Strong product principles can be the foundation of a successful product culture

Whilst on a long drive one of my favourite things to do is find a good podcast and gain some knowledge whilst riding along. Recently I decided to give Intercoms product podcast (Intercom on Product) a road test, if you pardon the pun, and found an incredible episode all about principles and how they can guide you. Today I am going to share the insight I extrapolated and how I believe principles can be the foundation of product org success.

Intercom are hands down one of my favourite product companies. They represent excellence in the product world and their success is testament to the way they think about product and the user.

In the episode titled “The principles behind how we build” they discussed what it means to have a strong set of product and engineering principles and how they differ from company values. I’ll be diving deeper into why they’re different and what issues they’re trying to solve in the context of product organisations.

Principles VS Values

A common mistake often made is assuming that values and principles are one of the same thing however this is not the case. Companies often get confused by the difference between them and I can’t blame them, their difference is subtle.

Paul Adams (VP Product — Intercom) summaries the difference as:

Principles are about predictable behaviour. Values are more about how we think and feel.

An example of a value could be something like build with heart and balance. We’re defining a standard for how we should think and feel, however in practice, if I were developing a new product and we were having a discussion about it, how can I tangibly apply the above value?

That’s the issue with values.

A set of values are brilliant for influencing and guiding the general behaviour of a company and it’s employees however when it comes to applying them in a tangible application they provide little actionable value.

A principle is a fundamental truth or proposition, that serves as the foundation for behaviour, that gives the result you want.

On the other hand, principles guide behaviour offering a predictable way to execute our decisions. Take the following principle “base decisions on evidence, not opinion”. We are directly defining a predictable and repeatable behaviour. When making a decision we know how to execute it, with data and not opinion. In addition, we can measure this principle in a quantitative way. In this case, it’s a simple truth. Did we execute a decision based on opinion or data? Yes or no.

Predictable, Repeatable Culture

Scaling a product organisation is hard. Scaling a product organisation well is really hard. It’s an area which has been covered in depth by the likes of Marty Cagan and his book Inspired. For that reason, I won’t dive too deep into that topic here.

When creating a company with a focus on the product you start with a single idea created and nurtured by the founders with a clear idea of why you’re building the product. However, as you scale keeping that initial why at the centre of what you do as you grow adding engineers, designers, product managers, analysts and everything in between is incredibly challenging. How as a product organisation do you ensure that your staff are all going to make decisions in the way that truly satisfies what you want to be as a company?

So how do we ensure that as a product company scales it makes the correct decisions aligned with the founder's decision-making process? We create a predictable and repeatable culture. This means outlining a set of principles that we all agree on and we all adhere too; we base the very core of our decision-making process around these principles and champion them. This is why big tech companies have such a perceived strong culture. It’s all about predictability and repeatability.

When we create a predictable culture, we create a sense of calm. Everybody in the organisation knows what’s happening and what’s coming next. Everybody knows how to behave and execute their jobs. The success can be repeated with confidence. Don’t waste time by throwing mud at the wall to see what sticks.

Defining Your Principles

No company, however amazing they may seem, is perfect. They all have fuck ups along the way. What separates the good from the great is the company’s ability to recognise success and champion it and identify failure and protect against it in the future. Principles can help us do this. When you have a success or failure, create a principle around it.

For example, let’s say that you notice that the sooner you ship new product to customers the sooner you get feedback and the sooner you can iterate on that feature. You see this leads to success by the customer having a better reaction to the product. We can create a principle for this “Ship to learn”. Now when we’re shipping product in the future we have a tangible principle we can use as our mantra that we already know leads to success. Predictale, repeatable success.

Don’t waste your time sitting down at 3pm on a Friday trying to conjure up a list of 12 principles that you think sound great because they will fail. Don’t search the internet looking for principles that you think you can align with because they will also probably fail. Principles need to come from success and failure. They should be formed from experiences that have occurred at the heart of your company. They should be incoded into your DNA. When you experience success or failure ask yourself “what can we learn from this”. Take the time to retrospectively think about how what has just happened can be wrapped up into a small bitesize statement like the statement “ship to learn”. This is how you will form principles that stick.

Never stop refining

Defining your principles is a great step to take in becoming a better product organisation that can produce predictable results, however, you should not let your principles stagnate. Constantly look to refine them. Had a new success? Great, is there anything that leads to that success that isn’t encompassed by your principles? The same applies to failures, of which you will have along the way. Over time you may even find that some of your principles achieve the same thing, therefore, they can be merged.

Provide detail

One important note on defining principles, it’s often tempting to just define the title alone and consider that enough. This can still leave a principle open to interpretation though. Always look to provide a short description to give further context.

For example with “ship to learn” we may supplement it with:

We aspire to continuously ship product as early and as frequently as possible to shorten the feedback loop between us and the customer. Once a feature can solve the problem for the customer we should prioritise shipping over perfecting and the addition of bells and whistles.

Champion Your Principles

We’ve been there, you define some amazing principles — 6 months later and you’ve forgotten that they ever existed. Principles should be something that is embedded in your companies product culture. You need to make your principles visible everywhere and an integral part of your onboarding experience for new starters. Print them out, stick them on the walls, have them in meeting rooms, reference them in product discussions, talk about them in retrospectives, use them when making critical decisions. They’re there to guide you. Don’t let them gather dust.

Scaling a product organisation isn’t an easy job, there are many challenges you will face along the way. Creating a strong set of principles that can guide not only your own decision making but the decision making process of your entire company, is one thing you can do to make that job a little bit easier. So, what principles will you define for your company’s future

Further Reading

I’ve come across a fair few sets of principles if you want to get inspired by some other companies principles I’ve documented a few below:

Lastly, if you want to check out the podcast, you can listen to it below…

A special thanks to Aran Long who offered some great suggestions for this article!



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