How to Fuel the Right Culture for a Winning Product Team [+Webinar]

To learn about all 10 key touchstones, watch our on-demand webinars:
10 Keys to Unlocking a Winning Product Team, Part 1
10 Keys to Unlocking a Winning Product Team, Part 2.

Product Leaders

Whether you are brand new to team leadership or have been leading a Product Management team for years, a product leader’s role is always tough. Not only are you expected to lead a team that will build the right products to meet customers’ needs and satisfy corporate goals, but you’re also expected to coach your team members to excel in their abilities and satisfy a variety of stakeholders across the whole company.

So, how do you do it all, and drive your team to success? It can be daunting, we know… But, one technique to being a successful leader of a PM team is to establish a team culture that provides the “secret code” to how your team operates and flourishes. It also brings the whole team into the effort to be successful, so that it is not just resting on your shoulders.

Really? Team culture? You might be thinking that you really need to focus on improving individual skill sets or establishing better product processes. And yes, these are important factors, heck, these are the areas that 280 Group spends most of its time helping our clients improve in. But, hear me out. Gartner has this to say about the value of team culture:

“The culture of an organization, more than business strategy, determines how the business grows and transforms.”
— Gartner

From my own experience of leading Product Management teams for over 15 years, when I took the time to consciously foster a certain “way we work together,” my team became far more effective, and team members were having more fun, despite the hard work.

So, how then do you build the right culture for PM success, and what characteristics make up a good Product Management team culture?

What is Team Culture?

Let’s start by defining what we’re talking about. Here are two definitions of corporate culture that can help:

“Corporate culture refers to the shared values, attitudes, standards, and beliefs that characterize members of an organization and define its nature. Corporate culture is rooted in an organization’s goals, strategies, structure… As such, it is an essential component in any business’s ultimate success or failure.” – Inc.’s Encyclopedia of Business Terms

The Wikipedia definition is similar: “Organizational culture encompasses values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of a business. [It] influences the way people interact, the context within which knowledge is created, the resistance they will have towards certain changes, and ultimately the way they share (or the way they do not share) knowledge.”

Gartner’s 4 attributes of business culture

As the leader, how do you then establish these values, beliefs, and behaviors to setup your team for success? Gartner identifies four attributes of business culture in the article The Key to Business Transformation is Culture that make it easier to think about how to actually form a team culture:

  1. How we make decisions – the general leadership style in a business unit, department or enterprise, and its effect on the speed of the organization’s response to incoming signals.
  2. How we engage – the methods groups use to collaborate internally and externally to deliver on their goals.
  3. How we measure – organizational performance metrics and their effect on the focus and direction of a group’s efforts.
  4. How we work – the working style of a group, including how innovations are developed and how problems are solved, which affect the group’s perception of the business value it creates.

And this graphic makes it easy to refer to and see the big picture of team or business culture:

Building team culture takes time—but worth it!

Before we go any further, I want to set your expectations. As powerful as a team culture can be, it is not something that you can change overnight. Team culture influences how people behave, and that connects directly to what they believe in. Beliefs take time to change and require evidence and trust to affect. As you contemplate improving your team’s culture, recognize that this is a long journey. You can start the journey with some immediate steps that will get people’s attention and start improving your team, but much of this change will take time.

What Makes a Great Culture for a Product Management Team?

Now that we have a better understanding of team culture and why it is important, what kind of culture should you establish for your team?

10 key touchstones

Over the years, I’ve identified characteristics of great Product Managers that matter, and attributes of a team culture that help bring out these characteristics. I’ve also talked with other Product Management leaders to get their perspectives on what makes teams work well. In particular, Jen Cano, Vice President of Product Management at Elsevier, another long-time product management leader. We’ve combined our thoughts and identified these 10 key touchstones that can establish a successful team culture:

  1. Start and end with the customer
  2. Stay curious
  3. Be expert
  4. Be influential
  5. Focus on outcomes, not effort
  6. Support the leap from “imagining” to “doing”
  7. Don’t be afraid to fail
  8. Be a trusted partner
  9. Enable ownership
  10. Be a servant leader

I’ll explain a couple of these below.

#1: Start and End with the Customer

Hopefully, you hear this often, but it still bears repeating–a successful Product Manager must understand their customers deeply: their needs, their wants, what motivates them to buy, how to delight them, and keep them coming back for more.

Here are a few tips to help make this a part of your team culture, each aligned with a Gartner cultural attribute:

  • In your budget: allocate money explicitly for either travel to visit customers and channel partners, or to conduct market research, so that your Product Managers are enabled to better understand their customers [Business/How We Work].
  • In your documentation: be sure there are explicit sections for customer research that must be filled out before a business case or roadmap review can be completed [Tempo/How We Make Decisions].
  • In casual conversations: always be asking for your Product Manager to relate the topic of discussion to a customer need or want [Collaboration].
  • In your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): When setting the KPIs to measure a product’s success, require that at least one KPI measures customer satisfaction (e.g. Net Promoter Score, feedback survey results, usage data) [Direction/How We Measure].

#2: Stay Curious

Beyond understanding customer needs, we’ve found that the best Product Managers are curious about every aspect of their product–and the wider world. By being curious about how their product is built, they can be more effective at thinking of new problems they can solve for their customer. By being curious about how their product is being marketed, they can better provide key messages and supporting materials to their Marketing team. General curiosity helps bring new perspectives on market needs and can also spark serendipity–applying what you learn in a new way.

So, how can you create a team culture that encourages curiosity?

Here are some ideas:

  • As a leader, verbally reward Product Managers who bring new ideas to the table from unexpected places. Everyone on the team will notice this and become more motivated to do the same [Collaboration].
  • Find ways to cross-pollinate ideas. If you’re leading a PM team in one division of a large company, establish a rhythm where you spend time with your peers across divisions to “just chat” about what’s going on, and bring back what you learn to your team. In a smaller company, get your team together for a “watch party” of a webinar or TED Talk on a seemingly unrelated topic to your business. Encourage conversation afterward. Once the pandemic is over, take your team out of the office for a “field trip” to a local conference, or to help bring the team fresh perspectives [Business/How We Work].

#7: Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

There are many sayings around this key: “Failure is not the opposite of success. It is part of success,” and “Great reward requires great risk.” But you’ve probably also heard “failure is not an option.” Unfortunately, this latter expression is often how companies like to operate.

Certainly, no one likes to fail! But if you reframe your thinking, you can put less emphasis on “failure” and more emphasis on experimentation. Aim to conduct experiments to learn something (e.g. about how a feature really gets used) that have outcomes that are neither good nor bad. Instead, they inform you so that you can make better product decisions.

You may have to conduct a number of experiments to find the best answer, but in this framework now you and your Product Managers have permission to make small investments with an uncertain outcome that helps everyone make better-informed decisions, without the “fear of failure” looming over the work.

So, here are some ideas on how to enable a culture that isn’t afraid of failure:

  • Support the extra time needed and provide a budget that supports experiments [Business/How We Work].
  • Change the language of your team to actively promote experiments that inform, rather than projects that “either succeed or fail” [Direction/How We Measure].

#8: Be a Trusted Partner

Another key to establishing a well-respected Product Management team is to establish a high degree of trust – amongst the team members, but also as an organization working with the rest of the company. You want other organizations to believe your decisions are made on good data, that your roadmaps point the way to the future, and that you can be relied upon to be an objective partner. This key requires hard work from you, the team leader, as it is so hard to earn and keep trust, yet so easy to damage it.

So how do you establish a Product Management team that can be trusted? Here are some tips:

  • Model listening more than you speak – allows you to gather multiple perspectives and become respected for being open-minded [Collaboration].
  • Provide transparency in PM processes and decision-making [Business/How We Work].
  • Decision-making – hear all perspectives, use objective evaluation criteria if possible, involve the right stakeholders, make the decision, then honor a “disagree and commit” attitude [Tempo/How We Make Decisions].

Get Started

It’s time to establish the right culture for your Product Management team to really flourish. Watch our on-demand webinars to learn what a successful Product Management team looks like through 10 touchstones of success and how to set up the four attributes of business culture to enable these touchstones. These tips will help you enable each team member to achieve greatness with their products and support each other on the journey. After watching, download the Improving Your Product Management Team: A Culture Assessment Workbook. This download will help you assess your team’s culture as it stands today and develop a plan to improve it.


About the Author

Roger Snyder - VP of Marketing
Roger Snyder is a Principal Consultant/Trainer, and VP of Marketing at 280 Group.
Roger has worked in the field of Product Management for over 20 years, with experience in startups, growth companies, and various technology sectors. He specializes in improving product strategy development, implementing full product lifecycle processes, and roadmap development and evolution.
280 Group is the world’s leading Product Management training and consulting firm. We help companies and individuals do GREAT Product Management and Product Marketing using our Optimal Product Process™.

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