This is the first in a series of eight articles on CPO Solutions. Why? Over the past year Products That Count has been investigating the role of the Chief Product Officer. That investigation has included original research by our own CPO, Renée Niemi, resulting in the white paper “The Rise of the Chief Product Officer: Study of the Most Important Role in Business.” We also recently published an eBook on “The State of the Chief Product Officer in 2022.” That latter work focused on the eight top challenges facing the CPO of today, one of which is shifting the culture.

Stay tuned to Products That Count for more CPO-related content, including the rest of this series on CPO Solutions.

To shift the culture, start with a vision

As more and more companies become product-led, the Chief Product Officer is often in charge of shifting the organization’s culture. Leading that kind of change can be a difficult task. After all, it is axiomatic that nobody likes change. So how does a CPO go about making that transition as smooth as possible?

According to Included Health CPO Nupur Srivastava, it begins with crystal clear vision. Nupur says, “A huge job for the CPO of a company is to drive a clear vision, but also have the skillset to drive to execution against the strategy. Good CPOs execute that with passion.”

This sentiment is shared by Autodesk EVP of AEC Design Amy Bunszel. According to Amy, shifting the culture requires a proper Northstar vision. In other words, a top-level goal that the whole organization works towards together, in all their projects. 

As Amy explains, “I feel very strongly that if you have a Northstar that people can get behind and are excited about and passionate about – your team, but also your customers – you will get through massive amounts of change much better. There’s always going to be some disruption. Nobody enjoys disruption. But if people know that where you’re going, you have their best interest in mind, and they can really rally behind that vision and that Northstar, it is so much easier. It’s still going to be challenging, but it is so much easier.”

Action item: Maintain open lines of communication about the Northstar vision; your team needs to know where it is headed to give 100%.

Key skill: Empathy

Even if you have top-down support on that clear vision for shifting the culture, team members still need to buy in. A key skill here is empathy. What can this culture shift do for your team? What are their interests in this process? Furthermore, how can you get them to take ownership of the process?

Once again, Autodesk’s Amy Bunszel offers advice. Amy describes a time, over a decade ago, of leading her Autodesk teams from waterfall to agile. She says, “Often when I drive change, I try to think about all the different constituencies. What are they going to gain from this? And really help give them a ‘why’ that’s more contextual to them. You can take that even further down to particular roles.”

Amy continues, “One of the things we had to do right away was make sure people understood that we were not going to do textbook agile. We needed to convince some of our most respected architects, program managers, product managers, user experience people, that this was the way to go. And then let them help influence how we built the process for ourselves. And then they helped us evangelize and repeat. And now the team would never go back.”

Action item: Ask yourself what the culture shift can do for your team.

Create a product-led culture from day 1

Sometimes the best way to shift the culture is to be there at the beginning, and build it from the ground up. That was the case for Fidelity Investments SVP and Head of Product Deba Sahoo. Five years ago, Deba was involved in a restructuring at the Boston-based financial institution. In this process, he took on leadership of the product development team, and was able to build with a product-led culture from day one. Now, his team is in the position of leading by example while waiting for other company functions to catch up.

Deba says, “I was asked to create something brand new. So I have hired every single person and built the culture. The benefit of me creating the organization from the ground up is that I could mold the culture, and the way we operate, the way I want it to be.

“I personally believe in the product mindset and the product team structure. So I have been deliberate about creating that as much as possible. But with balancing enough people from the past. We need expertise and knowledge of people who know about our business and process. As well as people who can think differently and think a little more creatively.

“Where we are in our transformation journey, I think there’s still a lot of work to do as a product organization. I think the product development portion, I think we’re much more mature in those areas. But I think we still have a lot of challenges and opportunities to be truly product-led. I think we have work to do. I’m a big champion of that, and that’s why I get involved in Products That Count: to learn, but also to be a champion and evangelist for product.”

Action item: Get involved in a product community to deepen your knowledge and credibility to lead the culture change.

Summing up

Wrapping things up, it is of course true that shifting the culture in an organization doesn’t happen overnight. Every organization has an entrenched culture, whether explicitly outlined or not. Getting buy-in from both top-down and bottom-up is not easy. But following the tips outlined by the Chief Product Officers above can help.

If you’re able to create a team from scratch, be intentional – like Deba Sahoo – on instilling a product-led culture from day one. If not, leading with transparency and empathy can go a long way, as Amy Bunszel explains. And above all, as Nupur Srivastava urges, start with a clear vision.

Stay tuned for part two in this series, in which we take a look at the Chief Product Officer’s role in setting priorities. Coming soon.

About the speaker
Renee Niemi Products That Count, CPO Member
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