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Product culture is driven by product operations, even if you don’t think so

This article was originally posted on Mind the Product on September 6, 2022.

A great product culture attracts great product managers. But when it comes to how you, as a product leader, should shape product culture, there’s a lot of advice out there like “empower teams” that feels so big in its scope that it’s hard to take action. It’s very easy for managers to say “yes, let’s build a great product culture” but much more challenging to make the change.

Teams practice great product management by having the product operations at the company set up for them to thrive. It then naturally follows that a company’s product culture is shaped by its product operations (product ops). Neglecting product ops creates an inconsistent, stressful, and less effective product culture. When leadership pays attention to product ops, it makes it easier for every team to function and pays dividends as a result. Below, I’ll dive into the connections between product ops and product culture, why product ops is an effective lever to pull to shift product culture, and how to begin shaping your own product culture through product operations.

Explaining product culture

Product culture is a subset of company culture – as VP Product explains: “[Product culture] also defines how an organization works, what values it holds etc. In short, it defines how the staff at an organization behaves toward each other and the outside world.” A healthy product culture will be more likely to ship successful products and create more business value. An unhealthy product culture will struggle to ship software that consistently has a positive impact on company goals.

Make it easy for teams to practice great product management in order to craft an excellent product culture. Find ways to make it easier for product managers on your team to use all the data at their disposal for better decision-making. This ultimately means delivering more value to customers, faster.

Unrealistic expectations

Product leaders ask for a lot from product managers, but then put the onus on the PM to accomplish everything within those expectations. PMs are expected to be strategic thinkers, project managers, tech interpreters, customer evangelists, user researchers, go-to-market experts, copywriters, marketers, data analysts, entrepreneurs and then some. They are constantly being told that if they “work smarter, not harder”, then they will succeed. I’ve seen a lot of product leaders then coach them on prioritization of time, how to “hack” their schedules, and coming up with other suggestions on how to improve efficiency. But focusing exclusively on time management is treating the symptoms, not the underlying issue.

Even though those leaders are trying to support their reports through the role, expecting the PMs to find time to work on creating more time in the day makes the entire situation worse. And most product leaders I know are extremely busy themselves, so they are limited in their capacity to help.

When PMs are asked to figure it out on their own, a common pattern emerges: every product manager on the team tries to hack their way to productivity in a way that works for them. Sometimes it works great, sometimes it doesn’t. The organization has a different way of working depending on which team you’re on, forcing partners to adjust their mental mod as they work with one product manager and then another. Engineers feel like they need to navigate new ceremonies, agile practices, and development habits every time they switch to a new team, and executives start to complain that they don’t know which product manager to go to for what questions. This lack of unity taxes the entire organization and creates a sense that “there is no product culture”. Performance across individuals is inconsistent and people talk about the “good PMs” and the “bad product managers”.

John Cutler on work ethic in product management
John Cutler on work ethic in product management

Companies place massive expectations on product managers and then struggle to support them to meet those expectations. As managers, it’s our job to look at the environment they’re in to help them thrive.

The path of least resistance

If it is harder to follow product management best practices, it is less likely the product manager will excel and more likely that they will describe the product culture as “weak”. It isn’t a lack of desire or knowledge about what great product management looks like – it’s just that there is too much friction in the role to be a great product manager all the time.

Camille Fournier on managerial beliefs
Camille Fournier on managerial beliefs

So as a product leader, our job is to make sure that it’s as easy as possible for them to do the things that are most important. Want them to do more user research? Make it automatic to schedule calls with customers. Believe that great roadmaps improve cross-team collaboration? Create templates and playbooks on how to communicate the most information in the least time-consuming way possible. And most critically – give the team permission to not do certain things so that their time can be freed up.

All of this work falls under the category of product ops. Creating systems, patterns, and paths of least resistance to doing great product work. And it’s worth your time because these things can start to amplify each other. Better user research means that it can be easier to develop with engineers, leading to less time slogging away on user stories, freeing up more time for other things. Strong roadmaps mean less time where cross-departmental partners in marketing, sales, and customer support are asking the PM for status updates on what is coming down the pipeline. Product ops is the epitome of “work smarter, not harder.”

The first step in product ops: the assessment

Just as with all of product management, the first step towards coming up with a solution is understanding the problem. Run a product ops assessment. Determine what goals you should be focusing on. Figure out where there are structures, tools, and processes in place to enable the team to succeed, and identify where better support systems would lead to better outcomes.

Talk to your team. Figure out where they’re struggling and how they want to be helped. Craft a plan to actually put together the support system to make them thrive. And then get feedback on it and iterate. And if you don’t have the time to do this yourself, bring someone in for a few months who can move it forward.

The short version? Good product ops treats your product organization like a product. Identify unmet needs, build solutions, measure, and iterate. The investment in the people doing the work is well worth it. Whether you have anyone explicitly working on product ops or not, it exists anyway. Best put some effort into shaping it, lest it get out of control.