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Growing the Culture of a New Product Team

Company Culture
Team processes

31 October, 2020

Toby Delamore, Product Manager at Xero, explains why culture needs to be grown organically by a team and what is the role of a product leader in guiding that process.

Problem

I took over a new team that was made up of different individuals previously working across a number of teams. It was a group of people with different backgrounds and no team culture to bring to cohesion and a trustful environment that would enable them to perform at their best.
 

I was aware that one of the defining qualities of high-performing teams is a strong culture owned by the team itself. Rather than being led by a manager, a team with a strong culture buys into what they are doing, is self-motivated, and has an intrinsic drive for accomplishment.
 

Actions taken

Growing a team culture is a time-consuming process with no set rules and plenty of uncertainty. Each and every team is different and requires a unique approach. However, there are four common rules I tend to follow:
 

Provide clear direction

If a team has unambiguous clarity on what they are working towards, they will not have to worry about what is the right direction. Instead, they will be encouraged to grow and evolve in their performance and contribute to the creation of a culture that values improvement and success.
 

Culture champions
Culture champions are people who enjoy bringing other people together and driving the team forward. They are prima inter pares who love encouraging other team members to shape the culture of the team. They are instigators, promoters and key allies to managers who are tasked to build a team culture.
 

Culture is on par with the strategy

Culture and people are as important as product strategy or engineering quality. If you don’t set it as a priority of the same level, you risk never to build a strong team culture. As a result, your team’s happiness will be jeopardized and you may end up with high churn.
 

Set up a leadership group

A product team is usually a cross-functional team that includes engineers, designers, etc. Setting up a leadership group that would represent all of the disciplines and is able to keep a finger on the pulse of their segment of the team is one of the key ingredients when building a strong culture.
 

While I strongly believe that the team should come up with their own values, I would set up some provisional principles that would demarcate where the core focus is. Then, I would let the team take it from there and re-iterate.
 

The most effective cadence of coming together as a team is to meet up biweekly. Every fortnight we would come together as a team, get to know each other better, and learn about each other’s interests and passions. For example, we would have people present themselves using 20 of their photos in only 20 seconds. They would show a bit more about themselves than merely work -- where did they grow up, what are their hobbies, etc. Building a relationship around knowing a person outside the work -- learning about their life -- strengthens the connection that starts to foster culture organically as opposed to approaching the whole process prescriptively and top-down.
 

Initially, the team would have followers and the leader(s). As your team culture evolves, the ownership is being taken and shared by all members of the team. They would put in place their own processes and ceremonies and they would step up owning them. Ultimately, the team becomes the leader of the product and success rather than being pulled by an individual leader. Consequently, the team would be immensely empowered and would buy into whatever they would be doing, determining together what would be the best way to do it. With a strong team culture, a safe space for the challenge would emerge and soon a growth mindset across the team would enforce continuous improvement.
 

Lessons learned

  • Strong team culture is a cornerstone of any successful team. Building the culture is nothing but easy and what works for one team won’t work for the other.
  • You can’t dictate a culture -- it has to be grown by the team. What you can do is provide guidelines and support to the team.
  • You can’t build a culture by yourself. You should identify people who could help you in your nascent efforts to build and drive that culture.

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