Product Culture: Making it your own

What seems missing in all the writing about product culture

Hundreds of product leaders have written articles about how to build a strong product culture, but there are very few examples of failures. To really understand what it takes, we need to learn from successes as well as failures. In that vein, I’d like to share an example from my own experience.

Our team of product managers work on delivering critical education technology for hundreds of thousands of learners around the world. About a year ago, one of my product managers left because she felt disillusioned with our way of operating relative to what she had read about in other companies. Never wanting anyone to be unhappy with their experience, I wished her well and we parted ways.

But that moment got me thinking. Is all of that writing on product culture missing out on an important piece of the puzzle?

Perhaps we think all product culture should fit into a perfect mold, when, in reality, there is no one right way to do product. I have come to believe that product culture needs to be adapted very significantly based on the dynamics of each company’s business model and industry.

All product leaders want high-quality and full-featured products, delivered fast and on budget. However, achieving all of those all of the time is rarely possible, so looking more closely at the environments around product organizations can help identify what pressures may be influencing the behaviors and values of those teams.

Below are some archetypes I’ve collected based on my own experience and from speaking to other product leaders. While I have described them as independent archetypes, every organization is going to exhibit aspects of multiple archetypes in the real world.

Consumer-first

In consumer-driven industries where the customer experience is paramount, such as entertainment or social media apps, we usually find strong product cultures that focus on great design and a delightful user experience. The days are filled with design sprints, focus groups, and A/B testing. This is the archetype most people think of when describing healthy product cultures; however, in the pursuit of rapid growth, there can be less of a focus on building sustainable business models or managing cost. (Note, this is not to say that strong product leaders can’t also do those things; rather, these factors often take an understandable backseat to design and user experience.)

Competition-first

In industries with a strong competitive drive or first-mover advantage, such as automobiles, we find product cultures that are focused on feature superiority. They spend a lot of time in ideation sessions looking for the next big thing to launch and get an edge on the competition, even if it’s temporary. These companies are full of innovative thinkers who have a drive to win. However, since speed to market is paramount, these organizations can tend to have less of a focus on user design or controlling costs. Sometimes these product organizations de-prioritize fixing old pain points, specifically those that don’t help win in the market. Unchecked, this could lead to mounting tech debt or dissatisfaction among their most loyal customers.

Deadlines-first

In highly-seasonal industries such as education, we find effective product cultures with a focus on delivering product within predictable timelines. They create detailed project plans, forecast feature completion dates, and develop productivity metrics so they can fit the most amount of scope for the customer into a fixed duration of time. They attract highly organized, detail-oriented product managers who thrive on hitting milestones. When unchecked, success in these cultures comes to rely more on predictably executing on standard procedures, rather than doing customer research or ideating. As a result of deadlines that must be met, sacrifices end up getting made to scope, design, or cost.

Cost-first

In low-margin industries such as retail, we find scrappy product cultures that focus on getting the most bang-for-the-buck. They plan resources carefully and track spend at a very granular level. Taken to the extreme, there can be very little room for ideation or innovation that will lead to throw-away code — especially if it can’t be capitalized over multiple years. These organizations attract enterprising product managers who look at resource constraints as a challenge to be met, not something to complain about. As with the previous archetype, scope or design can take a backseat to staying within budget or meeting deadlines.

Combinations

In the real world, combinations of these archetypes are not only possible, but also highly likely. For example, the retail industry is likely to be driven by cost (i.e., low margins) and deadlines (e.g., the holiday season). Combining these archetypes in different ways leads to the beautiful diversity of product cultures we see today. There is no one right answer and every organization must develop their own view of what good looks like.

What can we do about it?

Each of the archetypes above have strengths and weaknesses. The role of product leaders is not to let the dynamics of their business model or industry determine their fate, but to spend time reflecting on what those dynamics mean for pressures on their teams and people. Specifically:

  1. They find ways to take advantage of the strengths of their archetypes and mitigate the weaknesses. For example, product leaders in deadline-driven industries that have great predictability over their software releases can help their marketing or sales colleagues plan further out. To mitigate the downside, they build in explicit buffers for ideation and the creativity that can get lost when there’s a relentless focus on the next milestone.
  2. They sharpen their recruiting to attract product managers that thrive in their specific environment. Hiring a really creative product manager to work under intense deadlines or cost pressures is unlikely to be a good match. Conversely, hiring a planning-oriented product manager for an organization that spends a lot of time ideating is going to drive that person crazy.
  3. They look to their teams to gauge whether each of their product managers can adapt their style to the unique dynamics of the business and industry. If not, then leaders must be willing to proactively coach and mentor their people. If that doesn’t work, then strong product leaders also care enough about their people to be candid with them about their future potential.
  4. And finally, strong product leaders take special care of the misfits. They serve an important role in challenging the status quo and identifying the organization’s blind spots. But, life for those people is tough, so they need constant acknowledgment of the value they provide.

Product culture is extremely difficult to get right and we must start by acknowledging that there is no one-size-fits-all. The archetypes above are certainly not exhaustive; they illustrate the point that a company’s industry and business model will exert pressures on the product organization, but they are not inescapable.

Strong product leaders will take action to build the culture that works best for them and their people.

SVP Product, @Pearson. Dabble in educ investing. Passion for turning ed into outcomes. Former teacher, principal, consultant & coder. History buff.

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