Improve culture like you improve your product

Improve culture like you improve your product

“My job is not to protect culture. It’s to make sure that it evolves in the right way.” — Phil Libin, Evernote Founder

In a growing organisation it’s important to create a strong and consistent product culture and adapt and scale to meet the changing needs of the business. But how do you balance both of these things?

There are lots of good practices we use when developing our products that can apply to how we develop our product culture.

Here’s some suggestions for ways you can do this. I’ve linked to a series of more in depth reflections about some of the ways we successfully did this at FutureLearn, where over seven years, I grew the product team from zero to 75 people and eight autonomous, cross-functional teams.

1. Create the expectation of continual improvement

In a fast moving startup, but arguably any company that is going to keep being be successful, you need to make constant change an expectation. Lean into it. Champion the desire to keep making things better and encourage your team to do this.

Encourage learning, experimentation and trying new ways of working that may or may not work. Celebrate changes that have a positive impact at sprint reviews, all-hands meetings and on channels like Slack. Celebrate the failures too — the act of having a go should also be rewarded.

You need to create structures and cadences that give you and your team time to reflect and the opportunity to make changes to how you work.

Team level

Regular retrospectives are a good way for teams to do this. At FutureLearn we ran a team retrospective at the end of every sprint from our very first sprint and religiously stuck to this. This was a great tool to define and tune how we wanted to work. As we grew, from one team to many, every team continued to finish each sprint by reflecting on the last two weeks. This provided a great mechanism to create the expectation of continuous improvement and to empower teams to do this themselves.

Organisation level

As we grew beyond one team, we used our quarterly planning cycle as a moment to reflect and make bigger changes to how we worked. This gave people the reassurance that things would remain stable for the next three months but also anticipate when bigger changes might happen.

This was the time where we might make changes to team missions or personnel but also introduce new changes to our process — for example introducing a firebreak sprint at the end of each quarter.

Remember though that change is costly. If you change people’s working relationships or the problem they are working on, it will be disruptive and take them time to get back up to speed. So factor this in and only make these changes if you really need to. Uncertainty beyond the next quarter can also lead to short-termism so it’s important to balance the expectation of change with a clear articulation of the direction that you’re headed in and what changes may be required and positive with as much notice as possible.

Read more about using retrospectives to create a culture of continuous improvement

2. Look outside

As you develop your product, you need to keep an eye on others and learn from how they evolve their product. But as you grow you should also look at how different sized organisations work and go about delivering it. It’s important to keep reminding yourself that the answers to developing your product culture are not likely to be within your own organisation.

You need to look to others that are slightly ahead in terms of size and maturity, understand what they are doing and why. This will help you anticipate what you need to be ready for and help create structures and ways of working that you can grow into. It will also give you a rich source of ideas to make your own and tailor to your own organisation.

At FutureLearn we organised various team exchanges with other organisations — like a school French exchange — where we spent an afternoon with them and they came and spent an afternoon with us. We did this with The Guardian, Gov.UK (GDS), Moo, JustGiving, Facebook, Farewill and others, normally organised via one of the team’s personal connections.

These enable you to hear what people really do, see the environment that it happens in and ask questions about it. It also helps your team to make connections and build their peer support network. It’s more real and tangible than reading Medium articles or going to meetups, although these are also great ways to learn.

Even in uncertain times of remote working, finding new ways to do these activities online are important. Don’t put them off because they are harder to do right now or because teams are too busy.

3. Continuously deploy improvements

In general, like making changes to your product, continuous deployment of cultural change is the best approach rather than a big bang release.

It’s less costly because it doesn’t create as much disruption and people understand the context around it. You can get the value from the improvement quickly, rather than waiting for several things to be packaged up. Changes are less likely to have ‘bugs’ because they are smaller and if they do, you can easily roll them back.

You can also roll out a change with one team first, give it a try and AB test it against your control group before deciding to roll it out further. For example, several of our teams moved to using Trello as their main sprint planning tool, rather than Pivotal Tracker and over the next few months, all of the teams followed.

4. Use big moments strategically

That said, sometimes a major initiative is required to bring about a “10x change”. A transformation that is going to be a step change, rather than incremental, where you have the opportunity to think holistically. These big shifts in direction are necessary. Some changes have to be noticed and require disruption. The best companies disrupt themselves: not just their products, but how they build them too.

You can think about these as new versions, a big new feature or a redesign. They require more upfront planning and communication. They need ways to help the users — your team — onboard and navigate the change and they generally need a period where you can iterate and iron out the things that didn’t work quite as planned. And they need a strong narrative as to why the change is being made.

Be as open as you can about these big moments, the reasons why and the process you’re going to follow. If you don’t tell people things, they will fill in the gaps and often assume the worst — it’s human nature. Create a positive narrative, even if it’s just about when and how you will remove the uncertainty.

Read more about some practical tips for big moments of change.

5. Gather insights and involve your team

People don’t like change being done to them. Teams often understand the opportunities better than you do as a product leader because they are closer to the problems. This means you need to create ways to gather insights and make your team feel involved in change. This is not unlike creating the mechanisms that give you a deep understanding of your users, through user research and data analysis.

When you’re in a small organisation, this is about ensuring that you have one-to-ones with key people in your team and key stakeholders and ask questions that surface issues. Starting one-to-ones with a simple open ended question like “How are things?” is a good way of eliciting whatever worry is top of mind. Sprint reviews, team meetings or discipline retrospectives are also good moments to read the room and understand what is and isn’t working and ask questions and encourage suggestions for improvements.

In bigger organisations you need to develop other ways to take a temperature check and gather data to understand what is going on. This may mean developing a delivery management function that works with teams and collects data on delivery metrics and team health.

Looking at a team’s throughput of stories/tickets, seeing the breakdown of the types or work and running a regular team health survey give you visibility across multiple product teams and enable you to go and ask questions about outliers and things that seem unusual. We used to get flow metrics out of our Trello boards, which provided more nuanced insights than a traditional burndown chart.

Wherever you can make sure teams understand where your insights have come from and why something needs to change. Make sure that you’re telling a positive story about the change that brings people on the journey.

6. Change yourself

Inevitably through this evolution, your role is changing too. It’s important to remember this, to occasionally stand back and reflect what does the organisation need from me now? What do I need to do differently? What I should let go of? Be ready to adapt.

To do this it’s often best to focus on the impact you want to have and the problem you want to solve, rather than what you spend your time doing day-to-day. Again, this echoes good product practice.

Often there is a moment that might be a catalyst for reflection. A moment where something doesn’t go so well and it might be because an approach that previously served you well, doesn’t any more — try to notice this. Do a weekly personal retrospective: what went well, what didn’t and what do you need to think about?

One of the biggest changes for me was the move from being a hands-on product manager to a product leader. These are very different roles, more different than I think many assume which is where mistakes are often made. My gotcha moment arrived with the realisation that I still owned the roadmap when what I needed was my teams to feel real ownership over it.

Get 360 feedback from your team. If you give them helpful and honest feedback and lead by example, they are likely to return the favour. Tell them that you appreciate the feedback and demonstrate how you have acted on it. It’s hard to give your boss feedback without that sort of encouragement.

Look outside too. I make a point of meeting someone that does the same job as me in another organisation at least once a month. It provides an excellent source of new ideas, a chance to reflect on your own practice and a good deal of solace. It never ceases to surprise me how similar the issues that people are grappling with in different organisations are and the variety of approaches to solving them.

Essentially, the same principles above apply: expect to change and create opportunities to reflect, gather feedback from your team and look outside for inspiration. Then continuously deploy improvements but also embrace the big moments for self reinvention.

Read more about a Product Leader’s role in a product roadmaps.

7. Stick to your values

To take us back to the quote from Phil Libin at the top, as well as needing to change, you need to make sure that your culture evolves in the right way. This is where a strong set of values are important and that they are shared and articulated with your team.

We went through a process of clearly articulating our values a year or so into the FutureLearn adventure. Again we got the input from teams and brought them to life by providing real examples which helped ensure that they were authentic and genuine. If you can do this, refer to them in moments of change and stay true to them, it will help you make the changes that the organisation requires and retain the trust and support of your team and retain the essence of what is good about what you do.

In summary…

Your job is not to preserve your product culture. It is to make sure it evolves in the right way. To do this, think about good practices for developing your product and apply these to how you develop culture. Here’s how I did this at FutureLearn…

  1. Expect to change: create the expectation of continual improvement and the opportunities to reflect and make changes
  2. Look outside: what do other organisations, a little bigger and more mature do? What do you need to anticipate? What can you learn from?
  3. Gather insights and involve your team: create ways to understand what’s going on, collect ideas and tell the story when you make changes
  4. Continuously deploy improvements: they are less costly and you get immediate value
  5. Embrace big moments: these are necessary and enable you to make a step change
  6. Change yourself: remember to reinvent yourself, using the same principles
  7. Stick to your values: ensure that you evolve in the right way