Building a Product Culture

Product Tank is the monthly meeting for Product Managers, hosted by Mind The Product. This month’s event was curated by James Mayes.

Organisational culture is the shared values, beliefs and behaviours of an organisation. When you tell a new colleague, “This is the way we do things around here,” you’re talking about company culture. It’s not about having having table football or ping pong in your office, cool though that is, but about how your company operates, and how it is perceived. Product Tank March was about implementing and building a Product Culture: a solid product culture can lead your company to build better products faster.

Photo by flickr user dumbledad
Photo by flickr user dumbledad

Mairead O’Connor – Building up your product team’s immune system

Mairead was a Product Manager at The Guardian, and is now at Equal Experts. She spoke about the process of building a team culture using a light-hearted extended metaphor about bacterial cultures.

photo by @producttank
photo by @producttank

Factors that help to grow a healthy bacterial culture to grow can also be applied to product team culture, metaphorically speaking. Good hygiene, for example, means having the discipline to complete full and thorough retrospectives at the end of the sprint.

Tim Warren Culture Club – 12 Lessons in Trying

Tim is the Product Lead, Software Experience for the Hudl programme at Tesco. He spoke about twelve lessons learned in trying to build a product culture in his team.

  • Life’s better when you plus – positivity encourages productity
  • Culture is craft – it takes work to make it happen
  • Retro’s are awesome – thorough retrospectives help move the culture forward
  • Everyone’s a coach – encourage brutally hard feedback from everybody, even the cleaner, to become better at taking it and dealing with it
  • Failing hurts more when you don’t fail often – fail fast, and learn from each failure
Life's better when you plus (photo via Thumbs and Ammo)
Life’s better when you plus (photo via Thumbs and Ammo)
  • Customers rock, and they help you fail often – Hudl uses a two-week test cycle now, soon to become one week
  • Sharing is good for the soul
  • It’s your job to convince – others won’t be with you until you win them over
  • Don’t be a fool, use the right tool – but don’t assume the right tools are a replacement for the right culture
  • Be vigilant
  • Determination is the boss – results require full commitment
  • It starts and ends with you – be authentic, be passionate, and care about what you do
Photo via @prodcraft
Photo via @prodcraft

Dave Wascha – Cardinal Sins of Product Management

“What product characteristics will compel customers to choose my product over others?”

Dave Wascha is the Chief Product Officer at When he started out at Moo, there wasn’t a product culture to speak of. He spoke about his ongoing work to build a culture that’s smart and data-driven. In his mind, product management is a science, not an art, and he believes it can be improved. There are three cardinal sins in product management, and three key questions that can help combat them.

Sin 1 – Cognitive Biases: What we think we know.

  • There are hundreds of cognitive biases listed on Wikipedia (list)
  • One of the best is the Dunning-Kruger Effect: “a phenomenon in which the incompetent labor under an illusory superiority because they lack the capacity to accurately assess their performance relative to others”
  • In layman’s terms: “Dumb people don’t know they’re dumb and in fact think they’re smarter than you” (source)
  • The tendency to go with the default option is well documented in social psychology and behavioural economics. (This paper on organ donation, and this one, explore defaults in more detail)
  • The tyranny of inertia is a plague. If the question is Why do we do things this way? and the answer is Because that’s how we’ve always done it, then as a product manager, you need to challenge that
  • How to combat this problem
  • Ask: Why are we doing this?
  • Don’t always sit in the same seat. At, people who sit in the same seat that they’ve sat in before are fined five bucks. Look at things from a fresh perspective
  • Schedule spontaneity. It’s important to ask Why are we doing this? regularly. Block out time in your diary specifically for this purpose. Devote an hour each week to challenging your organisation’s assumptions

Sin 2 – Propinquity: closeness, proximity

  • How close are you to the customer? Who are you making products for? Are they someone like you? Or someone not like you? Do you really understand what the customer wants?
  • How to combat this problem
  • Ask: Who is our customer?
  • Every week, the product manager must spend one hour a week doing something to get closer to the customer
  • For Moo, this might be to work in the Moo Shop, or to staff the customer helpline, or to go out and speak to real customers about business cards
  • Dave asks his product managers to produce a written reflection about what they’ve learned on their trip closer to the customer

Sin 3 – N = 1: Using a sample size of one

  • Bad – “I know exactly what we need to do because I once had a conversation with one guy in a bar who said he uses our product”
  • Bad – “I know exactly what we need to do because I read an answer to a question on a survey that was sent out to customers who like our company on Facebook”
  • It’s easy to claim to be data-driven, but just saying it doesn’t mean it’s true
  • How to combat this problem
  • Ask: What data are we basing our decisions on?
  • Is the data reliable? Is it valid? Are you confident with what reliable and valid mean? (more here)
  • Consider Sampling Error and Confirmation Bias
  • Use multiple data sources, rather than putting too much emphasis on a single metric


  • For Cognitive Biases, ask Why are we doing this?
  • For Propinquity, ask Who is our customer?
  • For N = 1, ask What data are we basing our decisions on?

Dave wrapped up by offering to share books he’d recommend for project managers. You can get the list here.

Product Tank London is organised by Mind the Product. Thanks to Mairead, Tim and Dave, to James for curating, and to all others involved for their work in organising an excellent event.

Football table photo by flickr user dumbledad slightly edited, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license, original version here.

Johnson, E., & Goldstein, D. (2003). Do defaults save lives? Science, 302(5649), 1338-1339.

Davidai, S., Gilovich, T., & Ross, L.D. (2012). The meaning of default options for potential organ donors. PNAS, 109(38), 15201-15205.

BRETT HAMIL | (February 11, 2014) Axioms of Comedy: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Colin Phelan and Julie Wren, Graduate Assistants | University of Northern Iowa Office of Academic Assessment | (2005-06) EXPLORING RELIABILITY IN ACADEMIC ASSESSMENT

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