Chad Mullinax

Passionate Product ProfessionalAgile PractitionerData Junkie

Don’t be scared! Recognizing and changing a product culture of fear…

As Product professionals, we typically understand the role that culture plays in helping (or hurting) our ability to deliver valuable outcomes through problem solving. Autonomy is built on trust and trust in built on a culture that is unafraid. But what happens when your product culture is one built on fear? Fear of accountability and fear of risk? To understand how to be effective in a fear based culture, we have to understand how to know we are in one. Let’s break it down!

How do I know I’m in this culture?

Understanding comes from observation. Every companies product culture is unique but there are typically some markers that can help you determine you’re working in a culture of fear.

Challenging the "why" is met with pushback and skepticism from peers.

As Product professionals, we are naturally curious folks. We want to understand the Why so we can ensure we’re thinking through the problem and not the solution. When working in a culture of fear, there is a tendency to not question the why and to focus on output over outcomes.

Negative indirect feedback from peers

When challenge to the organizations goals occurs in a culture that fears accountability, self-preservation kicks in. Self-preservation is an innate human emotion which causes people to react to the perceived threat. In a Product culture, this can manifest as sowing fear/uncertainty/doubt with management in order to reduce or stop an individual or group of Product professionals from challenging the system. The goal is to protect the system because fear of changing would potentially expose it to accountability.

Changing "process" without adequate reason to

In Product cultures of fear, change is frequent and without cause. This again is predicated on self-preservation because frequent change can obscure accountability. Before we know something isn’t work, we change it in order to reset the goal-posts.

So how do we start breaking this cycle?

Breaking the cycle starts with knowing you’re in the cycle and knowing what bad things happen if you continue to stay in it. In systems where there is no trust, there are typically two ways to address this:

  1. Trust is given on loan
  2. Trust is earned over time

If a system that is choosing to change its culture by giving trust on loan, the delta to breaking this cycle tends to be shorter. It starts with a reset that is predicated by open acknowledgment that the system is broken. It continues with creating an open, candid forum where everyone is given a chance to outline and accept the symptoms that show where trust is not present. If we take a lean approach, we start with focusing on areas where the greatest lack of trust exist and reset the trust factor by empowering individuals to own the changes they want to make.

If a system that is choosing to change its culture more cautiously over time, the dynamic is different. The onus is shifted to teams to find cracks that can be filled over time with successes. As one can imagine, this process is more risk-adverse but has a higher failure rate as any setback along the way resets the entire narrative.

In closing, knowing that you’re in a culture of fear is the first step to change. Changing the culture is built on the giving of trust. How that trust is given is a decision that Leadership has to make in order to build a Product culture that will stand the test of time and will evolve with the business outcomes needed to create a sustainable and lovable business.

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