Mar 9, 2023
As a product creator, have you ever worked in a company that seems to operate like a feature factory? One that throws out new features so quickly that there’s no time for validation, quality checks, or even considering the overall user experience?
I’ve had some exciting reactions on this topic over the past few days. Even if you are not a PM, you can get the impression of receiving mixed signals from the brand or the product itself. As a trained product manager, you can feel how confusing it is even if you don’t work in those companies.
Product managers working in that kind of company are struggling and are in a tug of war between what they think they should do and the pressure of management.
A study by Pendo found that 72% of product managers struggle with prioritization, and 64% of product managers have experienced pressure to build new features at the expense of quality.
A survey by Amplitude found that 59% of product managers said their company values speed of development over quality, and 47% said their company values shipping new features over fixing bugs.
What does the reality look like?
The protagonist, the product creator, the product manager, the leader, or even the CEO, is usually found in heated discussions about the roadmap and what to do next. There are generally internal battles over where the development team’s efforts should go, with little consideration for the infrastructure or technical debt left untouched.
The development team, meanwhile, is facing their own set of challenges as the accumulation of changes in direction over time has created an exponentially growing burden on the infrastructure and technical debt.
Every shift the team requires becomes a nightmare, and each estimate to develop a new feature becomes insane. And yet, the company keeps releasing new features.
Product Managers are more like firefighters, extinguishing fires thrown at them by the sales, onboarding, support or leadership team. If there is one, the product management team needs help to keep pace. They look desperately in the backlog to find out how to fill in the next release and ensure the dev team is busy.
All of this is happening without any control from anyone. Sales are complaining that they can’t sell. Marketing is doing its thing. Leadership is complaining about the team’s lack of efficiency and efficacy, and they think they could do the product manager’s job easier.
Product creators’ emotions run high at this point. You feel like you’re just there to push features out of the gate without any vision. You may not even realize that you’re part of a feature factory.
The metaphor of a feature factory is taken from the industrial world and the supply chain. It suggests a highly automated and mechanized process where new features are shipped rapidly, with little regard for the final product’s user experience, overall product experience, quality, or technical debt.
The business strategy of this kind of company is simple: since we don’t know what the users want, let’s give them as much as possible.
A feature factory company throws as many features as possible against the wall and sees what sticks rather than taking a more strategic and thoughtful approach to product development.
Those products are mine fields
When I found myself in those kinds of companies, I called them “gas factories.” They were like a bunch of features put together. If you tried to do something different or release a new feature, something could explode in another part of the product, and you wouldn’t even understand why it happened. It would take days for the engineers to do a root cause analysis. In some cases, the product didn’t meet the needs or solve the users’ pains, which led to frustration for everyone, including the product manager, the development team, and the users.
The protagonist in these kinds of organizations becomes resentful and does their “job” without questioning what is required. But, as a product creator, you can do better. You can avoid the feature factory mentality and approach product development more strategically and thoughtfully, focusing on user needs, quality, and the overall product experience.
There is a blame game around the organization, and everybody wants to get to the answer to the question, “Who is responsible for this mess?”. Marketing blames the product team, product condemns engineering, engineering blames product, product then blames strategy, strategy blames sales, and sales blame product. And so on and so forth. Not only the product creator but everyone in the organization becomes resentful.
It’s all about workplace drama and not the job.
There are various reasons why companies act like feature factories:
Competitive market: With new entrants and established companies releasing new offers daily, releasing new features quickly is a way to stay competitive. The quantity can make customers prefer one company over another.
Misaligned incentives: The product and development teams may be assessed on their ability to release new features and not on the overall quality of the product itself.
Fear of missing out (FOMO): Companies may worry that their competitor will win over the market if they don’t release a feature.
Lack of understanding of user needs: The users’ pains and needs may not be well-identified, leading companies to rely on luck more than strategy.
No product strategy: Without a clear vision and product strategy, teams may not know where to go and where to focus their efforts.
Internal politics: CXOs or heads of departments may have different opinions on where the product should go, leading to a power struggle over which features to prioritize.
As a result, the long-term success of the company is in jeopardy. Being a feature factory leads to technical debt, poor user experiences, and dissatisfaction among employees and clients.
The business world recognizes problems and attempts to find solutions for them.
According to McKinsey, the number of companies undergoing transformation has increased. In 2020, 96% of executives surveyed said their companies were experiencing some sort of transformation, whether agile, digitization, digital transformation, or product-led transformation.
The type of transformation and its results are unclear in the market, and there is a significant misunderstanding of which transformation does what. For example, an agile transformation is not the same as a digital transformation, although an agile transformation can be part of the digital transformation.
Here are some numbers on different types of transformation:
Agile transformation: 97% of organizations are practising agile methodologies, according to the 15th Annual State of Agile Report.
Digital Transformation: According to IDC, spending on digital transformation technologies will reach $2.3 trillion in 2023. A McKinsey report found that 70% of companies have either a digital transformation strategy or are working on one.
Digitalization: According to a survey by Gartner, 87% of senior business leaders say digitalization is a company priority.
Product-led Transformation: According to Pendo, 75% of product leaders reported that their organizations had or will go through a product-led transformation.
Is a transformation the right thing for your company and your product team?
Before delving into the solution and how we can reverse the product culture in the organization, it is essential to put a name on the culture that companies like this face.
The drama triangle and the tribe
In my journey towards becoming a great product manager and leader, I came across the book by Dave Logan on Tribal Leadership. It changed my mindset and transformed how I viewed a leader’s role.
Logan’s book highlighted the importance of understanding the culture and the mindset inside a team or an organization. The book identified through research that people in organizations form groups organically. Each one of those tribes had its cultural values and way of working.
Logan identified different levels a tribe could function, which could determine the company’s or team’s success or failure. The organizational culture is divided as follows:
Stage 1 “Life Sucks” — People are highly negative and have no hope for the future. It’s generally the kind of tribe you find in prison.
Stage 2 “My life sucks” — People are still negative; however, it’s less against the world and more personal. They feel stuck in a situation and complain about their boss or colleagues.
Stage 3 “I’m great and you are not” — People begin to look at personal achievements and feel superior to others. People may compete against them with little regard for collaboration.
Stage 4 “We’re great (Not the others)” — People identify their team or company and are proud of the accomplishments of the overall collective. Startups that are running high and popular are generally in that stage.
Stage 5 “Life is great” — The highest level and also one that is not maintainable. Tribes or companies go in and out of this stage. People feel inspired to make a positive impact in the world. They empower others through teamwork and collaboration around a shared goal.
Logan identifies that most companies are at stage 3. However, companies going down the spiral of power struggles, fostering competition, blame-shifting, and politics can be easily found in stage 2.
Feature factories are lower level 3 and can be on the verge of level 2!
And this is where the drama triangle comes in. The drama triangle is a social model by Karpman that describes three roles that people often play in conflict situations: the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer.
As the name indicates, the roles are played in parallel to each other and only exist if the other two exist. The rescuer will see a situation where he must help the victim against the persecutor. And the victim can only be a victim if there is a persecutor. Each of these people feeds off each other and reinforces their own status, reinforcing their feelings about themselves and their positions.
Remember the blaming game and witch-hunt situation from earlier. Can you transpose the conflict to the drama and attribute a role to each one of the actors?
The victim in the situation earlier could be the product team, being forced and blamed for all the problems in the organization. The persecutor could be the sales or the development team. The rescuer could be the leadership team who needs to intervene to keep the company afloat.
Breaking out of the drama triangle requires a mindset shift and recognizing the problem. It also requires a change in the organizational culture. It means bringing different perspectives around the table, listening to feedback, and finally empowering teams to work together to develop solutions.
On top of breaking from the drama triangle, the company must successfully transform towards a more product-led culture. Success requires a clear product vision and an understanding of the user’s needs and pain. The product team will need to undergo new market research and customer discovery to feed the strategy with data that will help drive a new product direction.
Seven steps to transforming your organizational culture
Companies that wish to change their culture and undergo any type of transformation should follow these seven steps:
1. Identify the company culture
The first step is to analyze and identify the company’s current state. Tribe leaders must recognize the current values, beliefs, and behaviours that exist within the company.
During my work in different product teams, I usually conduct interviews and observe behaviour in 1-on-1 meetings. Like product managers run customer discovery, identifying the company culture requires similar stages.
2. Defined the desired culture
Once the current state is defined, the new culture must be identified. Just like product managers identify the new user experience, the organization needs to determine the new experience for the people inside the organization.
What are the values, beliefs, and behaviours that should be shared amongst the members of the organization?
During this step, ask yourself: “what would you like to say to your friends and family about your team/job?”
3. Create a roadmap
A roadmap with milestones must be defined at this stage to bridge the gap between the current state and the desired one. The roadmap must contain SMART Objectives, and people should be responsible for them. Each action under the roadmap should bring value to the overall organization and contribute to the desired culture.
4. Engage the organization
Once the plan is identified, it’s vital to involve all the people in the organization from top to bottom. The roadmap should be communicated, and people should understand the why, what, who, when, and how the company will undergo the desired transformation.
5. Lead by example
Leaders play a crucial role in the transformation process. They are the ones whom the company and the people look upon to model their behaviour. Leaders must constantly reinforce the values and beliefs the company strives for in themselves and others. It also means not tolerating any behaviour that goes against the new culture.
6. Measure progress
Peter Drucker has a quote, “**If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it**.” It’s crucial to measure progress toward the goal identified by the company when undergoing transformation. In the same way, the culture is identified in the first step; the sixth step can be done through interviews, surveys, or other research techniques.
7. Improve continuously
As with any project or new experience, it may not achieve the desired outcomes immediately. It’s essential to continuously review the transformation results, reinforce the needs, and make a plan to improve its effectiveness.
Going through a cultural transformation in a company is similar to transforming a user experience. Companies must create a new experience for their employees that balances the needs of the business with the needs of the users. In a feature factory mentality, companies experience various pains at different levels, including human, financial, and product and infrastructure-related. By following these steps, organizations can shift their culture, and the product team can prioritize quality, user experience, and collaboration across departments. This ultimately leads to better products, happier users, and a more successful company.
Ultimately, the goal of any product company is to create products that solve real problems for users. As product creators, our aspiration and job are to make things better. As leaders, our job is to make things better for the people around us.