Success is a Cultural Phenomenon

Success is a Cultural Phenomenon

Of all the things that I’ve learned over the past 15 years of being a Product Manager, the one thing that sticks with me wherever I go, whatever I’m doing, is the simple fact that success is something that is enabled (or challenged) by the culture of the organization that is trying to achieve it.  It doesn’t matter how well you know the market; it doesn’t matter how tightly defined your strategic goals are; it doesn’t matter how much talent you have in the organization to execute with — if the culture of the company isn’t one that empowers, entrusts, and instills responsibility in the people and the product to be successful, at best you’re wind up treading water…at worst you’ll wind up being bought or sold by a competitor.

The good news is that the one consistent aspect of Product Management across nearly all organizations allows us to be the focal point for pivoting the company one way or the other in this regard — the fact that we lead through influence and not position provides us with a unique ability (and perspective) to help the company swing back toward a culture of success when it’s gone too far the other direction.  Doing so requires establishing a culture of empowerment, trust, opportunity, and responsibility — the building blocks to a culture of success.

Building a Culture of Empowerment

Empowerment is an important part of a culture of trust — providing people with the authority and ability to do their jobs in the way that they feel best achieves their intended goals.  The single biggest blockade to a culture of success is micro-management, in any way, shape, or form.  This often shows up in organizations in insidious ways — the CEO who feels the need to “approve” features before they’re released, the Product Manager who provides strict requirements to the developers rather than flexible user stories, or the Development Manager who always has to do a code review before anything gets “officially” committed to source control.  All of these come from a place of good intent, but the impact on the teams and on the individuals involved is rarely a good one.

Moving your organization toward a culture of empowerment requires that you accept that the company has hired specific people to perform specific roles, and that they bring with them sufficient experience and ability to do their jobs on a daily basis.  This needs to be a fundamental belief, and if it proves not to be true, then the company needs to correct in its hiring processes and in its internal review processes in order to make it true.  It also means listening to the people who are doing the daily work to determine what it is that they need and what it is that they expect in order to do their jobs on a daily, weekly, or continuing basis.  You then need to being removing the unnecessary levels of management and strip away the cruft that’s been established in the organization over time — the meetings that are just to meet, the reviews that everyone nods their head at, the micro-management that exists only to assert control and not contribute to the team.  All of this “waste” (to use a lean term) needs to go, so that people are empowered to do their jobs.

Building a Culture of Trust

A corollary to a culture of empowerment is a culture of trust – you can’t empower people if you don’t trust that they’re going to do the right thing or make the right decision on behalf of the company more often than not.  Cultures that lack trust centralize authority and decision-making into small groups of oligarchy, drive work through command-and-control reporting structures, and instill in the line troops a fear of crossing authority rather than an honest desire to deliver the best product for the company.  In these cultures, it’s common to see people thrown under the bus, for managers to criticize their direct reports in the open, and for efforts to take longer than they need to because everyone involved is more interested in covering their ass than in the success of whatever it is they’re working on.

Fortunately, building trust in people is something that every person can do, every single day of their job — it’s just a matter of giving people decisions to make and letting them follow through on those decisions.  These decisions need not be ground-breaking or affect the overall strategy of the company, they can simply be the kinds of day-to-day decisions that we all make, but that in a culture that lacks trust are viewed as outside the purview of the individual contributor.  Trust your teams to make the right design and execution choices — with your approval or input when asked for.  Trust your stakeholders in their knowledge of their subject matter.  And trust in yourself to know when to question strategic or tactical choices that just don’t make sense.

Building a Culture of Responsibility

Combining the two principles of empowerment and trust, you naturally come to the establishment of a culture of responsibility.  In this culture, people feel empowered to make decisions, trust in and are trusted with those decisions, but additionally are both held responsible and expected to hold others responsible for those choices.  Success hinges not only on making decisions and providing people with the opportunities they need to succeed, but also in ensuring that those decisions result in the expected outcome — and when they don’t, determining why so that corrective actions can take place to control for the unexpected in the future.

It’s important to remember that responsibility is not micro-management; in fact, micro-management is the exact opposite of responsibility, because you’re removing the factor of choice from the equation — and you’re trying to hold others responsible for your own choices, not theirs.  A culture of responsibility can only arise after you have established both empowerment and trust — others have to make their own decisions, of their own volition, and without undue influence, before they can actually assume responsibility for those decisions.  When someone feels responsible, they feel like they have “bought in” to their decisions as well as to the decisions of others (assuming they’ve had input into those decisions), and knowing that they will be held to account for the impact of their decisions, as well as seeing others held to account for their decisions, provides a strong foundation for personal, professional, and product success.

Building a Culture of Opportunity

Finally, none of the above components makes a difference if we don’t add in a culture of opportunity, giving others the ability to provide input, to give color to their work lives, and to engage actively in the things within the company that drive them both personally and professionally.  Cultures that lack opportunity hold people to strict, siloed roles in the organization, and are quick to push people back into the “box” that they’ve been labeled with as a result of their specific job and their specific role in the organization.  People are treated as replaceable cogs in a well-oiled machine, and it’s almost inevitable that they begin to feel entirely replaceable because of this.

Building a culture of opportunity requires that we take a holistic look at the people that we hire, and while ensuring that they fit the roles for which they are hired, also accept that they are people first and foremost, and employees second.  Everyone has personal and professional aspirations and interests — and nearly everyone will embrace an opportunity to do something new and different that fits with those aspirations.  You may have hired someone as an SDET, but who shows interest and promise as a UX designer — in a culture of opportunity, we invite that person to help us with UX when the situation permits.  We embrace their professional interest in development.  And we do this not only because it makes them happier, but we now have a potential lateral move into UX that we didn’t before, thus short-cutting the hiring and ramp-up process in the future.  Providing people with opportunities to expand is an investment in the future — denying them those same opportunities will push away our best people.

The Culture of Success

There are some very key things that we can all do that will help to convert our company culture into one that values its people, that trusts them to do the right things at the right times, and that holds everyone accountable for the success of their choices and of the company in general.  Whenever we provide people with the right incentives to “buy in” to their work environment, we are instilling within them a desire and an innate interest in the success of the business, the product, and in the people around them.  There are certainly more factors that play into such a culture — collaboration, communication, and respect come immediately to mind — but those are for future conversation.

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