PRODUCTHEAD: “Don’t f**k up the culture”
my iron product
Posted on Monday, 17 May 2021
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Problems come and go, but culture is forever
Psychological safety presents a new set of social norms
Product managers should be at the forefront of helping organisations to do things better for people
The corporate vision explains why the company exists
Open forums and communication lines between teams helps to maintain alignment
A couple of weeks ago, Basecamp imploded spectacularly and publicly. Once the darling of aspiring web app companies, and a best-selling publisher of books on workplace culture, the company formerly known as 37Signals lost a third of its staff after a disastrous all-hands Zoom call.
As you’d expect, the reasons that triggered this event are complicated, but they boil down to a catastrophic culture clash. The senior management team had shut down difficult internal discussions about inclusivity, diversity and equality. In response, a significant proportion of the rest of the company decided they could no longer tolerate working within a corporate culture described by one employee as “the suppression of voices, of any dissent”.
The culture of your organisation is a tricky beast to pin down. It’s hard to describe because it’s more a reflection of why and how your company does things, rather than a summary of what it does. It’s like describing a personality — complex and nuanced.
Management teams sometimes perceive culture differently — as something to be controlled. They’ve read the various articles in Harvard Business Review or elsewhere extolling the productivity benefits of a healthy corporate culture, and understandably want those benefits for their own organisation.
However, their method for change often tends to boil down to superficial interventions: publishing a new set of core values; taking down some desk partitions; or buying a fancy coffee machine and some comfy communal seating.
Dismantling desk partitions and adding comfy chairs are usually appreciated gestures, but by themselves will not transform an oppressive and fearful corporate culture into one of transparency and mutual respect.
These fail to have an impact because they skirt around an uncomfortable truth: to attempt to change culture is to attempt to change the behaviour, motivation and values of the people in your organisation.
If you’ve ever personally tried to form or break a habit, you’ll know that it takes time, willpower, persistence, and often a good amount of support to make it stick. And it’s so, so easy to regress. Changing an organisation’s culture is all of this, multiplied many times over.
Culture works like a feedback loop. The way people behave influences others. MIT Professor of Data Science Alex Pentland observed that when enough people in your immediate social network start behaving in a particular way, and are seen to get a better outcome for that mode of behaviour, peers seeking those same benefits will start copying it.
And those perceived as leaders in your organisation will have a disproportionately large influence on the prevailing behaviour — for better or worse.
This week I’ve selected some of thought-provoking and practical content to help you navigate the complexities of culture.
Speak to you soon,
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what to think about this week
Co-founder of Airbnb Brian Chesky wrote to his entire team at Airbnb after receiving this nugget of wisdom from VC investor Peter Thiel.
[BRIAN CHESKEY / MEDIUM]
Changing work culture is a long-term and complex exercise. It cannot be done in a single session because as humans, we don’t like change.
However, there are things you can do to nudge the culture of your workplace. It starts with changing our social norms.
Social norms are the shortcuts we use to understand how we need to behave in a particular setting or group.
[SANDIE BAKOWSKI / MAKING CHANGE HAPPEN]
Whether you’re new to product management or have been a product manager for years, a coaching session can help you to step up your career.
We’ve coached people wanting to get into product management, product people with nobody in their organisation to manage them, and experienced product managers preparing to apply for a promotion.
We can help you prepare for your product manager interview, including mock interviews.
A proportion of the fees from every coaching session is donated to charity. Just reply to this email if you’re interested in finding out more.
In this video, Tom Loosemore of Public Digital talks about how to create the right climate internally to do “good” product management, which is often more than half the battle of building good products.
[TOM LOOSEMORE / MIND THE PRODUCT]
Co-founder of Wise (formerly TransferWise) Kristo Käärmann reflects on what he’d learnt about high performing teams back when TransferWise was still relatively small.
- you can’t tell the team what to build
- organise teams behind company goals
- keep teams small and independent
- supply the vision
You’ll read many writers (including me) extol the virtues of autonomous, empowered teams working with purpose. But what does this look like in practice?
This article describes in detail how Wise overcomes the technical challenges of working in autonomous product teams at scale — over 50 of them. This makes for interesting reading in itself, but what it also highlights is the underlying culture that makes this way of working possible.
[HELIN ECE AKGÜL / MEDIUM]
Many companies attempt to copy their culture from other organisations, but lack any real understanding of the context and concepts at work.
These companies pick and choose their ingredients — a sprinkling of Agile here, a dash of communities of practice there — and throw them all into the mix. Even if they’re the right ingredients, they’re not in the right quantities, and certainly not being combined in the right way.
[I MANAGE PRODUCTS]
In UK government, product is borne out of transparency, quite a lot of cake and a fanatical desire to serve the needs of users.
In this recent video for ProdPad’s webinar series,you’ll discover what can be achieved by highly motivated, principled and capable people when they set an example for the rest of an organisation — or the entire Civil Service — to follow.
[I MANAGE PRODUCTS]
Often the biggest barrier to your product’s widespread adoption is going to be whether it reaches product-market fit early on. Even if you do, you’re wrong if you think you never need to worry about product-market fit again.
[I MANAGE PRODUCTS]
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PRODUCTHEAD is a newsletter for product people of all varieties, and is lovingly crafted from dashed hopes and broken dreams.