PRODUCT BLOG

frustrating list of values

Culture

If you haven't read the post Don't Fuck Up the Culture by Brian Chesky (Founder & CEO of Airbnb) you should. It summarises the importance and power of culture in an organisation. I agree that culture is the foundation of a company

Brian also recommends to build a culture "by upholding our core values in everything we do." There are multitudes of ways to do this. A popular way is to create a list of values.

In this post I'm going to write about the potential destructive effects of having a list of values. I will also propose a different and in my opinion better way to describe a culture and its actual values.

List of Values

Most companies have a list of values somewhere. Both small and large ones. You can search the name of the company plus add the words "core values" and you will get a list of them if they are communicated publicly. Here you can find some: Google, PwC, Zappos, Prezi, Facebook, Amazon. While they make me smile I find them interesting to read.

Of course it wasn't always like this. During university I worked for larger organisations. They all had their lists. Often these were the decorations on the walls. In reality nobody really talked and cared about them. Only some people remembered them. Of course there was the standard HR onboarding for new hires and we got the list, kind of explained in a maximum one hour session. To be honest I considered them bullshit. They were so far away from the daily job. Often people sarcastically laughed when they compared real deeds with these "guidelines". Only a few embraced them.

I worked for small companies too. They had their list of values as well. There I realised that they have a meaning. I realised that there is a real culture behind them. It was fascinating to see that people actually considered these values while they were doing their daily jobs.

(Un)fortunately small organisations grow fast. It's hard to scale culture. And it's terribly hard to map this out in a list. These lists can be very frustrating and destructive.

Issues

Today if I read these they make me smile. They try to express a whole culture in a list. It's like trying explain who you are in ten sentences. It would be pretty inaccurate I think. To make it more clear just the take the Johari window as an example.

The Johari Window as it appeared on  Ready to Manage

The Johari Window as it appeared on Ready to Manage

Often the ten things you list are in the open zone. But there are other zones as well. I'm sure that the same applies to organisations. Companies have blind spots, hidden and unconscious zones as well. These zones can contain such values those are not mapped out.

The other issue is that exactly like humans, companies change too. This wouldn't be a problem alone. But with a list of values explicitly stated this can be painful and frustrating to the employees and thus destructive to the whole organisation.

It all starts in the beginning. A relatively young company (startup) would like to understand its culture. Therefore it creates a list of values which everyone can use internally and sometimes externally. At the moment when these values are listed and explicitly said a status quo is born. People try to adhere to it. This works well until a point. If people start changing or new people join the company they may act differently then before. In these cases the likelihood that some people won't act exactly according to the original list of values increases. It's important to see that this doesn't mean that the actual person is bad or doesn't fit the culture. It simply means that s/he doesn't fit the list of values.

The List of Values - Culture mismatch

The List of Values - Culture mismatch

This can happen in various situations. For example:

  • the culture scales and shifts a little bit so the list of values doesn't match the culture entirely
  • different people interpret the list of values differently
  • in a certain situation people don't act according to one value in the list because they find it contradictory with another value

Any of these cases are ok in my opinion. Since we are humans, we are changing and often we fail. The issue is the most severe in the second situation.

The problem with these is that anytime people in the organisation notice that others don't adhere to the list they sweep it under the rug and sarcastically make such comments like: "Yeah, of course. Serving our customers is the number one priority." (A fictional value of a fictional company.) This will result in distrust. Distrust leads to a dysfunctional team.

The more rapidly a company grows the bigger the problem gets. In these cases it is extremely important to have continuous debates about the list and update it regularly. It needs a lot of energy and it is often neglected.

Unfortunately if you neglect this it will lead to a rigid organisation where real culture hides itself and doesn't dare to show up. It can cause frustrations to everyone on every level.

Proposal

A company's culture is basically what its people do and how they feel about it. Fortunately there are awesome vehicles those carry these things. These are the stories we all hear and are proud of. For example a story of an engineer who spoke up not to release a feature because of low quality code and dared to say no to the CEO. Such stories are great and retold thousand times.

If we hear these stories then we can retell them, we can always add new ones to them or even remove some of them if they are not valid anymore. The point is that we don't explicitly state the value. The moral and the lesson learned is just felt and understood by reading them. They form the essence of our culture.

There are many ways to tell these stories. An innovative example is that a company can create a comic book that contains all its famous stories. These comic books can be distributed both internally and externally. A new hire can get one and even add a new story to it. There are many ways to tell a good story.

Trust me. People will be more proud of a comic book then a list of values and they will happily retell these stories and act according to the moral of them. And this is what you want. So please, "Don't Fuck Up the Culture"!

the toughest part of product management

More and more people would like to be product managers. It's actually a pretty tough job. Most of the things I know I learned on the job. Not that I haven't read a tons of books about it. These books helped me a lot and gave me a lot of inspiration. Though in most of the cases it's hard to apply the techniques directly. Why is it so hard? What's the toughest part of product management?

In general it is widely accepted that a product manager's main responsibility is to manage the product. On the other hand this is actually a very vague statement. What does it mean to manage a product? To control where it evolves? Maybe. The situation is that products evolve because people make them evolve (i.e. develop them). This basically means if you would like to manage a product you need to lead the people who build them. So in the end it boils down to people. A great product manager knows how to communicate effectively with people and how to motivate them to implement the product vision. Besides this there are tons of other people with whom you need to collaborate to ease the work of others. Such as the CEO, all the executives and directors. It depends on the size of the organisation of course.

The above cannot be learned from textbooks. It starts at building trust and keeping it. If you would like to read more about it then there is a nice model that describes the five dysfunctions of a team. The most important dysfunction is the Absence of Trust. A team must avoid it at any cost. Fortunately there are multiple ways that can help you avoid it. As a rule of thumb I suggest to be vulnerable and always honest. In real life you need to practice these as much as possible.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

For me the first part is the harder. It's a natural reaction to protect myself. It is considered widely as a weakness. However "vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them" as Brené Brown puts it. She has a fantastic TEDx talk about this. I really recommend it.

So trust is very important. Without it a product manager can loose his/her credibility very fast and it's really hard to win it back. Remember, you don't have formal authority. You need to earn respect to be able to lead all the fantastic people who will build the product.

It's not discovery, it's not validation, it's not idea generation and it's not delivery. It is leading people. This is the toughest part of product management.

this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship

I've read a blog post a couple of days ago. It appeared on Lifehacker. It recommends people to teach what they know even if they are not experts. I can only agree with the arguments explained in the post.

Besides this in the last couple of months I have met a lot of people who were really interested in the things what I do and know. They asked for some consulting and coaching. During these sessions most of the questions I got were about product management, entrepreneurship and leadership.

Some years ago I was actually a pretty active blogger. Most of the things I wrote were personal. You know, the kind of posts those are intended to be really philosophical. Though when I read them today they are more like about showing off. I don't like that style now. I changed a lot. 

This blog will be different. The main purpose of it is to inspire others and help them find the answers to their questions in those topics where I had my explorations too and learned something useful.

And I simply just like building stuff. It's time to share it too!

Now I feel enthusiastic about this! Let's get some things done! :)