Treat Your Product Team Like a Sports Team, Not a Family

Cultural fit is a relatively new concept in hiring and team building. While organizations have always had culture, the long-held expectation was that new employees would adapt to the said culture, and people would be hired purely based on resumes.

Companies now realize just how important corporate culture is to their ability to grow, adapt, react, and thrive. At the same time, it’s widely acknowledged that the most qualified candidate isn’t necessarily the best one if they’re not a good fit for the culture. This has given hiring managers the confidence to reject prospects who look perfect on paper but might not mesh with the existing team and company norms.

Read From Product Manager to Product Leader ➜

Why culture matters

A team or company’s culture is more than just whether people eat lunch together or bring their dogs to work; it saturates every aspect of how the team both works together and approaches isolated challenges.. Culture sets the tone, permeating every aspect of the team and the quality of their work.

“When you take a group of independently talented people and create a team in which they can merge their talents, not only will a remarkable amount of energy and creativity be released, but their performance, loyalty, and engagement will be greatly improved,” says Peter Economy of INC Magazine.

A team’s culture reinforces the goals and objectives of the overall organization in ways that strategic directives, performance reviews, and staff meetings alone can’t foster. Culture is “always-on” and implicit for the team members living it daily.

“A strong organizational culture keeps your company’s core values front and center in all aspects of its day-to-day operations and organizational structure,” says Corey Moseley of Jostle. “A successful organizational culture brings together the people at your company and keeps them aligned. When your culture is clear, different perspectives can gather behind it with a common purpose.”

While individual accomplishments, product milestones, major deals, and setbacks may temporarily steal the spotlight, a team’s culture shapes the day-to-day life of employees. It contributes significantly to their job satisfaction and is often what they’ll remember most years from now.

The perils of “family” culture

While the Olive Garden may treat its customers like family, many companies claim that honor for their employees. While this sounds great, it’s actually fraught with peril for a company to actually act like a family.

There are obviously many great things about a familial atmosphere in a workplace. Families are compassionate and empathetic to each other, care deeply about feelings and fairness, and are protective of members at all costs. This creates an environment where workers feel appreciated and looked after, which can make for a very attractive workplace.

However, families are not particularly well known for their ability to adapt rapidly, focus on execution, and shed underperformers. In most families, everyone will always have the back of their family members and put up with all kinds of poor behavior, bad decisions, and distractions. Because, well, they’re family. Parents think every child is special and provide unconditional love and support.

When this familial loyalty leaks into decision-making, it can impact a company’s responsiveness to market changes, financial conditions, and customers. You don’t fire your little brother when he doesn’t clean his room and your cousin just gets an eye roll when they make inappropriate comments at family functions.

But tolerating poor results or unacceptable behavior doesn’t square up with operating high-performing teams in a fast-paced, competitive environment. That’s why emulating a family isn’t ideal for corporate culture.

Fostering a product sports team culture

Unlike a family, sports teams are constructed around a singular purpose. Everyone knows what the goal is before the very first practice, and any activity that doesn’t advance the team toward that goal is a distraction.

“For a group of individuals to become a ‘team,’ a common purpose must first be established. This limits ambiguity regarding what the team is looking to achieve,” says Warrick Wood in Psychology Today. “It is also interesting to note that when teams have such a ‘performance focus’, they often perform better due to enhanced focus, appropriate levels of anxiety, and greater enjoyment.”

Because of the common, shared goal, team members have an immediate bond because they’re all working toward the same thing. There is camaraderie and a sense of belonging, but not at the expense of trying to achieve the primary objective.

Positions with a sports team must be earned—no player is born into the Yankees or the Patriots roster—and a player’s role on the team isn’t guaranteed (even if their contract is). If someone better for the job is available, a team won’t hesitate to upgrade the position even though teammates may be fond of the displaced incumbent.

Teams are also comprised of players with various skills and attributes playing different positions. For example, a goalie and a striker do the exact opposite things on a soccer pitch, but they share a common goal. There is no confusion about who should be doing what, and the goalie isn’t silently stewing that they should be the one taking penalty kicks.

Sports teams can only succeed when they’re running the same play. If one player decides to switch things up without coordinating with their peers, they will inevitably fail and the blame can clearly be assigned to the freelancing outlier who put their own interests ahead of the team.

They’ll also experience success and failure during the course of the season, winning and losing individual games while still trying to advance to their ultimate goal. Experiencing these highs and lows as a unit builds a bond and forces them to look inward both individually and collectively to continually improve and learn from their mistakes.

“In team sports that really succeed, there often is a lot of warmth between the players. And so it’s emphasizing those aspects, and demonstrating that when people come in, everyone tries to help them,” says Reed Hastings of Netflix. “But ultimately, it is about performance, unlike a family, which is really about unconditional love. Even if your brother does something awful and goes to jail, your love doesn’t stop. And that’s just a different and important part of society, but that’s not what we’re about. What we’re about is collectively changing the world in the areas of Internet television, and that takes incredible performance at every level.”

Applying sports to your product team

Instilling a sports product team culture in your company takes time… and great timing. There’s no quick fix, magic application that suddenly turns your work environment into a highly collaborative and functional setting.

“Putting a ping pong table on the floor of a corporate office made up of people with individualist or sexist attitudes will not automatically create a good culture,” says Alana Brajdic of SafetyCulture. “Culture takes time to build. It’s not tangible.”

When possible, it’s always a good idea to invest in cultural definition and installation as early as possible in your team’s formation and evolution. This creates a solid foundation for growth while preventing bad habits from setting in.

“It’s best to start thinking about this when your team is small, and the culture is still malleable. A company’s culture cements very quickly,” says LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. “So as you grow, you have to be very careful about what it is you’re scaling. You can get away with a lot more when your staff is teeny—say, two or three people. To succeed as you scale, you have to leverage every person in the organization. And to do that, you have to be very intentional about how you craft the culture.”

But creating a team dynamic goes beyond platitudes and structure, it’s imbued in every aspect of how a team operates. Successful sports teams don’t wait around for the coach to tell them what to do, they’re constantly helping each other improve with continual feedback. The best athletes crave this input, as it helps them continue to refine and hone their individual game, which in turn improves the overall performance of the team.

Ready to get out your whistle and put together a winning squad? Here are ten things to remember:

Onboard like it’s training camp

When a player joins a new team, they’re handed the playbook and get immersed in the rules and expectations of the club. The same goes for your new product management hires. Don’t expect people to just come in and figure things out on their own; set the stage on Day One with concrete materials and guidance.

Clear objectives and well-structured plays to get there

Make sure everyone knows what the team is trying to accomplish and map out a course full of specific steps and milestones to get there. Don’t just assume everyone will do the right thing.

Practice and skill development

Even superstars are still shooting free throws in the gym after games and working on new ball-handling moves. Your product managers all have areas they can improve on so build a custom development plan for each one and give them the opportunities to execute it.


Product management is a grind requiring tons of communication and attention to detail. New hires can’t “turn it up to 11” instantly, so let folks work up to things gradually, but with frequent usage of each “muscle” a product manager might flex during the season.

Put people in the right positions

You don’t put a lefty at third base, so why are you putting your UX guru onto the API project? Look at the talent you have and slot them into roles that best benefit the team by utilizing their unique skills and attributes.

Consistent consequences

Whether it’s your star player or a benchwarmer, when someone breaks the rules, the punishment should be the same. If you’re viewed as playing favorites, it can sink morale and create a team full of divas only looking out for themselves.

Quash negativity

It only takes one bad apple to ruin team morale. Nip it in the bud or suffer the consequences.

Don’t confuse success with great execution

Sometimes there are great results even when people don’t run the play that was called. While people occasionally should feel empowered to change things up on the fly, a team can only maintain success when it knows what the other members are doing and what the expected results should be. Even a winning play can be a teaching moment.

Review the game film

Every release is an opportunity for self-evaluation. Use post-mortems to spot what’s working and what’s not in a collaborative setting.

Give out game balls

When people excel they should be rewarded with a public acknowledgment of a job well gone. This sets a positive example and gets the whole product team involved in their praise while giving other team members something to strive for.