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What Makes a Strong Product Culture?

5 Apr 20224 mins read
Malte Scholz
What Makes a Strong Product Culture?
By Malte Scholz
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For today’s tech companies, there’s a choice to be made when it comes to product management. 

Some are focused on the engineering side of their digital products. Others are more concerned with driving or enabling sales through their products. More still take more time to focus on the design and user experience of the product. 

What do these all have in common, though?

Their focus is always on the product. And it’s this mindset we want to explore here. A product-focused company will naturally create a product culture around it, resulting in an environment that delivers for the product managers, engineers, sales and marketing teams, and customers.

But what is a product culture? And what defines a truly strong one?

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What does product culture mean?

Product culture, as the name implies, is a business environment in which it’s all about the product. Just as with concepts like product-led growth, a good product culture means that the product management process is respected and supported across the business. 

Product managers, product owners, developers, engineers, and other key team members should all find it natural to thrive in an organization with a strong product culture. The product culture stands at odds with more conventional approaches to tech businesses, such as the project culture mindset. The project culture focuses far more on the constraints of scope, time, and budget, whereas a product culture looks at things through the other end of the telescope. 

How senior product managers can create a strong product culture 

When teams adapt to a product mindset, that’s a natural byproduct of adopting a product culture. 

In fact, this is essential to creating a strong product culture, because it gives teams the creative freedom to push the product forward in ways that may not have been possible before.

So, how can senior product managers help their teams develop product-focused mindsets and in turn nurture a product culture in their organizations?

Here are some key tactics which they might choose to implement:

  • Establish a product philosophy. One question we all ask at some point is “Why am I doing this?” For product managers, leadership can help answer this categorically by defining a product philosophy – the “why” of the business.

  • Ensure the product team has strong leadership. Many project-led tech companies suffer from problems with team cohesion and coordination for one very good reason: they lack strong leadership. When everyone on the product team knows which way they’re rowing, it gets us all there quicker. 

  • Empower product managers to solve problems themselves. Having the initiative to recognize and resolve problems is also key to nurturing a good product culture, and leadership can make this happen by allowing PMs the freedom to make their own decisions based on intuition and experience.

  • Help PMs understand their role. A little direction goes a long way, so helping Product Managers see how their contribution fits into the overall product vision can be really useful when trying to create a positive product culture. 

Product Culture

Examples of businesses with strong product cultures

Sometimes the best way to fully understand a concept like product culture is to see it in action. 

With that in mind, let’s take some time to look at existing businesses which have managed to establish a strong product culture, and how that culture is reflected in the work they do. 

Slack, the instant messaging and collaboration platform, has a unique means of maintaining a strong product culture in their organization, and they refer to it as their 5 “product principles”:

  1. Don’t make me think

  2. Be a great host

  3. Prototype the path

  4. Don’t reinvent the wheel

  5. Make bigger, bolder bets

Slack actually employs these principles not just in product management, but also across other internal teams (like legal and marketing) to ensure all decision-making is focused through the same lens. 

Apple and more recently Airbnb are good examples of design-driven product cultures. Few of us question the quality of the product — in many cases, it speaks for itself — but this leaves plenty of room to focus on the aesthetics of the product and the branding. 

LinkedIn and Facebook (Meta) are examples of data-driven product culture organizations. Every decision made by internal teams about the product and the business strategy is focused on leveraging and collecting data, then using data insights to make product decisions. 

abstract/prioritize emoji

Get our All You Need To Know About Product Management eBook

A comprehensive look at what product management is and how to distinguish what good product management looks like.

Get the eBook
Product Culture

The top books for product leaders

It’s clear that nurturing a product culture within an existing organization isn’t necessarily the simplest of tasks — but don’t worry. If you’re a product leader looking to create this type of product-centric environment in your organization, there’s plenty of guidance out there… if you know where to look.

In that spirit, we’ve scoured the web and picked out the top X books which contain all the info you need to nurture a strong product culture in your business and take your first steps to product-led growth. 

  1. Empowered: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products by Marty Cagan

A Silicon Valley legend, Marty Cagan has probably forgotten more about product management than most of us will ever know. In his book Empowered, Marty directly addresses product leaders with coaching tips on leading truly self-directed and successful product teams.

2. Cracking the PM Career: The Skills, Frameworks, and Practices to Become a Great Product Manager by Jackie Bavaro and Gayle Laakmann McDowell 

Here’s a book that gives the most comprehensive, bird’s-eye view of product management you’re likely to find. From the first PM role to becoming a leader of other PMs, this book teaches product leadership from the ground up. 

3. Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value by Melissa Perri

This book is marketed using a central philosophy of product culture: a focus on outcomes rather than outputs. It’s this distinction that can make the difference between a product-led and project-led organization, so this book is a great place to learn. 

Need expert help defining your product culture? Speak to the airfocus team today and we’ll help you make your product the center of your organization’s universe. Just arrange a demo or start your free trial today.

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