How can a culture of experimentation bolster product discovery? What are the hallmarks of a strong product culture? And what are the red flags to watch out for that can impact product velocity?

We got the chance to sit down with Anu Varma, Chief Product Officer at Path, who explored the above as she delved into her journey to CPO. Here, we’ve got some of the key highlights from the session, but if you want to listen to the full interview, simply click below. 👇

‎For the Love of Product 💙🎙: For the Love of Product I Anu Varma, Path on Apple Podcasts
‎Show For the Love of Product 💙🎙, Ep For the Love of Product I Anu Varma, Path - 14 Jul 2021

Q: Can you tell us about your journey and some of the pivotal points for you on your path to CPO?

A: What stood out to me was how the things that matter most to me now were things that were impacting me when I was an individual contributor, product manager, or manager of a small team. It may not have occurred to me, but most of the changes or most of the decisions I was making in my career were because of culture.

Now, as I have reached the position where I am leading a team and I am in a senior leadership position, I realized there is so much influence that a senior leader has on the culture of the team. And it becomes a responsibility which I take really strongly, to influence and make the environment for my team perfect so that they are enjoying their work and living up to the potential that they have.

Q: Can you give us an example of how culture has either had an adverse effect on or accelerated your journey in product?

A: I am sure everybody would agree that a lot of your decisions will be impacted by the nature or culture within your team. So for example, when I was an individual contributor, culture would seem to push me forward and encourage extremely creative work, collaboration, and the production of a great product. But if culture wasn’t working, I would decide to leave and move on, as do many people.

So then you keep moving and jumping and jumping. Then ultimately, now I'm in this position, and I realized that it’s ultimately my responsibility to ensure the culture is helping everybody enjoy and grow in their careers, and encouraging them to stay and enjoy their work.

Q: What would you say good product culture looks like?

A: I would say that culture is always evolving, as you change with the teams with the manager, as you go through different managers within the same company, the culture changes. And I would say, in my earliest roles, I've been very lucky to have extremely good mentors and managers. I was one of those very enthusiastic, young people who had come into the team wanting to learn and prove myself, but they were very good people who were trying to help balance me out and lead me in the right direction.

Then on the flip side, there are some times when you hit a point where you feel like - look, I'm not going to get any farther than this. I feel like I have that energy, the drive, and so many great ideas. But how do I take them forward? The culture sometimes feels limiting, either because it has changed, for example, if the company has grown much larger. So the culture has changed and it feels like you’ve got to move on and try something new. This becomes an inflection point.

In the position I am in today, I feel like I hold the responsibility to ensure that good culture is being maintained as the business continues to grow.

Q: What would your advice be to somebody looking at where they are in their product journey, trying to evaluate what exactly the culture is?

A: As a product person, you can assess whether you're helping support the culture. So for example. I feel that quite often in many companies, you get a very sales-driven culture, where the sales manager decides what should be on the roadmap. Then if it’s a particularly strong person, you might have a scenario where they’re losing a contract with one big client. So you have to leave whatever you're doing and turn this new feature around in a week's time.

But what then happens is, you become a team that is just serving small individual needs. You're not looking at the strategic marketplace and how you're growing strategically as a product. So in general, as a product manager, you can just take a step back and look at how you are being influenced.

Because ultimately, as a product manager, the main power that you have, is influence. You're influencing your senior stakeholders to agree with the strategic priorities that you're coming up with. Then equally, you're influencing your engineers, you designer, so everywhere you look, the product manager is just influencing and making decisions just by virtue of that and helping align the strategic roadmap.

Q: So if you knew a PM or an individual contributor who was working in that type of culture, what would you say to them?

A: As an individual contributor, how do you handle a scenario where a senior leader comes and tells you exactly what feature to produce? It’s definitely very challenging. My advice would be; there are multiple strategies to consider.

One is to really ask the right questions. For example, why are we doing this? Then I would come and say, what is our objective? What do you want us to produce? What is the key result you're looking for?

And then that makes me take a step back and think - okay, what is the strategic direction of the product? What are we trying to achieve here? If you make your senior stakeholders articulate, what the problem statement is, and what the key results are that they’re looking for, I think it then goes into the space where everybody’s collaborating in the same design thinking space. This way you’ll avoid having that single senior stakeholder solution, analyzing and saying this is exactly the problem and this is exactly the solution that you have to take.

Q: Any advice that you would give to somebody who's trying to evaluate the culture in their org?

A: I suggest evaluating how many risks they’re taking. Are they building products based on hypotheses and risks? Because that's how you will create something which is strategically different than what’s already there in the market.

But equally, then you come back to the question of - is the culture supportive of failure? Because as you take more risk, there’s a chance that whatever you put out there is going to be a complete failure. How does the team feel about this? Are the senior leadership equally supportive of the fact that many of these risks are going to fail, and that many of these experiments are going to fail. There are learnings there, which you will take forward. But the culture has to be one in which you are given the chance to constantly test, learn, iterate and grow.

Q: Are there any red flags product leaders need to watch out for when enabling and empowering product teams?

A: I always have to ensure that I haven't stepped into the “solution-focused mode” because naturally, you see a problem, and you want to very quickly think about a solution, and you will spout it out. As you're growing in your career, you’ll realize that what you suggest in a room becomes a very important point of view.

I do try to ensure that I haven't started “solutionizing” and that I'm giving everybody the space to collaborate, and not just coming in and saying - look, let's just solve this right now. So that was one red flag, which I have stopped myself from doing.

But in general, if I look at how the squad is doing, it's just getting that sense of a health check. So I like to keep in touch with all of my team. I guess just knowing that everybody has ownership of an area, and they know exactly what they’re working on. They're delivering their mark on their own product. That's something I really like to have in the culture.

I think that's definitely happening in the team today. Everybody has really clear ownership before designing content, research, or product, they know exactly what they’re doing and what their contribution to that bigger product picture is. Because if it’s not there, you would see lots of people trying to do lots of things, and not excelling at anything. There will be too many cooks in one small area, whichever is of the highest interest to the business at that moment. Then that becomes a red flag; when you’re having to deal with too many people who are involved in one small decision.

Q: Any advice for those going through acquisitions, mergers, etc, who are building a shared culture between very different teams?

A: I would say what’s worked for us is having very clear lines of communication. Being very open about decisions we make and our ways of working, and having a very collaborative environment. Then actually improving what we’re saying.

So for example, when we started merging, we said - look we do a lot of customer research, and you’re good at all of these things, and it'll be very exciting to work together and do all these hypotheses, lead product discovery, and then delivery. But then if you don't actually take them on that journey, how are they ever going to know that there is this brave, beautiful new world of creating products, that is completely different from how it was done 10 years ago.

So you're really taking them along on that journey, and making it very visible to the whole business. This is how product is being built these days. And that definitely does support and help move the culture forward.

Looking for more insights on all things product leadership? Check out the CPO Space and get inspired. 👇

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