The Culture of the Product team

A note for new subscribers: This post is part of a series on my notes on technology product management (this is what I do for a living). You might notice that these posts often link to older posts in the series on LinkedIn even though they are all available on this blog. That is intended for folks who only want to follow future product management related posts. Finally, for all those of you who don’t build tech products for a living, I believe many of these notes have broader applicability. And, I hope you find that to be the case as well…

A quick overview of what we’ve covered on “Notes on Product Management” so far –

A valued member of our product team recently shared they’re leaving. The logic was sound – an interesting career pivot opportunity came up and the timing felt right.

While I was happy for this teammate, I was sad for me.

When you work at a large organization, goodbyes are a natural part of life. For the most part, you smile, wish the person good luck, and go your respective ways. On occasion, the goodbye is accompanied by relief (often for both folks involved :-)). And, every once a while, you find yourself experiencing a jolt of sadness when you hear the news.

Those jolts of sadness are important moments as they signal how special that relationship/person was to you. And, as I was reflecting on what made this relationship special, I realized it came down to how I think about the culture of a product team.

The culture of a product team

Culture is the set of shared attitudes, values, and behavior of a team. It shows up in the decisions a team makes on behalf of the user/customer and the organization. It also shows up in daily conversation in refrains that implicitly say – “This is how we do things here.”

Every team has a culture. This culture, by definition, is different from the culture of the company because the culture of a team is most driven by the people and processes on the team. While companies with strong cultures can have a high degree of uniformity in decision making process and the kinds of people they hire, the influence is, at best, loose at the level of an individual team. The people in the team and the leaders on it determine the culture.

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If culture determines how decisions are made, the team’s culture becomes the team’s strategy in the long run. So, thinking intentionally about the product team’s culture is among the most powerful levers we have as an individual contributor PM or IC PM.

How can an IC PM impact the culture of the team?

Let’s start with the obvious – there is no way an IC PM can walk into a team and make a proclamation on the team’s culture. :-) This is less about talking and more about doing. And, there are 3 things we can do to help influence the culture of our product team:

(1) Figure out the top 3-4 behaviors we desire in our product team – bonus points for articulating them in a way that sticks (e.g. “It is still day 0 at Amazon”)

(2) Set the right example by embodying these behaviors – bonus points for adopting a few quirks that draw attention to these behaviors

(3) Hire and celebrate members of the team who embody these behaviors and thus become ambassadors of the culture – bonus points for telling stories about these behaviors that are retold.

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As ideas like this are easier to digest with examples, I thought I’d share how I attempt to implement these in my day-to-day.

One IC PM’s culture-shaping process

The 3 behaviors I’ve come to desire on a product team are:

(a) High velocity data-informed experimentation: 

A product team’s velocity is its super power. 3 quirks/obsessions that drive home this behavior –

(i) Problem statements: Velocity is different from speed because velocity also includes direction. We set the direction on the team with the problem statements we articulate. No project starts without every member of the team understanding what problem we’re attempting to solve.

(ii) A focus on experiments/ramps: We spend a lot of time discussing experiments, holding ourselves accountable around ETAs, analyzing results, and celebrating iterations. Very few of these experiments actually hit gold – but, with some thoughtfulness and a focus on rapid iterations, we drastically improve our odds

(iii) Team diligence on operational metrics (email/dashboards): We do our best to create daily email reports and/or dashboards that are sent to the team. And, we use these daily email reports and/or dashboards to ask questions and understand what is going on. A simple rule – whenever there is variance (week-on-week or year-on-year), it is always worth understanding what happened.

(b) Deep cross-functional collaboration:

The two biggest drivers of deep cross-functional collaboration are psychological safety and shared/aligned context – this section focuses on the latter. 3 quirks/obsessions that drive home the point:

(i) Making peace with/welcoming large meetings: Most meaningful projects involve large cross-functional product teams.

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I’ve learnt that there is no chance of accomplishing deep cross functional collaboration if members of the team don’t feel they’re part of the journey. And, ensuring that happens means making peace with (and even getting good at managing) large meetings.

A key lesson around meeting size is that the decision is binary. Either choose a small and efficient meeting where you prevent the meeting invite from being forwarded (and possibly annoy a few people). Or, set the topic and agenda and don’t worry about the size. It may feel less efficient at first – but, the shared context generally leads to higher long term effectiveness.

(ii) Responsiveness on email/Slack/Teams to avoid communication bottlenecks: In organizations where the Product Manager has the privilege to be the hub of the product team, responsiveness goes a long way in ensuring others have the context they need to operate effectively.

I don’t recommend taking this to extremes as it means you’ll never find the time to focus. But, if team members know to expect they’ll hear back on questions and also know how to reach you when they need to get unblocked, it helps.

(iii) Emphasis on planning and documentation: This is another behavior that is key to everyone having shared context. The better the documentation, the more independently everyone operates.

Second, as we work on a larger and more ambiguous product areas, it is likely we’ll have to deal with plenty of conflict and disagreement in the product development process. There’s no getting away from it – especially in organizations with teams with different incentives.

In such situations, habitually starting with a document helps us quickly get to the source of the disagreement (e.g. do we disagree on the problem statement, hypothesis, or success metrics?) and move the discussion to productive conflict and alignment faster.

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(c) Small things done with extraordinary care:

I first heard this idea a few years ago – “You can’t always do big things. But, you can do small things with extraordinary love.” It was love at first sight.

This “extraordinary care” idea isn’t easy to embody but here are 3 quirks/obsessions that attempt to do so:

(1) Invest in getting to know every member of the team: I do my best to start every collaboration with a 1×1 conversation where the only agenda is getting to know the other person. As part of this, I ask 3 questions – (i) Would love to know your story starting from where you were born to now (typically gets a laugh), (ii) What do you do when you have free time?, (iii) What is the dream?

It is amazing how much we learn about people from just one such conversation. More often than not, we just realize that we work with fascinating humans – and that we’d never have known if we hadn’t dug deeper.

(2) Collecting and responding to feedback: We aim to have at least one feedback conversation every few weeks. This is done casually – e.g. just a question in a stand-up about how everyone is feeling. Every one of these conversations tends to result in some pointed feedback that I/we aim to respond to immediately. The more folks understand they’re being heard, the more feedback I/we get, and the better we learn to operate.

(3) Appreciation: The lesson I’ve learnt around appreciation is that it is far more effective when it happens naturally. I’ve seen and attempted versions of “kudos” during regular meetings – but, somehow, forced appreciation doesn’t work anywhere as nicely as when we just learn to notice when folks do something good and ensure they’re celebrated for what they did. Frequently.

The quirks and notes above are all manifestations of my personality and what I care about. However, the core principle underneath it all is that it is important to be intentional about the cultural norms and behaviors we inspire. Culture is always being created – so, it is on us to consciously create one that we desire.

Now, of course, the above notes are all about actions we can take to shape culture. However, the far more effective method of shaping the culture of a group is by finding ambassadors who consistently demonstrate the behaviors we desire. If we find members in the group who exhibit some or all the behavior, we can both celebrate them and tell their stories. Doing so helps the rest of the group take inspiration from “how things are done here.”

Every once a while, we might even find ourselves fortunate to work with a “bar raiser.” Such a person doesn’t just exhibit the behaviors we desire, they do it in a way that raises the bar for everyone else – including us.

This was why the goodbye I mentioned at the start of this note was particularly painful. When I started working on a new set of products 9 months ago, I was blown away by this team member’s velocity, desire to collaborate and learn, and depth of care for all the small details. My time on this team promised to inspire me to set the bar higher for the culture of the team and also learn plenty along the way.

It lived up to its promise.

That, in turn, is the most amazing thing about being a student of culture. As it is a set of aspirational behaviors, we keep meeting people over the years whose behavior helps us better articulate what we desire and show us how we can set the bar higher. No matter their current title, these folks are the true leaders of any team. They lead by setting high standards and expect everyone else to follow – often by believing more in them than they do in themselves.

Working with someone who relentlessly raises the bar is often painful at first – especially if we’re one of those who needs to shape up. It might even seem as if it isn’t paying off for the longest time.

Until it does… big time.