2 hacks to foster your digital product culture

I’ve been leading product development at Gympass for 1,5 years now. Prior to Gympass I always worked in companies where technology was the main product of the company. In this type of company, digital product culture is part of the organizational culture. However, if you are in a traditional company, or even in a “born-digital traditional company” as I explained in this article, building and maintaining a digital product culture can be quite a challenge.

What is digital product culture?

First, let’s remember what is culture. As I explained in another article:

Culture is a set of premises that have been learned and shared by a group of people while they were solving problems on external adaptation and internal integration. This set of premises works well enough to be considered valid and, consequently, be taught to the new members of the group as the correct way of perceiving, thinking and feeling regarding those problems. (SCHEIN, Edgar. Organizational Culture and Leadership. Jossey-Bass, 2010.)

Digital product teams have two main premises when they build products to meet companies strategic objectives while solving a problem or addressing a need for the company’s clients and users:

  • Release early and often: the early I present my product to its users, the better since I’ll be able to get feedback from real users who will be able to use the product in their own context. I explained the motivations behind release early and often in this article
  • Problem mindset: it’s human nature to solve problems. Whenever we hear about problems we almost immediately jump into solution mode, i.e., searching for solutions. However, if we are able to understand better the problem, the motivation to have the problem solved, the context where the problem occurs, there are good chances that we will be able to find simpler and easier to implement solutions. This was the topic os another article I wrote some time ago.

When traditional company culture clashes with digital product culture, and how to hack this clash

In traditional companies, and even in some digital companies and traditional born-digital companies, the sales team is always talking to prospective customers, understanding their problems and pains and figuring out where the product can be a good solution for these problems and pains. For this reason, new releases from the product development team are almost always not only welcomed but also anticipated. 

As soon as a new release is available, salespeople want to offer it to all new prospects. That happened and still happens a lot here at Gympass. The problem is that, following the release early and often premise of digital product culture, the first versions of a feature or a product is somewhat clunky, either missing functionalities, or mal-functioning in certain use cases, or even both. We need the customer feedback in order to improve the product in future versions. The issue is that if prospective customers decide to become new customers of these early versions, which may not work in certain scenarios and may not offer the best experience, these new customers will probably be quite upset. 

Another issue that happens frequently when we release early and often is customer support complaining that the new feature or product is not working properly and they have to provide assistance. At Conta Azul, the product development team constantly received the complaint from customer support that we constantly launch unfinished features and products, i.e, that we constantly launch half-baked features or products. And they were correct, that’s the natural consequence of release early and often way of work. 

Hack #1: alpha, beta, and go-live terminology

For this reason, I decided to use what I call hack #1 to foster a digital product culture, alpha, beta, and go-live terminology. I started using this terminology to explain in which stage a product or a feature is. In the alpha stage, the product may not work properly. If it’s in alpha, it should be offered only to customers who understand the issues of using a new product and can cope with these issues without bigger burden. So this should be a handful of clients, no more than that. At the beta stage, major issues of the product are fixed, but the errors may still occur and the user experience can and will improve. In this phase, it is possible to offer the product or feature to tens of customers. Then, when all known errors are fixed, and the user experience is working properly, then its time to move the product into the go-live stage, where the product can be offered to all prospects and existing clients. This certainly helps sales and customer support teams understand the release cycle of new features and new products.

The other area where traditional company culture clashes with digital product culture is new feature requests. It’s common to see other areas asking the product development team to implement feature A or B because we need this feature to close a deal, or to not lose that big customer. A common example these days is “we need to implement Apple Pay and Google Pay as a new payment method”. The issue here is that talking about solutions, we lose the focus on the problem that originated that solution. As explained in this article, if we invest more time learning about the problem, the motivation to have the problem solved, and the context where the problem occurs, good chances are that we will be able to find simpler and easier to implement solutions.

Hack #2: problem mindset

For this reason, I decided to use what I call hack #2 to foster a digital product culture, problem mindset. Whenever a new feature request came to the product development team, they should thank the requester for the input and they must always ask for the underlying problem that generated the request. Each and every member of the product development team needs to have this behavior whenever a feature request is received. By practicing this behavior, soon the requests will come not only with a solution but also with a lot of information about the problem. It’s interesting to see this cultural change, but it requires the discipline of the product development team members to always ask for the problem. And when I mention product development team members I’m referring to everyone, not only the product managers but also product designers and engineers.

Summary

So here they are, 2 hacks to foster your digital product culture:

  • Hack #1: Alpha, beta and go-live terminology
  • Hack #2: what’s the problem?

Digital Product Management Books

Do you work with digital products? Do you want to know more about how to manage a digital product to increase its chances of success? Check out my new bundle Digital Product Management with my 2 books where I share what I learned during my almost 30 years of experience in creating and managing digital products.

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