Building a Strong Product Culture

Por Karina Hartmann 11/05/2023 28/08/2023 7 minutes

Culture, in its broadest sense, is a set of habits, values, and knowledge peculiar to a group of people. Cultures are rooted in unconscious and unexplained beliefs that we can perceive through visible evidence in processes, in the way people interact, and in behaviors.

In the corporate world, the term appears frequently and refers to various areas. But at the moment, culture is mainly associated with one particular area: the product area. That’s why we decided to look into this topic to understand the impact of a product culture in startups and companies and learn how to build it.

First Things First 

So what is product culture? It is a set of habits, values, and beliefs that foster the development of digital products. It is characterized by the formation of autonomous teams focused on achieving business goals through the creation or evolution of products. It is an essential prerequisite for the development of contemporary digital products that meet the needs of users and offer added value to clients.

As a culture, it is pervasive. It must impact not only people’s mental models, but also the company’s processes, artifacts, and tools. For example, product culture must reflect the way people are recognized, how success is measured, and even how contracts are signed with clients.

To facilitate understanding, it is sometimes easier to explain what something is not. In this sense, we can say that product culture is the opposite of project culture or IT culture.

Product Culture X Project Culture 

Project Culture, also known as IT Culture, is focused on outputs, while Product Culture is focused on outcomes. This means that, in Project Culture, success is measured by the delivery of scope, of a list of pre-defined items. In Product Culture, success is measured by the impact generated, regardless of what was done or how many items were delivered. P.S. To know more about this difference, it’s worth learning about the initiative No Projects

On the other hand, Product Culture is a term created by Marty Cagan. He describes the mindset where IT is paralyzed in operational, everyday processes, without realizing the importance of innovating, delivering value and impacting all the business. If you follow our articles, you know that we usually refer to this phenomenon as tasking IT

Those who work in Product Culture don’t usually say they work “in IT.” These people usually refer to the product or business process where they operate, even when they are programmers. 

The Central Role of User Experience 

Working with User Experience (UX) is creating a product and thinking about it from the user’s standpoint. This may seem obvious, but the truth is that the exercise of thinking like someone different from us is challenging. 

What does it have to do with Product Culture? The concern with UX is one of the symptoms of the transition from an IT Culture (self-centered) to a Product Culture (centered on the user). After all, those concerned with generating real business impact certainly need to try to improve the experience for people using the product, not simply “push for” a new solution. 

Also, in Product teams the Designer is not the only one concerned with the Product Design: all members should be aware of the user’s needs and of each of their touch points with the product, to make sure that all details are aligned with its purpose. 

Experimentation to Validate Hypotheses 

Another symptom of the transition from Project Culture to Product Culture is the adoption of Product Experimentation. In Project Culture, it is not usual to save space for learning since the underlying philosophy is a predictive rationalist approach. We define a detailed scope early, and then it is necessary to make sure it is delivered. 

But innovative products, services, or business models are only innovative because they don’t exist yet. This means that they are based on hypotheses and need to be validated, and, therefore, Product Experimentation is essential. In Product Culture, it is necessary to be open to constant learning, changes, and diversity of hypotheses. 

As much as surveys and interviews are conducted with users, collecting information to support development, what we do when defining the product is a proposition, a hypothesis of solution. It is necessary to test quickly and efficiently to learn and discover whether the user experience and the business model proposed effectively work. This is what the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is used for. 

The Sense of Ownership 

A true product culture only exists when people on the team have a sense of ownership. After all, who cares more about a company than its creator? The idea is that the entire team acts as owners, and therefore truly cares about the product.

People who care build, collaborate, improve, and help define. They have a future vision for the product, are proactive in anticipating and solving problems, and work with enthusiasm and passion. Ownership is responsible for the pride the team takes in working on the product and contributes to quality and commitment.

Metrics to Mesure Success 

Another characteristic of the transition from a Project Culture to a Product Culture is the way of measuring success. Instead of measuring by the execution of plans from the classic triangle scope, cost, and time, we start analyzing by business-related metrics. 

Your taste does not matter much; after all, we currently have many metrics frameworks. In some cases, they will be funnel metrics, in others, your product may have North Star metrics; perhaps your company adopts Key Performance Indicators (KPIs); or also you use Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). 

The important thing is to understand that there is a cultural change. In IT Cultures, people are concerned with delivering what was ordered, within the deadline. Conversations are usually about time or percentage of completeness of the tasks. 

In Product Cultures, the topics are different. The conversation revolves around actual indicators, such as sales, number of clients and percentage of conversions. These figures are no longer secret and are now handled directly by the team that aims at discovering, through experiments, how to positively impact these indicators. 

What is Your Company’s Culture? 

It’s palpable that these terms we have explored are intertwined, right? Product Culturecomes as an alternative to Project Culture and IT Culture. It is focused on business-targeted products and users, which need to be validated through Product Experimentation. The team that truly cares analyzes data to assess the success of experiments and evolve the product with agility. 

What type of culture do you see at your company? Notice how people relate with each other (employees and clients), how success is measured, and how processes are designed. Analyzing these items, you will know in which culture your team works and will be able to see the need for a transformation. 

Do you need help to develop a Product Culture in your company? Fill out the form below and our specialists will get in touch with you. 

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*Related Content: The 4 Must-Have Characteristics of Your IT Partner

Author's photo

Karina Hartmann

Karina works on designing digital products for startups and companies. She has also been a Project Manager, Systems Analyst, Java Programmer, and has worked with process improvement. Has a Master's in Business Administration, and holds a Bachelor's Degree in Applied Mathematics and a Postgraduate Degree in IT Governance. It has CSM, PMP, CFPS and CPRE-FL Certifications.

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