Transforming Product Culture at Scale

What to do if your product culture cannot keep up with the company’s growth

Vincent Chan
Apr 24, 2020 · 11 min read

This post is a modified version of my talk at Product Management Festival APAC 2019 on how to transform product culture. After some requests for the slides, I thought I’d share it out as a blog post to share our learnings with a broader audience.

People often talked about the ability to establish a strong product culture is what differentiates between a good technology organization and a great one. But it is easier said than done. Nurturing a good product culture when the team was small was already hard enough. And to evolve it as the company gets larger is often even harder.

So what would happen if your product culture cannot keep up with the company’s growth?

While I want to tell you that by reading this piece, you will be able to avoid repeating these mistakes but it is rarely the case. In our experience, there is simply no escaping from these inconvenient truths. If your startup is growing fast enough, you will eventually face similar challenges.

The only real difference is how you deal with these truths.

I hope that our lessons can help you better navigate these bumps in the road.

When change is inevitable

Good business results are both a blessing and a curse to a startup sometimes. When a company is growing rapidly, it is easy to take things like product culture for granted.

You spent all the time getting a stronger product/market fit, hiring a bigger development team, growing your customer base, and discovering a scalable business model. And then suddenly you were caught by surprise that product innovation has decelerated significantly.

But why the product side would fall behind when the business was performing? It is because many people don’t realize that they need to adjust the sails when the wind has changed direction.

Contrary to popular belief, building a startup is like running a triathlon rather than a marathon. The journey has different stages requiring different skill sets to survive and thrive. And the transitions between stages are often awkward. If a team transitions from one stage to another and they don’t notice, it is like trying to swim on a bike. Not so good. In the end, only those who can execute all three phases can complete the race.

Likewise, maintaining a strong product culture throughout a company's life cycle is a continuous process that requires you to adapt to change. As the team grows, the concentration of people who truly understand your founding team’s approach gets smaller and smaller. If you choose to stay on the same path and do nothing to adjust, your development team may still be able to run. It just won’t perform very well and it’ll eventually break down.

The key is to be constantly aware of potential problems surrounding your growing product teams, respond to them and not leave culture change to chance.

Below are some of the warning signs that may indicate that your company has a product culture problem.

Warning signs of a product culture in trouble

Fire-fighting syndrome

Your product team often has to prioritize urgency over importance because there are always fires that need to be put out. Most of the product problems patched, not solved. They often recur, become crises and require heroic efforts to resolve. These are the characteristics of the fire-fighting syndrome. Curing it is not easy because established organizational culture often works against it. Under this situation, your team can only focus on the next pressing issue and they will get stuck making local optimizations indefinitely.

IT mindset

Your product managers are backlog administrators. They are given lists of features to build, rather than empowered to solve valuable business problems. They mainly serve internal business stakeholders, rather than discover and prioritize the best solution for the end-users. People in your organization believe that product development is a one-off process and don’t understand it will always take iterations before a solution works well enough to actually solve a problem. Simply put, the true role of technology is not well understood. It is just treated as a cost center.

Slow velocity

Your team has a hard time managing the software delivery life cycle. Due to the result of technical debt accumulation and poor release management, big-bang deployments and infrequent release cycles are the norms. It requires the coordination of many people and “moving parts” that depend on each other, causing a higher chance of human errors. To you, each software deployment is a nightmare and major business risk.

Chaotic ad hoc planning

In your organization, there is no process on product prioritization and roadmap planning. People think debating strategies and priorities are a waste of time. Most of the product decisions are based on gut feeling and HiPPO. The world of your team is filled with constant distractions, aka shiny objects. Without using a proper framework or process to evaluate ideas, it is often difficult to get the entire team on the same page. They fall into the trap of doing too many things but not accomplishing enough.

Absence of trust

Due to the above problems, your development team often fails to deliver projects as expected. It earns a reputation of a low-performance team and gradually builds a culture of surprises. Over time, this diminishes their credibility from other departments and no one would count on them to build anything. The efficiency of your organization is low because teams that lack trust waste inordinate amounts of time and energy managing their behaviors and interactions within the group. It is like a collection of individuals that work against others.

All of the evidence above is a great wake-up call telling you that your product culture is broken and change is inevitable.

Some of the practices and people that helped the company get to the point where it is doing well and growing rapidly can, ironically, hinder the company as it gets larger.

The biggest obstacle, however, is that driving cultural change requires a team effort. The team needs to have the same awareness and assessment of the situation at hand. They need to understand that business as usual and their existing ways of doing things are no longer sustainable.

Once you have figured out whether your key team members/management share the same sense of urgency of this issue, you need to decide whether it is the time to act.

Leading change is not for the faint of heart

According to HBR, we know that two-thirds of large scale transformation efforts failed in companies. While it may sound like a mission impossible, you need to ask yourself whether your organization can afford the cost of staying put as things will only get worse. If you still believe technology is a core competency of your company, you need to figure out how to give your culture transformation effort the best chance of succeeding.

Most change initiatives fail because leaders driving change focus too much on the end goal (the output) and not enough on building new capabilities (the controllable inputs) that are required to execute the transformation and, most importantly, sustain its benefits.

These capabilities include things like new talent (HR), new tools (Engineering), new processes (PM), and new governance (Leadership). In many companies, it can be difficult to drive behavioral change across functions and business units. It is even harder to get them to see and agree on the big picture.

But what if there were ways to build and strengthen these critical capabilities so your company can accelerate product innovation again?

Transforming your product culture

While every change initiative is a long, messy, and iterative process, below are the three key practices that helped us systematically transform our product culture.

Fix the process and culture will follow

In our experience, culture isn’t something you can easily “fix.” Rather, cultural change is what you get after you have put new processes in place to tackle product development challenges (e.g. prioritization, team structure, product strategy…etc). Then culture evolves as you do those important works.

First of all, we tried to establish alignment and a sense of urgency by having 1:1 with all the impacted internal stakeholders and listen to their feedback after telling them the potential crises and opportunities.

Listening is the key pathway here to go from “your” idea to “our” idea. You want to discuss things like: Why is making a change necessary? Why now? What problem are you trying to solve? What is the desired future state? What are the risks/trade-offs of getting to future state versus not making a change?

Besides trying to convince people to embrace change and getting their buy-ins, you need to be willing to reshape your original ideas based on their feedback.

For example, we did a culture mapping exercise to align on the vision so everyone was on the same page in terms of the direction that we were trying to move. Without a clear and simple vision, many transformation efforts will become confusing initiatives and will not add up in a meaningful way. Worst of all, it will increase people’s anxiety that comes with those potential changes.

And in order to improve the collaboration within a bigger team handling more complicated projects, we transformed the methodology of our roadmap planning, team structure, and product development process as well. Doing these allowed us to create new common languages not only making our communication more efficient and effective but also helping us form new habits and behaviors that we wanted to see in the organization.

Empower more people to drive changes

Over relying on a single change agent to drive cultural changes is not effective and will create “bottlenecks”. You want to find a group of people in your organization who are willing to change and even make short-term sacrifices if necessary.

However, most people will not do that, even if they are unhappy about the current situation. The majority of people are usually more cynical and practical. They will ask questions like “What is in it for me?”, “What do I get if it didn’t go well?”, “Why other people don’t change first?”..etc.

So what can you do?

According to the diffusion of innovations theory and the book “Crossing the Chasm”, you should ignore the majority in the beginning because they are not willing to try something new until someone else tried it first. You should talk to the early adopters instead if you want to drive lasting change. They will do something just because they think an idea is great and they want to be a part of it. This group of people is crucial to help you get to the tipping point of cultural transformation.

Early adopters usually are the key influencers across different teams. Once you have identified them, you want to inspire them with a vision, give them the confidence to lead the change together, and empower them to act on the vision.

For us, we made sure they understood what they were capable of and could play an important role in our change initiative as long as they were willing to improve and adapt continuously. We also encouraged them to use our new processes to create some small wins as soon as possible (e.g. shipping our new driver app) so the team would have the momentum going and started earning trust from other team members.

Don’t just copy other people’s process

When driving new cultural change, it is common to get inspiration from other famous tech companies (e.g. Spotify, Intercom, Netflix…etc). However, those widely publicized processes and frameworks are not perfect for everyone. What made them work for other companies were heavily influenced by their own unique culture, goals, and team conditions.

Change often happens gradually and in stages. Keep iterating until something sticks. Don’t follow any framework blindly, but don’t go in blind either. Ask yourself: what kind of problem a particular framework is solving at which stage of the company’s lifecycle?

You want to keep iterating based on mistakes, learnings, new ideas, and feedback. Keep finding ways to create more short term wins. Then finally, institutionalize those new approaches to make them stick.

The outcome

If you are able to pull these off, your team will be able to enjoy some of these key benefits that our product team enjoyed in the past two years.

  • From output driven to outcome driven
  • Shipping continuously
  • More product innovation
  • Attract more new talent
  • Rebuild trust among teams

One more thing…

Similar to product development, product cultural transformation is not a one-off process. It’s a never-ending journey.

If you declare victory too soon and attention shifts to the next priority, people can easily revert to their old ways of working, and the improvements of the transformation will disappear.

Thus, as a product leader, you need to be constantly aware of your team’s current condition. Figure out what is working and what is not. Keep iterating and helping the team move forward. If not, the culture will become comfortable with the status quo and the company will lose its ability to innovate again.

As you can tell, changing product culture is not easy but together with some luck, the rewards when you reach your goal could be beyond measure.

If you are interested in tackling these growing challenges and using technology to transform the last mile in logistics, we are actively hiring new talents to join our analytics, design, engineering, and product teams. Check out our careers site for details.

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