teams. One of the prerequisites for consistent innovation is a team that has had a chance to learn the space, technologies, and customer pain. This doesn’t happen if the members of the team are constantly shifting.
- Engineers in discovery. So often the key to innovation is the engineers on the team, but this means (a) including them from the very beginning, and not just at the end and (b) exposing them directly to the customer pain.
- Corporate courage. It’s no secret that many companies become extremely risk averse as they grow larger. There is, of course, much more to lose. But the best technology-product companies know that the riskiest strategy of all is to stop taking risks. We do have to be smart about how we work, but the willingness to risk disruption to our current business is essential to consistent innovation.
- Empowered product teams. Even though your organization might have begun by using best practices, many organizations regress as they scale, and if you’ve reverted to just handing your teams roadmaps of features, then you no longer can expect the benefits of empowered product teams. Remember that empowerment means the teams are able to tackle and solve the business problems they’ve been assigned in the best way they see fit.
- Product mindset. In an IT-mindset organization, the product teams exist to serve the needs of the business. In contrast, in a product-mind set organization, the product teams exist to serve the company’s customers in ways that meet the needs of the business. The resulting differences between these mind sets are many and profound.
- Time to innovate. At scale, it’s very possible that your product teams are entirely consumed just doing what we call keep the lights on activities. Fixing bugs, implementing capabilities for different parts of the business, addressing technical debt, and more. If this is your situation, you shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of innovation. Some of this is normal and healthy, but be sure that your teams have the room to also pursue harder and more impactful problems.
I hope you notice that the above list essentially describes a culture of consistent innovation. It’s much more about culture than it is about process—or anything else.
Top Reasons for Loss of Velocity
“The lack of a strong and capable product manager is typically a major reason for slow product.”
As organizations grow, it’s not unusual for things to slow down. They don’t need to, and in the best organizations, they can accelerate. But if you are seeing a slowdown, these are the first things to look for.
- Technical debt. Often, the architecture does not facilitate or enable the rapid evolution of the product. This is not something that can be fixed overnight, but it needs to be attacked in an ongoing and concerted effort.
- Lack of strong product managers. The lack of a strong and capable product manager is typically a major reason for slow product. The impact of a weak product manager shows up in many ways, but it shows up very visibly as a team of mercenaries rather than missionaries. The product manager has not inspired or evangelized to the team, or the team has lost confidence in their product manager.
- Lack of delivery management. The most important function of the delivery manager is to remove impediments, and the list of impediments grows non-linearly as the technology organization grows. Most impediments won’t go away quickly without someone actively chasing them down.
- Infrequent release cycles. Most teams with slow velocity have release vehicles that are too infrequent. Your team should release no less frequently than every two weeks (very good teams release multiple times per day). Correcting this typically means getting serious about test automation and release automation so the team can move quickly and release with confidence.
- Lack of product vision and strategy. It’s essential that the team have a clear vision of the big picture and how their immediate work contributes to the whole.
- Lack of co-located, durable product teams. If teams are split across locations—or worse, if engineers are outsourced—besides the dramatic decrease in innovation, the velocity of the organization will suffer significantly. Even simple communication becomes difficult. It gets so bad that many outsourcing firms will add another layer of people to coordinate and communicate, which usually makes things worse.
- Not including engineers early enough during product discovery. The engineers need to participate in product discovery from the start of ideation. They will often contribute alternative approaches that can be significantly faster to implement if you include them early enough in the process for the product manager and designer to adjust. If not, their critical input will come too late in the process.
- Not utilizing product design in discovery and instead having them try to do their work at the same time the engineers are trying to build. Not doing this will both slow things down and lead to poor designs.
- Changing priorities. Realize that rapidly shifting priorities cause significant churn and substantially reduces the total throughput and morale.
- A consensus culture. Many organizations strive for consensus. While this typically comes from good intentions, what this means in practice is decisions are very hard to make and everything slows to a crawl.
There are, of course, any number of other causes of slow product, but in my experience, these are among the most common culprits.
Establishing a Strong Product Culture
“What we’re really talking about in this book is product culture. I’ve described to you how great product companies think, organize, and operate.”
While we’ve talked about product teams and techniques for discovering successful products, I hope you’ve noticed that what we’re really talking about in this book is product culture. I’ve described to you how great product companies think, organize, and operate.
I think of product culture along two dimensions. The first dimension is whether the company can consistently innovate to come up with valuable solutions for their customers. This is what product discovery is all about.
The second dimension is execution. It doesn’t matter how great the ideas are if you can’t get a productized, shippable version delivered to your customers. This is what product delivery is all about.
My goal in this final chapter is to describe the characteristics of a strong innovation culture versus those of a strong execution culture.
What does it really mean to have a strong innovation culture?
- Culture of experimentation—teams know they can run tests; some will succeed and many will fail, and this is acceptable and understood.
- Culture of open minds—teams know that good ideas can come from anywhere and aren’t always obvious at the outset.
- Culture of empowerment—individuals and teams feel empowered to be able to try out an idea.
- Culture of technology—teams realize that true innovation can be inspired by new technology and analysis of data, as well as by customers.
- Culture of business- and customer-savvy teams—teams, including developers, have a deep understanding of the business needs and constraints, and understanding of (and access to) the users and customers.
- Culture of skill-set and staff diversity—teams appreciate that different skills and backgrounds contribute to innovative solutions—especially engineering, design, and product.
- Culture of discovery techniques—the mechanisms are in place for ideas to be tested out quickly and safely (protecting brand, revenue, customers, and colleagues). What does it really mean to have a strong execution culture?
- Culture of urgency—people feel like they are in wartime, and that if they don’t find a way to move fast, then bad things could happen.
- Culture of high-integrity commitments—teams understand the need for (and power of) commitments, but they also insist on high-integrity commitments.
- Culture of empowerment—teams feel as though they have the tools, resources, and permission to do whatever is necessary to meet their commitments.
- Culture of accountability—people and teams feel a deep responsibility to meet their commitments. Accountability also implies consequences—not necessarily being terminated, except in extreme and repeated situations, but more likely consequences to their reputations among their peers.
- Culture of collaboration—while team autonomy and empowerment is important, teams understand their even higher need to work together to accomplish many of the biggest and most meaningful objectives.
- Culture of results—is the focus on output or is the focus on results?
- Culture of recognition—teams often take their cues from what is rewarded and what is accepted. Is it just the team that comes up with the great new idea that gets rewarded, or the team that delivered on a brutally tough commitment? And what is the message if missing a commitment is seen as easily excusable?
So, if these characteristics help define each culture, this begs some pretty tough questions:
- Is an innovation culture in any way inherently at odds with an execution culture?
- Does a strong execution culture lead to a stressful (or worse) work environment?
- What types of people, including leaders, are attracted to, and needed, for each type of culture?
I can tell you that there do exist companies that are very strong at both consistent innovation and execution. Amazon is one of the best examples. However, it’s also well known that the Amazon work environment is not for the faint of heart. I’ve found that most companies that are exceptionally strong at execution are pretty tough places to work.
In my experience working with companies, only a few companies are strong at both innovation and execution. Many are good at execution but weak at innovation; some are strong at innovation and just okay at execution; and a depressing number of companies are poor at both innovation and execution (usually older companies that lost their product mojo a long time ago, but still have a strong brand and customer base to lean on).
In any case, what I hope you and your team will consider doing is assess yourself along these dimensions of innovation and execution, and then ask yourselves where you would like to be, or think you need to be, as a team or company.