Product management as we knew it until now – as a limited function or role – is effectively dead. However, viewed as a culture, product management is thriving. I predict that “product culture” will be central to the future of work in digital economies. Again Knowledge workers, business executives and educators unfortunately remain beholden to old product paradigms. They are far behind. This is the argument I made in my previous itemwhich shocked quite a few readers, with comments like:
– IT professionals must stop complicating product management as if they were the first to find out!
– Dishonest – the function of the product is an evolution, not a revolution.
– This is a good example of the nonsense posted on the product.
These strong sentiments were welcome because they remind us that by rationalizing work scientifically, we have forgotten how deeply personal and subjective it is. We also limit the power of collective work if we treat it only as a virtual assembly line between functions, roles and organizational matrices.
We need a cultural revolution in the way we see workespecially when it comes to the creation and management of ideas such as in product management.
Taylorism spread in the Soviet Union because the treadmill was a monster of efficiency. Even communist states couldn’t avoid it despite its philosophical clash with Marxism, which aims to weed out anything that devalues people into an underclass of jobs on an assembly line.
It was the industrial world. Since then, the material aspect of what we make has taken precedence over the immaterial work we do. In this business of generating ideas, we don’t need to put the human mind on a treadmill.
Before we can undertake cultural change, we need to understand what “culture” is at its core. Anthropologists generally deconstruct culture into four main elements: language, norms, values, and artifacts. The product folks employ distinctly unconventional approaches to all four. Let’s examine them one by one.
Product teams are infamous for developing their own language. New verbs (e.g. “ship”, “let’s start a discovery session”, “PM” something), acronyms (PayPal had an internal wiki of thousands of acronyms) and a whole slew of concepts (to-do’s, personae, design sprints, etc.) are technologies that speak across geographies. by Elon Musk to forbid on the use of acronyms because they slowed down productivity emphasizes the importance of language.
More subtle communication occurs non-verbally through symbols ubiquitous in collaboration tools (for example, emoticons and badges that signal hierarchy, status, or achievement). Perhaps this shared language is what allows open source movements, international product creation, and asynchronous work to happen seamlessly across technology communities.
Product cultures incorporate many rituals and micro-behaviors that set expectations. A customer debriefing session every Friday at 4:00 p.m. over pizzas and beers or “check-in time on the customer care desk even if it’s not part of the official job description” are examples. .
Norms are how product cultures structure their time and relate directly to the values of a product organization. For example, to signal a value such as experimentation and learning, a technology company might celebrate a notable failure at its monthly general meeting.
Whether it’s a two-person start-up or a company with more than 50,000 workers, values (what a group of people deem to be good or bad) figure prominently in cultures. of products. “Prosper on the front line”, “operate at the lowest level of detail”, “we own”, “act fast”, “create social value”, “do less, better”, “represent ourselves with pride” are examples.
A country’s work ethic permeates its company values. Yet global product values revolve around common themes of positive change, ownership, learning, and speed. A founder who was thinking about the values of his new start-up told me that the values fell into two layers: those of the base product, then those specific to the company. It’s as if the product workers share a common global identity.
The internal artifact of a product culture includes the knowledge, processes, and tools that a company builds (Google’s Design Sprint, Amazon’s Meeting Memo, or Intercom’s 666 Roadmap…) . These often focus on how people work together rather than domain-specific know-how (e.g. practicing medical treatment or a business acquisition risk assessment framework) .
Actual products and services reflect how these maker teams view the issues in their world. Are we building another video platform to grab consumers’ attention or are we building one to reduce excessive video consumption? Are we building a Bluetooth-enabled salt shaker that makes seasoning our food more fun, or are we fixing supply chain inefficiencies in food supply reaching the poorest economies?
What we build in our technological society is no longer an external artifact; on the contrary, the artifact has become part of us. Ben Evans hit the nail on the head when he compared TikTok and recent productivity tools to pop culture.
With these aspects of culture in mind, consider some consequences.
Be deliberate about ethics and values
“As our own species is proving, you cannot have superior science and inferior morality. The suit is unstable and self-destructing. Arthur C. Clarke’s quote resonated with me as I watched The social dilemmaa documentary about the dangers of not actively thinking about the moral implications of what we build.
The personal and collective cultures of the product people dictate what reality manifests. Product managers born in Germany in the 1980s versus product managers from a neoliberal banking background will approach the same problem with different product strategies. If they were to build a payment app, the fee structure feature versus its privacy and security features would be weighted differently. Guess which group prioritizes what.
So, deliberately ask tough questions about ethical decisions and encourage product people to have strong opinions about their values. Peter Diamandis said that in an interconnected and increasingly complex world, it is not what you know, “it will be the quality of the questions you ask that will be most important”. I have yet to see a product course or program that seriously focuses on this.
Don’t try to buy culture, practice it
By viewing product management solely as an assembly line of work to be done, practitioners and thought leaders are trying to normalize this new way of working. Unfortunately, this will undermine its effectiveness and dull its creativity. “Find product-market fit in 8 steps, become a certified PM, implement OKRs in two weeks…” are examples of advice that governs how people should work together. Past a certain point, it is false; our way of working is the greatest manifestation of our personal and collective cultures, so we must not follow like sheep.
Also, there is no right answer. Product companies share their internal practices and know-how, things considered company secrets in other industries. What is exclusive in their case is their culture.
Instead, practice creating product cultures from scratch. Host debates, encourage tough questions, and create space for democratic participation in your product organization. Software development teams are deeply socialist in the way they work together, and cultures of giving are prevalent in open source code projects. Amplify these interactions and explore them your way.
Conserve space instead of manage
Elon Musk recently urged CEOs go to the production floor and forget about PowerPoint presentations. He realized that the center of gravity of value creation shifts to the teams that build. It is no longer in operations, financial engineering or strategy.
Look at how a company supports construction and you’ll see what their culture is all about. Google invests in teams before products, and multiple autonomous teams are simultaneously working on similar ideas. This creates room for experimentation (and many end-of-life products). Apple’s expertise is supported by effective management of conflicts between its functional departments. Their culture is built around healthy internal conflict as it produces craftsmanship.
Ultimately, collaborative the building is what differentiates a product company from a non-product company. In the first case, the collaboration is a first-class citizen – in the second, it’s just an afterthought. As management, your added value is to create the societal space for this to happen.
Ayman Jawhar (INSEAD MBA ’12J) is a Lecturer in Product Management at INSEAD.
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