If we asked you right now to describe your organization’s product culture, what would you say? Don’t be too hard on yourself here. Almost nobody we ask has a ready answer, not even experienced product managers. In fact, we’ve found that very few people even know what a product culture is. So let’s start there.

What is Product Culture?

What exactly do we mean by product culture anyway? And how is it different than company culture?

Product culture is yet another aspect of the broader organization that product management is responsible for. It’s different from company culture in that product culture describes fundamental beliefs surrounding product development that guide how decisions are made.

Much like company culture, product culture is a shared mindset. Except in this context, the mindset applies specifically to the product. Often product culture leans on ideas and insights from agile, design thinking, customer centricity, and other product management and development principles. But, culture is not limited by any one thing. Rather it is the result of multiple influences, experiences, and beliefs.

And product management is a driving force behind the identification of their organization’s product culture. Today we’ll look at a few examples of balanced product culture and the outcomes it can drive. Then, we’ll look at a few pitfalls to avoid when helping your organization identify its unique product culture.

What is Google’s Product Culture?

Our first example of how a company’s product culture looks in action is none other than Google. Author Marty Cagan does a nice job of illustrating how Google’s product culture is built on hiring and empowering great product managers. In his discussion of the book How Google Works (by former CEO Eric Schmidt and former head of product Jonathan Rosenberg), Cagan distills Google’s product culture by summarizing the book’s main themes, such as:

  • Hiring and developing very strong product managers (the critical first step)
  • Building and nurturing strong, cross-functional, co-located, empowered product teams
  • Giving those product teams clear KPIs (OKRs)
  • Focusing on innovation on technology-enabled solutions
  • Using data strategically
  • Focusing relentlessly on the customer experience

Clearly, Google is an organization that elevates product—or more specifically, our experience using its products—to the highest levels of the company’s mission. We know, for example, that Google puts greater emphasis on creating outstanding customer experiences than on short-term revenue-generating initiatives. Customer first: that’s one way to develop product culture.

Unfortunately, most organizations fall short of the Google model. No matter how much they would like to have a strong product culture, a combination of factors—strong personalities in other departments, pressure from investors, an inexperienced product team, etc.—lead most organizations to fall victim to one or more of these product culture mistakes.

Other Examples of Product Culture:

Starting to see a little theme here? Empowerment is huge. But there’s more to a good product culture than an empowered team of smart people. Even empowered teams can fall into a few of the product culture pitfalls we’ve outlined below. Make sure you avoid them as well.

Sales-Driven Product Culture: Mistake 1

This is one of the more common missteps a company can make in developing (or, more accurately, failing to develop) its product culture. Be very careful about falling into this trap, because it can be awful for your organization’s long-term health.

When the sales department dominates the product team’s decisions about what to build, the organization is much less likely to develop an innovative and strategically viable product with real staying power in the market.

This is because the sales reps will be chasing individual deals and their own sales numbers: This big company wants this feature ASAP; this existing customer says if we don’t prioritize this functionality, they’ll end their subscription. My biggest account this year is frustrated about these two bugs… so drop everything and fix them NOW!

Bottom line: When you build your organization around a sales culture instead of a more balanced product culture, you risk chasing individual sales and not truly serving a market.

Executive-Driven Product Culture: Mistake 2

Another common misstep product teams make is allowing their senior-leadership team to simply dictate all strategic (and sometimes even the tactical, day-to-day) decisions about the product.

The executive team certainly has a role in setting the product’s vision and, if they’re interested, helping to shape the agenda for the product’s development. But the actual strategic decisions about how to drive the product from the roadmap stage through market release and beyond? Those decisions should arise organically from studying the market, learning about the product’s user and buyer personas, and adjusting priorities and plans as new data emerge. Those initiatives, as you know, are the responsibility of the product manager—not the executive staff.

Bottom line: When you allow your executives to dictate product decisions for the product team, you’ll end up not with a strong product culture but instead with an executive-hunch culture. Not good.

Oh, and if you’re wondering how you can reclaim this decision-making responsibility from a steamrolling exec, read our post on how product managers can say no (yes, even to executives).

Engineering-Driven Product Culture: Mistake 3

In some organizations, the development or engineering team becomes the dominant decision-maker when it comes to the product’s strategic direction.

This can happen for several reasons. Maybe the product team lacks experience, and they’re either reluctant to push back against the more experienced engineers in the company, or they simply assume the engineers should have strategic authority over the product.

In other cases, the company is engineering-dominant because its founders were engineers, and they bring that mindset to their new organization.

Indeed, your company’s engineering team might have great strategic ideas and insights to contribute to your product’s development. But it’s important to remember that the product team—not engineering—has ultimate responsibility for the product’s success or failure in the market. (Nobody calls the vice president of engineering the “CEO of the product,” after all.) Which means you cannot build a strong product culture if the development team is making the product’s major strategic decisions.

Bottom line: When you allow your engineering team to drive the product’s strategic decisions, you are far less likely to build a product that benefits from all of the market knowledge and research the product team has—which means you are far less likely to develop the right product for the right personas at the right time.

Product-Centric Product Development: Mistake 4

Finally, in many organizations the product team manages to avoid the common pitfalls we’ve discussed—allowing other departments or people in the organization to assume strategic authority over the product—but they still fall into this one. They operate as a strong product team… but in a silo, and they fail to reap the full benefits of working closely with all of the other teams across the company.

It doesn’t matter how many streamlined process or best practices your product team puts in place. It doesn’t matter how hard you and your product colleagues work or how dedicated you are. Your product can’t possibly be as effective as it could be if you fail to tap into the collective knowledge and experience of the other teams in your organization.

Bottom line: Building a strong and effective product culture doesn’t mean simply working well with your product colleagues or caring a lot about the products you build. It also involves allowing everyone across the company to do their jobs and contribute in their own ways to your product’s success. For that, you need a product team that operates not as a closed-off entity within the company but one that works as a part of a cross-functional product team that leverages relevant skills and expertise throughout your company. Which brings us to our conclusion…

What a Great Product Culture Looks Like

As we’ve been hinting throughout this post, a great product culture involves giving everyone—not just the product team—the tools, time, resources, and strategic direction to do their jobs and contribute to the product’s success.

The secret to great product culture is balance.

A balanced product organization considers all inputs. That means the sales organization should help by informing the product team about what they’re learning by interacting with the market. Sales isn’t driving the product decisions—but they’re informing those decisions with real-world market research and feedback.

It means the executive team should be creating a product-first company environment in which the product team is able to hire the best product managers, give them clear strategic objectives, and give them plenty of creative freedom to act on the knowledge they’re gaining. The executives should be involved in developing the strategic vision for the product—but they should then step aside and let the team they’ve hired do their jobs.

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Executives should be involved in developing the product’s strategic vision—but they should then let the PMs they’ve hired do their jobs.

And it means the engineering department should contribute its unique knowledge and technical perspective to inform the product’s plan. They can communicate what’s feasible, what will likely consume too many resources or create an unacceptable amount of technical debt, etc. But ultimately they may leave those strategic decisions to the product team.

In other words, a great product culture—like Google’s—is built largely around a strong cross-functional team led by empowered product managers.

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