Note from Art: at least part of this post was prompted by some truly brilliant product managers interacting on twitter.  The true-life career horror story is all my own!

One of my greatest career misfires was accepting a role in a firm where I had failed to properly assess the culture.  I was blinded by the allure of this successful and global firm and by the sharp people that I met during the interview process. 

Had I interviewed from the perspective of assessing the firm’s culture, I suspect that I would have realized that this was a highly political environment with a command and control leadership style that was counter to my own style and preference.

It took 18 months to unwind that mistake.

Fast forward a few years to where I am active as an educator, trainer, consultant and coach, and I rarely miss an opportunity in a program on leadership, product or project management to describe the importance of developing effective culture-sensing skills.

Top Sales Professionals Get Culture Sensing!

Interestingly, some of the best pros at sensing an organization’s culture are top sales performers and lateral leaders like product and project managers will be well-served to learn from their sales counterparts.  Yeah, I know.  product and project managers learning from salespeople?!  It’s like cats and dogs living together.  However, it can happen!

Think about it.  Great salespeople are expert at quickly assessing a prospect’s business issues as well as understanding an organization’s approach to decision-making.  A sales pro wants to know who makes the final decision, who owns the budget, who the stakeholders are and what the dynamics are that will allow an opportunity to move from interest to close.  The faster that he/she can understand how things happen inside an organization, the easier it is to plot a strategy.

Pay Attention: Your Culture-Sensing Skills Will Serve You Well!

I can think of few skills more important for product and project managers and other lateral leaders to develop than culture sensing. All of the expertise in the world in the science of project management or in the understanding of a proper product management framework is for naught if the individual fails to take into account and leverage cultural idiosyncrasies to achieve results and drive improvements.

While the topic of organizational culture is big and broad, my emphasis is on the practical aspects of understanding a culture.  From the perspective of someone new joining an organization, here’s just a few of the key cultural attributes or dimensions that they need to understand:

15 (or so) Powerful Culture-Sensing Questions You Need to Ask and Answer:

  1. What is the organization proud of?  Who are the heroes and what are the heroic stories?
  2. How do people feel about the teams that they are part of?
  3. How does work get done? 
  4. How are decisions made?
  5. Is individualism rewarded and encouraged or is the team, silo or unit at the top of the food chain?
  6. Am I working in a culture rich in values or bereft of any?
  7. How does innovation take place?
  8. How do people talk about the leadership?
  9. Is the spirit one of “can-do” or can’t do because”?
  10. What is the fighting style?  Can people disagree vehemently on an issue and then go to lunch, or are grudges long and deep?
  11. Is there dissonance between stated goals and priorities and where the focus is placed?
  12. What’s the accountability culture like?
  13. What type of individuals prosper and what type struggle?
  14. What role do customers and what power does Voice of Customer play in the working environment?
  15. Can people talk about tough topics openly, up and down the ladder? 

All of these and the many more that I could keep listing speak to various cultural dimensions that a lateral leader such as a product or project manager must understand to effectively execute on their roles.

Common misfires occur when individuals attempt to impose their own vocational dogma on a group that could care less what the PMBOK says or whether best practices in product management support the idea.  The effective lateral leader doesn’t compromise his/her knowledge or best practices, but rather, learns to play and operate within the cultural dimensions to achieve the right outcomes. 

As an executive, I never appreciated it when we were in project meltdown and I was confronted with a project manager highlighting how mucked up our processes were and how if only the team had listened to her guidance we would not be in this situation. 

The same goes for Product Managers that I’ve known that would regale me with tales of tragedy and travesty at the hands of evil developers or manipulative salespeople as their excuses for why an offering had flopped or a customer had rejected the latest release.

While those examples underscore a number of shortcomings of the individuals, they also tell me that there was little understanding on their part of how to work within or to subtly and diligently help the culture evolve. 

The Bottom-Line for Now:

My Product Manager friends have quite a bit more to say about what they are describing as the “anthropology of product management” and the importance of culture sensing.  I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic, and suspect I’ll be back with more.

For now, my suggested take-away is for you to think consciously about understanding the environment you are working and operating in and leverage this knowledge to help drive performance improvement.

And for the large number of job seekers in the market, remember to apply these same questions to the firms that you are evaluating as part of your next step.  A job is good, but 18 months was a long-time to reflect on my need to do a better job culture-sensing.