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What is the right product management culture

One important tenet, that I believe as a Product Manager is that

Product Manager should stand for what (s)he believes is right for the product and do what (s)he believes is right for the product. I a firm believer in that tenet.

Why is the above tenet so important? Product Manager is a glue that connects every entity (Engineering, Design, Sales, Account Team, Marketing etc.) and thereby has a responsibility to ensure that everyone is walking the same direction towards the same goal. Hence it is vital for Product Manager to stand for what he believes is right for the product and do what is right for the product. I am not talking about shifting power, I am talking about facilitating to do what is right. However, it does not evade the responsibility of others to stand for what they believe is right. To do so, everyone needs to have a same shared vision and work collaboratively for the common good without letting people with the higher power to forcefully enforce ideas irrationally.

But, how do Product Managers can uphold such a tenet and practice it in an Organization. Only through a right culture. So, why is culture so important and how it is related to upholding and practicing a tenant.

Importance of Culture

Culture is a way of doing things in an Organization. Culture is not a rulebook but a set of guidelines that outlines how an Organization would behave. Having a culture that is strongly and consistently imbibed into each employee of an Organization will evoke a similar response for any given situation. Without a culture, Organization is failing to set those guidelines for every employee to share a common belief. Every Organization embrace diversity in hiring people without any discrimination on the basis of age, sex, creed, race, religion, color etc. However, every employee should share a common belief that characterizes the purpose and belief of an Organization. If Organization believes in innovation and if it believes in customer excellence, it should be reflected in Organization culture. Without a strong culture, it is not possible for employees to share a common belief and therefore nothing will be deterministic when things go wrong. The organization is only sowing seeds for a failure. Without a strong culture, Organization is not what it says it is.

For better reference on Organization culture, there is nothing better than slides on Netflix culture on SlideShare:

 

Organization culture should directly or indirectly promote a strong product management culture too. The aspects of what culture should be cultivated in an Organization is determined by its goals and beliefs. Similarly, the goal for a right product management culture is to facilitate Product Managers to stand for what they believe is right for the product and empower them to do what they believe is right for the product. Right product management culture is required not just to influence Product Manager but every entity in an Organization to build and evolve great products that are

  • Built on a foundation of strong product vision that defines the purpose and objective behind the new product.
  • Built-in alignment with real needs of real customers and as desired by those real customers.
  • Built not just for needs of today but for needs of tomorrow in alignment with the evolution of technology trends, market trends, changing customer needs and their behaviors.
  • Built with all essential attributes that drive customer preferences towards the new product.

Celebrate failure

Mediocrity hampers us from building great products. Employees think mediocre, not because of lack of competence, not because of inability to think bold, but because of lack of intention to set high standards. Employees hesitate to set high standards because of fear of being crucified when failed. Probably another reason for such an attitude are those mundane goals characterized as SMART – S ‘Smart’, M ‘Measurable’, A ‘Agreeable’, R ‘Realistic’, T ‘Time-Bound’. Great products are built on a foundation of a great idea that seems unrealistic when conceptualized.  So if Organization is following traditional ways of measuring employee performance, it is only paving way for mediocrity. Realistic goals can be set for predictive outcomes, but along the path of setting a high standard to build great products, the outcomes can seldom be predictive.

 “I’d rather attempt to do something great and fail than to attempt to do nothing and succeed”

– Robert H. Schuller

Only when employees start thinking bold and make an honest attempt to achieve it, they really know their capabilities, they could really gauge the possibilities. When we are thinking bold, thinking future, nothing is a straight line. All of us have to navigate through lots of uncertainties and unknowns to pivot quickly. Unless Organization celebrates failures and unless it cherishes the ability to fail quickly, it is closing the path to greatness.

On the note of celebrating failure, please take a look at the amazing video of Astro Teller (CEO of X) for his thoughts on celebrating failure.

Reward effort, not just outcome

Traditional ways of evaluating employees’ performance are always based on outcomes. Unfortunately, outcomes do not always directly correlate with the capabilities and efforts of employees. Outcomes are more important, but as I had just indicated outcomes do not always depict the real capabilities of the team or its individuals delivering those outcomes. During my days as a development engineer, every time I resolve a critical issue for a customer, I will get a flurry of emails applauding my efforts from customers, account team etc. All those emails will finally be followed by a ‘Thank You’ email from my manager. It is only during those occasions that I get an applauding email from my Manager. Luckily, I had wonderful managers, there were hardly a couple of exceptions in my entire career.

I often wonder, why does even my manager who can have a close watch on what I am doing have to appreciate me only based on an outcome. There are lots of good outcome with little efforts and not so good outcomes with tremendous efforts. For customers, it is definitely outcomes and the impact it has on business is the only tangible way to appreciate our efforts. Nevertheless, it should not be the only yardstick to measure performance internally within an Organization. I always loathe managers who are outcome based.

Appraisals, performance evaluation of every employee is done in a half-yearly and yearly cycle, but building great products does not happen in such a short timeframe. They take time, so just evaluating performance based on outcome is definitely short-sighted. If we had to celebrate failures, we have to start applauding the efforts and not just outcomes. Doing so, Organization provides enough impetus for employees to aim for the sky and yet allows them to fail gracefully without being ridiculed or castigated. Even in case of failure, there is a tremendous realization of various possibilities.

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently”

– Henry Ford

Data-driven

Even though the motivation behind celebrating failure is to inspire employees to set high standards, the other important element is to provide an incentive to fail early and quickly without allowing anyone to hang-on indefinitely until it gets too late.

We always preach fail early and quickly. The primary reason is that we do not want to spend too many efforts and go too far to finally realize we are failing. But then how far is too far. The answer lay in relying on data (both quantitative and qualitative) to analyze how long to persist and when exactly to hit the failure button. For a data-driven model to be successful, it requires a mindset change, a mindset that does not try too hard to be correct. The data-driven model will abstain each of us to remain in a state of prolonged perseverance to hold onto one’s viewpoints without any rationality. There are other inherent advantages of being data-driven (i) Every viewpoint or decision has to be backed by data and not just by the highest paid person’s opinion (HiPPO) and (ii) Data will facilitate better ways to measure the efforts, to quantify knowledge gained out of failure and how it can help us to start intelligently again

Embrace criticism

The organization should develop a culture that is not averse to constructive criticism. Why would criticism be seen as bad (i) arrogance or egocentricity – ‘How can my ideas be criticized?’ The problem is due to bad hire who is culturally misfit (ii) insecurity – ‘Oh, my idea is seen as bad, does it reflect badly on my capability’. No idea or thought is perfect at first instance, criticism should have boundaries and it has to be targeted at an idea or a thought and not on an individual. Originators of an idea too should accept the possibility of imperfection and embrace criticism to make improvements.

When organization culture promotes customer empathy and follows an inclusive and collaborative approach, it stops paying heed to the ideas and opinions of only the highest paid. Doing so, there will be a democratization of ideas and the best ideas that address customer needs will win irrespective of who triggers the idea. Customer empathy will let everyone work for the larger good of the product rather than the self. In such scenarios, constructive criticism will be embraced by each employee to build better products.

Final thoughts

Clearly, the right product management culture that can facilitate Organizations to build a great product is to have everyone think bold and aim for the sky, shed their inhibitions to fail, crush their egos, embrace criticism and subject their actions to scrutiny.  Above all, another important element is to hire the best talent who has the right cultural fit.

Appreciate your thoughts or opinions

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