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The dangers in blind pursuit of better culture

Why writing down a Product Culture Blueprint helps you work it out

Elliot* was writing up his annual review after his first year on the product ops team. He had a lot of accomplishments to list – he completed a majority of the tasks that his product leader had brought him in to work on. 

The more he wrote, the less satisfied he began to feel. The product team wanted to build an outcomes-driven culture, yet his writeup sounded like a list of outputs. What had actually been the impact of his work? Was the product team making better decisions, or were feature launches going better? 

Meanwhile, at a different client, the product leader was struggling. Jesse wanted to move the team away from their feature-factory past and was introducing a lot of changes to try and make that happen. But the team was struggling. The constant introduction of new processes was disorienting and morale was starting to drop. 

The Product Culture Blueprint in the company context

Neither Elliot nor Jesse had a clear enough sense of what product team culture they were trying to build. Because they didn’t define what a stronger product culture is, the changes they were making in the organization lacked focus.

One technique I’ve used to provide that focus is writing up what I call a Product Culture Blueprint. This artifact defines the vision for what kind of product culture the team wants to build. It can be put together in a few hours and helps align everyone around a shared future.

A Blueprint is the first step in the product operations strategy stack because it defines success. A product manager without a vision ends up building random features. In the same way, product leadership without a vision gives their teams whiplash with the frequent changes to their product operations.

The Blueprint can’t be a wish list of an ideal company culture. It has to fit within the context of the company culture. I’ve heard some heads of product say “we want Marty Cagan’s empowered product teams” without thinking about their company’s culture.

Your product organization’s culture has to live within your company culture. You can’t take a completely different company’s culture and try to shoehorn it in. For example, I had a client with a very opinionated CEO. We didn’t include pushing decision-making down to the product teams because that clashed with the company culture.

Implementing a great Product Culture Blueprint

I break my Blueprint implementation down into three phases: how it’s created, communicated, and used.

Created

This effort must stem from the head of product. They should involve others, either as collaborators or delegates, but if the leader isn’t interested in the Blueprint, the project will go nowhere.

Involve the entire product organization in crafting the vision at some level. They can provide feedback on a first draft or share what their aspirations for the culture are. The more buy-in you can get from the whole team, the more successful the culture change will be.

When I work with clients on drafting their Blueprints, I facilitate conversation. I help bring the words out and document them in a way that others can use; it is my job to help them articulate their vision, not craft it. One technique that works well is bringing in a list of attributes of different product teams (empowered, customer-centric, data-driven) and doing blind voting on them. The agreements and disagreements are very telling.

Communicated

Communicate the Blueprint broadly. That means writing it down or recording it in a shareable way. When the vision is trapped in a product leader’s head, it’s very hard for others to support creating that vision because they can’t see or understand it clearly.

Get it written down, then share it frequently and widely.

Used

The vision cannot sit buried in a folder. Make sharing the vision part of the recruiting and onboarding process to get new hires excited. Refer to the vision in meetings and evaluate managers against how well they’re bringing their teams towards it.

When the vision is well-communicated, tells a compelling story, and is frequently used, I almost always start seeing progress toward making it a reality. Nonetheless, be patient – culture changes always take time.

Writing out your vision

The good news is that it’s much easier to draft a Blueprint than a product vision. Product cultures come in a few different flavors, such as data-driven or engineering-driven, and you will find a variant of one model that works well for your team.

I mentioned above that company decision-making style might influence your team culture. Company strategy will play a role too. If you are a B2C company with tens of thousands of daily customers, an experimentation-driven culture makes a lot of sense. For high-ticket B2B enterprise companies with a few dozen customers, that might not be the right direction.

Once you have a sense of your company culture, you can define a product culture that can fit within that. For this, I like to rely on Baker Nanduru’s seven elements of product culture:

Planning: Find the right balance between short-term and long-term outcomes
Measurement: Shift the focus from output to outcomes
Mindset: Are you customer-obsessed? Or solution obsessed?
Pace: Find the right pace between slow-then-explosive “Big bang” to faster and more iterative
Collaboration: Find the balance between “hands-off” and deep collaboration
Risk Taking: Move from filling detailed specifications to a culture of rapid experimentation
Decisions: Encourage people to make decisions based on data (and not fear and “CYAs,” for example)
[Jenny’s addition] Communication: Determine the style and type of communication that your team needs

Within these seven elements, I try to stack-rank them to further clarify their importance. Some teams value a faster pace, even if that means working with less data. Other teams might want to spend the time to make sure they have a thorough picture of what they’re working on before moving forward. This is best accompanied by a narrative that explains why these choices were made.

Product teams work better with a blueprint

Great leaders get their teams working together to achieve something they couldn’t do on their own. Aligning everyone around a particular vision is a critical step of that. The more we treat our product cultures like our products themselves, the more progress we can make in our organizations.

Creating your product culture vision is a very simple step that can have huge benefits. It can be put together in a few hours and will help everyone move in the same direction. If you’re struggling with this, please reach out about a workshop – I’d be happy to facilitate this process for your company.

Elliot used his Blueprint to go back to leadership to change how he approached his role. It allowed him to have a conversation not about a task list but about the goals of his product operations role. 

As I started defining a Blueprint with Jesse, he started to find ways to prioritize some initiatives over others. Sharing his vision with the team gave them context to the changes and increased their confidence in them. 

When you write your Blueprint out, please do send it my way – I’m hoping to put together a collection of these statements that can inspire others.

Thank you so much for the excellent edits: Christy Lutz (#openToWork), Jacqui Taggart, Larry McKeogh, and Kedar Deshpande. This was a lot more confusing before you added your comments.

* The names have been changed but their stories are real.