Product Culture Marty Cagan

Innovation vs. Execution

In my last article I discussed how we need to simultaneously learn fast in product discovery, yet still release with confidence in product delivery. I got a very good response from this article, as well as many questions as to how teams can get better at one or both.  This quickly gets into a very deep discussion of culture.  You can think of this as the characteristics of a strong innovation culture, versus those of a strong execution culture.

In this article I wanted to say a bit more about how your company’s culture either helps or hinders innovation or execution, and then I’d like to give you some pretty deep questions for your team to consider.

What does it really mean to have a strong innovation culture?

  1. Culture of experimentation – teams know they can run tests, and some will succeed and many will fail, and this is acceptable and understood
  2. Culture of open minds – teams know that good ideas can come from anywhere, and aren’t always obvious at the outset
  3. Culture of empowerment – individuals and teams feel empowered to be able to try out an idea
  4. Culture of technology – teams realize that true innovation can be inspired by new technology and analysis of data, as well as by customers
  5. Culture of business and customer savvy teams – teams, including developers, have a deep understanding of the business needs and constraints, and understanding of (and access to) the users and customers
  6. Culture of skillset diversity – teams appreciate that different skills contribute to innovative solutions – especially engineering, UX design and product
  7. Culture of discovery techniques – the mechanisms are in place for ideas to be tested out quickly and safely (protecting brand, revenue, customers and colleagues)

What does it really mean to have a strong execution culture?

  1. Culture of urgency – people feel like they are in war-time and that if they don’t find a way to move fast then bad things could happen
  2. Culture of high-integrity commitments – teams understand the need for (and power of) commitments, but they also insist on high-integrity commitments
  3. Culture of empowerment – teams feel like they have the tools, resources and the permission to do whatever is necessary to meet their commitments
  4. Culture of accountability – one way or another people and teams feel a deep responsibility to meet their commitments; accountability also implies consequences – not necessarily being terminated except in extreme and repeated situations – more likely consequences to their reputations among their peers
  5. Culture of collaboration – while team autonomy and empowerment is important, teams understand their even higher need to work together to accomplish many of the biggest and most meaningful objectives
  6. Culture of results – is the focus on output or is the focus on results?
  7. Culture of recognition – teams often take their cues from what is rewarded and what is accepted.  Is it just the team that comes up with the great new idea that gets rewarded, or the team that delivered on a brutally tough commitment?  And what is the message if missing a commitment is seen as easily excusable?

So if these characteristics help define each culture, this begs some pretty tough questions:

  • Is an innovation culture in any way inherently at odds with an execution culture?
  • Does a strong execution culture lead to a stressful (or worse) work environment?
  • What types of people, including leaders, are attracted to, and needed, for each type of culture?

I can tell you that there do exist companies that are very strong at both consistent innovation and execution.  Amazon is one of the best examples.  However, it’s also pretty well known that the Amazon work environment is not for the faint of heart.  I’ve found that most companies that are exceptionally strong at execution are pretty tough places to work.

In my experience working with companies, only a few companies are strong at both innovation and execution; many are good at execution but weak at innovation; some are strong at innovation and just okay at execution; and a depressing number of companies are poor at both innovation and execution (usually older companies that have lost their product mojo a long time ago but still have a strong brand and customer base to lean on).

In any case, what I hope you and your team will consider doing is assess yourself along these dimensions of innovation and execution, and then ask yourselves where you would like to be, or think you need to be, as a team or company?   The techniques for strong innovation and strong execution exist and are well understood at leading companies, but in my experience the hard part is in being willing to actually do the things that change the culture.