Creating a Product Culture Starts with Communication

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Janna Bastow - Startup culture at "Introducing a Product Culture"

This post is based on a talk done at the AOP 'Introducing a Product Culture' event on July 6, 2011

Having a product culture is about having the product, the very thing that you’re building, at the heart of the business, a core aspect that’s granted the attention it needs. This means that everyone in the company is an advocate for what you’re building and how you’re building it.

The most successful product-centric companies include a team that considers a solid product to be the top priority, and in my experience, the quality of work done by a team who’s collectively bought in and invested in the product vastly outperforms one who doesn’t.

How’s your current culture?

As kind of a litmus test on how well your company has embraced a product culture, ask yourself the following:

  • What kind of feedback and requests are coming in from clients? Are you often surprised, or are you getting feedback that’s more or less in line with what you might have expected?
  • What is your marketing team telling the world about the product? Is it in line with what you would say, or do you describe what you’re building differently?
  • Does your development team question and challenge your assumptions? Do they get involved in conversations about why they’re building what you’re saying needs to be done? Do they come up with improvements on the fly?

A big indicator is the following:

  • Do you get feature requests and bug reports from a wide range of different people in your company?

You should be – your product isn’t perfect (no one’s is) – if you’re not getting this regular feedback, it’s a sign that people aren’t comfortable speaking up about the product and don’t have confidence that anything will be done in response to their comments.

Building that culture from scratch

Let’s assume that, like many companies, you haven’t quite nailed it. It’s not uncommon for there to be a disconnect, even in small companies where communication should be easier.

Here are a few things you can do to get everyone on board with what you’re building:

  1. Give your team a confidence boost. Show your team that you can make changes, even if they are small and incremental. If your colleagues perceive that reasonable requests can’t be delivered in a reasonable timeline, it’ll kill their motivation to continue contributing. Work your delivery timelines to include quick wins that can be critical, not to the final product, but to gaining the confidence of the person who suggested it.

    Even for items that aren’t in the immediate delivery pipeline, make sure to give insight into the backlog, work with others to groom it into shape as you collect feedback and fashion nebulous ideas into workable specs. Make sure everyone can see that your backlog isn’t a place where their ideas go to die, but instead is something that they can collectively contribute to and build on.

    With confidence that they have the power to influence the final product, you’ll have an outpouring of solid, constructive feedback from every side of the business.

  2. Show everyone where product fits. Part of building a product culture is making sure that everyone in your company understands how their role relates to the product. Spend some time shadowing key colleagues:
    1. Go on a sales call or client visit, and really capture feedback directly.
    2. Have a developer walk you through their thinking in solving a tricky task.
    3. Formulate a few responses along with the community manager.

    From all of this, you’ll better understand how what you’re building will affect the roles of others around you, as well as be more in tune with where your feedback is coming from. Essentially, you need to make sure they know what they can contribute to make both their role and the product as a whole better.

  3. Let others own parts of the product. Everyone should have a sense of ownership of the product. If someone comes up with a new idea, work with them to better define it, and keep them in the loop as it moves forward. If someone starts an initiative, make sure they have a hand in seeing it followed through towards completion.

    The collective knowledge of your team is greater than your own, and giving people the power to start initiatives builds a strong fired-up, “let’s-go-build-something” attitude that fuels strong product cultures.

A lot of this is quite obvious, but getting everyone involved and getting their buy in can take a lot of effort, but effort well-spent.

The result is that everyone should feel the need to get their feedback in and contribute to what the company is building, and everyone will share that sense of excitement as your work begins to see the light of day.

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