When Product Culture is Rotten

Can you change your company’s culture?

By Ken Norton

3 min read • May 10, 2016

Ken Norton

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Dumpster fire

I had a blast speaking at the Mind the Product conference last week in front of 1,200+ product people. In case you missed it, check out the essay version of my talk, Please Make Yourself Uncomfortable. I hope you’ll join us next time.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to come up and say hi. Perhaps the highest praise came from the audience member who told me, “Thank you for helping me prove to my parents that my MFA in jazz performance hasn’t been wasted in my product management career.”

When I speak at conferences, I invariably hear some of the same questions again and again. There’s one in particular that I can always sense in advance because the person who asks it wears a defeated expression. It goes something like this: “I liked everything you said, but what do you do if you’re at a company where product quality isn’t valued? How can I convince my CEO to care?”

It’s remarkable how often people ask this. That’s a toxic environment for product teams, and you probably can’t fix it. A guerrilla effort to reset a company from below is not going to succeed if the CEO doesn’t care about product excellence. Meaningful and lasting changes to a company’s culture cannot succeed without support from the top (or new leadership at the top).

If you’re in such an environment and there’s no sign that things will improve, leave. It’s that simple.* This may sound cynical, but it’s realistic. Hopelessly tilting at windmills is no life for a product manager. (There are lots of companies that care about product, perhaps you’ll find something interesting in the Product Jobs section below.)

Do you disagree? Please share your experiences.

[*] If leaving isn’t an option—and there are many reasons why it might not be—try to make the best of it. Recognize that your time and energy will be better spent insulating your team from the dysfunction than it will be trying to convince the CEO to change their ways.

Good Reads

“It’s just silly to me that when I read some PM job ladders from inside our industry, the word ‘empathy’ doesn’t even appear.” Mike Davidson, formerly Twitter’s VP of design, pens an introspective piece on his three years in San Francisco. Amongst other topics, he shares his thoughts on what makes a good product manager.

What is design? Julie Zhuo explains, in three charts from her sketchbook.

The Paradox of Choice might be a myth. One of the most memorable economic studies demonstrated that giving consumers too many choices could overwhelm them into inaction. The researchers called it “the paradox of choice.” Like a lot of famous studies, it’s become conventional wisdom (I’ve even referenced it in this newsletter). But it might be a complete myth. Recent attempts to duplicate the experience have come up empty.

What does appear to be a real is a “single option aversion.” When shoppers are confronted with just one choice that they can take or leave (also known as a Hobson’s Choice) they seem to be more likely to leave than to take. A recent study cited Williams-Sonoma. The store sold only one breadmaker, for $279, and saw disappointing sales.

Eventually they introduced a $429 model as well. Surprisingly, sales of the cheaper breadmaker doubled (nobody bought the expensive one). It seemed that having at least one other choice made them more willing to buy. It also subject them to price anchoring, which presumably also made the less expensive machine look like a good deal. In the end, Williams-Sonoma was happy and lots of people brought home breadmakers to sit in a cupboard and gather dust. Full article at The Atlantic.

Speaking of design and gathering dust, the Apple Watch offers some lessons. Sarah Doody breaks them down.

“True diversity is inclusive, comprehensive, and measurable.” Project Include is an open community that supports you in your efforts to increase racial, ethnic, and gender diversity at your companies. Turn talk into action with their specific recommendations.

Originally Published: May 10, 2016

Ken Norton is an executive coach who works with product leaders. He spent more than 14 years at Google where he built products used by more than 3 billion people.

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