Product Culture in a Growing Organisation by Arne Kittler and Christina Schreck

By Katsiaryna Drozhzha on January 26th, 2018.

XING is the leading professional network in the German-speaking market and one of the largest agile companies in Europe. Over the past years, XING Engineers has grown to almost 50 product managers and product directors. Surprisingly, fast-paced growth did not only bring world recognition, but put XING at risk of “professional isolationism”, silo thinking and inefficiencies: XING started to loose Product Culture that was connecting the team.

At PRODUCTIZED’17 in Lisbon, Christina Schreck and Arne Kittler give practical examples on how they’ve managed to maintain a healthy product culture at XING through learning and alignment.

Your product management toolkit and how to preserve Product Culture

Product Culture will never automatically adjust to the growth of your company — you constantly need to work on it. With the growth of the organization, the approach to product management at XING has changed, creating more opportunities for PMs to work with their cross-functional teams. Maintaining healthy product culture played a particularly important role in this process. In their talk at Productized 2017, Arne and Christina shared some practical examples of things they’ve tried out over the past 3 years to ensure that XING’s cultural needs are not left behind the fast-paced environment. In doing so, they focused on two main areas:

Learning: How do we make sure all product managers have the opportunity to learn and get better every day?

Alignment: How do we keep the many product initiatives across the company well aligned?

Learning and getting better every day

Learning for PMs is not just like classical learning at school. The standard PM is already very motivated and very performance oriented. They read books, they go to conferences, they want to get better. What really drives them forward is:

‘’Bringing people together. Sharing and exchanging. Growing together.”

Christina is showing a variety of methods that worked for XING:

1) Learning from each other

Internal product people are the first source of learning that Arne and Christina recommend. To leverage XING’s internal potential, they came up with an idea of training days (Tool 1) for all the product managers in the company. The training day itself is organized by the team who knows most about the topic. Part of it is done in School style, but the focus is on collaborative sessions. The group is usually divided into small teams where debates happen. Afterwards, the teams present their results followed by classical dot-voting. These training days are a huge opportunity to have all the PMs from all the different business units united in one room and working together. It also ensures that annual company focus topics are well understood by the product people who are crucial to successful execution within their teams.

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As a complementary format, XING also holds a Bar Camp (Tool 2), a series of mini-conferences with shorter mixed sessions by and for product managers. Every conference has two tracks that run parallel, so that the people can choose according to their interests. Some topics are treated as story mapping, others are presented as research methods. After the conference days, the participants usually respond to a very simple survey to see how people found the trainings useful and what could be improved for the next time.

2) Learning from external sources

“To make sure that we also leave our bubble we arrange regular exchanges with other companies to share insights on working methods and organizational setup. This feeds back into how we organize ourselves and the things we try.” — Arne & Christina

For example, if XING’s Product leaders are attending conferences and business meetings abroad, they always make company exchange (Tool 3) and try to connect with some local companies. To ensure that both sides benefit from those learnings, it is usually a small group of people with the same level of experience who does the exchange.

3) Sharing is caring

Sharing product insights also needs to be natural if an organization wants to make sure everyone is on the same page and avoids knowledge silos that lead to redundant work. The more XING grew, the less they were aware of the things that were happening inside of the product teams across their business units.

‘‘Learning Newsletter’’ (Tool 4) became as a solution to work isolationism, were all product managers could share interesting experiment results and recent user research insights. XING also makes use of an internal online exchange group (Tool 5) to ensure that all product leaders are aware not only of important internal findings, but also relevant things happenings in their industry.

4) Off-boarding

The knowledge product managers build up over time in their area of responsibility is extremely valuable and should be transferred to their successor if they leave. A PM knows the market, he has met the customer and he has lead the team.When off-boarding the company (Tool 6) , there is a huge risk that a lot of this valuable knowledge gets lost. Approach it like a real product leader: leave the customer a successor with the best possible handover.

Here’s a nice article describing how best to approach “off-boarding” by Ilya M

5) Fostering a culture of experimentation

Ever wondered how to find your way through the masses of methods and canvas and then pick the right one for your situation? XING uses the “Experiment Handbook” (Tool 7) to help them find the right tools. What has also proven to be really useful is the “User Feedback Coffee” (Tool 8), an in-house speed-dating with real users for rapid insights at little cost. Here are the rules of the game:

1) divide your space/ team into four corners.

2) invite a user to attend one of the ‘corners’.

3) every team has 15 minutes to show a small prototype/ feature to their user

4) after 15 mins the bell rings and the team rotate.

5) after one hour, when all the teams’ve spoken to all of the four users, go through some debriefing.

6) Establishing a sound product community of practice

XING has a community of practice for product managers that aims to bring the organization and its’ work closer to the North Star values (Tool 8) — the principles and values they want to work towards. Each of these principles have the sub-tracks that the PMs all aim to fulfill. As part of monthly meetings, XING encourages a kudos exchange (Tool 9) between product colleagues as a sign of appreciation for their work. Every PM can give a kudo (for example, an Amazon 25$ gift card) to his colleague, who did a particularly good job regarding their principles and values. One of the main aims of kudo exchange process is ‘‘Strahlkraft’’, that means ‘‘going out’’, ‘‘having an exchange.’’

Alignment to avoid waste & to earn autonomy

The ability to create alignment is one of the most important skills for successful product managers in times of growing complexity. And here is why:

Alignment helps to avoid waste. If you are not well aligned, you might find very late that the people you collaborate with have a slightly different understanding of what their role was and end up not understanding why and when they did the things the wrong way.

At the same time, alignment is also important if you want autonomy. Autonomy is not something that you take as a given. Instead, you should earn it with trust. In other words:

The better the Product Managers are aligned about the WHY and the WHAT of their product, the more autonomy they will be granted with regards to HOW they build it.

Alignment Tool 1: Auftragsklärung

In their presentation, Arne and Christina provide a framework for collaborative, bottom-up alignment called “Auftragsklärung” and give an example of how they trigger conversation about upcoming product initiatives.

When applying ‘‘Auftragsklärung’’ on practice, there are 3 dimensions that you need to align with:

1) Upwards: Management

2) Laterally: Peers & Partners

3) Inwards: Your team

To bring all these people together, add a canvas board. It can help you to trigger dialog and externalize different ideas. Arne suggests that canvas can also force PMs to ask tricky questions upfront. Here are some of the trickiest questions on XING’s canvas:

  1. Intent. What do you really, really want? Ask this question yourself and people whom you are aligned with over and over again.
  2. Outcome. What needle do you want to move? Outcome matters more than output. It is important to be clear about which needle you need to move, how much you want to move it, by when? Defining what your ambition level is for this outcome becomes of crucial importance.

Alignment Tool 2. Directors’ cut

Another format is called the directors’ cut. Every quarter, all product people at XING gather in one room where every product director presents in 90 seconds the main initiatives for the upcoming quarter. This kind of format gives you an overview of all the initiatives in your company. This meeting is also all about triggering a dialog between the people that DO really need to talk to each other.

Alignment Tool 3. Clarification Manifesto

Alignment is not about agreeing, it is about clarity. You just need to force the decision so that everybody understands clearly what the direction is. Obviously, it is always a difficult thing to speak up in the group of people you like and work with, but you always have to keep in mind that when you are in a process, you see escalation as a fruitful way of getting to decisions quicker.

Source: Slideshare

At the end of the day, alignment is about clarity and triggering the necessary decisions to move on, not about making everybody happy.

And what do you do in your organization to make sure all product people have an opportunity to improve on a daily basis? And how do you keep your initiatives aligned while moving at pace? Share your ideas with Arne and Christina.

A LiveSketch of Arne’s & Christina’s talk by Live Sketching

Access Arne’s and Christina’s PRODUCTIZED presentation below:

About Arne Kittler & Christina Schreck

Arne has 16 years of experience in developing digital products and communication in various roles and 9 years of experience as a people manager. Strong believer in modular, holistic systems. Active networker. Curious collaborator. Proud father.

Christina is a Senior Product Manager with 8 years of experience across various products at XING and one of the drivers behind collaborative PM learning.

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About the Author

Katsiaryna works at Productized as a content strategist. After spending some years traveling the world, she moved to Lisbon to discover the secrets of Western Europe. In her “free time” she enjoys surfing the waves of the Portuguese coast.

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