In ultra-competitive markets, product differentiation is crucial. Countless books, blog posts, talks, and trainings have been dedicated to product development -- and with good reason. Without a product that serves a need for a specific target audience and stands apart from the competition, you don't have a company. And even these factors aren't enough -- you also need to make people aware of your offering and communicate its value in a compelling way through effective marketing and sales positioning. 

The world of product managers is necessarily deliberate. To make a distinct product -- that comes with a distinct story -- you have to be ruthlessly clear about what your product does and what it doesn't. Who it serves and who it's not right for. 

Compare this with how founders and other leaders approach their company's culture. Instead of a deliberate process of product development, cultures tend to "just happen" as an afterthought -- or worse, not be thought of at all. The language surrounding culture development -- "organic," "ad hoc," "undefined" -- couldn't be farther from the vernacular of product managers.

This is a huge missed opportunity in a world where competition for talent is just as intense as within a product category. 

This is something that our CEO, Mike Volpe, often talks about. It's important to design company culture as a product just as intentionally as you would the offering you sell. Here are some reasons why.

It helps attract the right people.

Just as your product has an intended audience, and also some people it's not right for, your culture should function in the same way. This isn't to say certain people are "bad;" they're just simply not a fit for your particular culture (and probably an amazing fit somewhere else).

Deliberately defining and communicating your culture can make it easier to determine who it is you're looking for, but it also works the other way -- helping the right candidates find and choose you as well. 

It protects your company against homogenization.

Too many companies conflate "culture" with perks. And if your culture hinges on cold brew, free lunch, and a ping pong table, you're in big trouble when the company down the street matches these things, and rolls out free dry cleaning to boot. 

When culture isn't defined and you're relying on an assortment of perks to fill the gap, you always have to keep up with what your competitors are offering. And this quickly becomes a race to a homogenous bottom. If your product relies on a few flashy but ultimately meaningless bells and whistles for differentiation, it's not long for this market -- and neither is your culture. 

It gives you a guidepost for your entire people strategy.

What performance management process should your company use? How should we think about career development? What training should people be offered?

Without a defined culture, all of these questions that inevitably come up as a company scales have to be tackled one-off. On the other hand, deliberately designing culture early on results in more efficiency later because it serves as a guidepost for all future people strategy. The questions can now be framed as: What performance management process aligns with and lives our culture? Now you don't have to start from scratch, and it becomes much easier to create an entire employee experience that gels together -- and stands apart. 

If people are truly the most important asset at your company, then culture should be elevated to the level of product, and treated just as carefully and deliberately. It's just good for business.

Published on: Oct 21, 2019
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