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From the boat of product to the sea of culture

The sea of culture

There it lies in all its vastness – the sea of culture. It’s not tangible, because as soon as you try to hold it, it eventually slips out or evaporates. But you can feel it, see it; and without it existing, your boat would not exist as the vehicle it is. How do you tackle such an esoteric beast? As an organizational coach, this has been a key focus area for me when supporting current and past clients.

“Why culture? Why don’t you focus on coaching people on leadership, product, agile and lean skills and practices?” Well, I still do. But only after I’ve ensure that the right culture is there to enable those tools and practices. The goal on the boat is to get to the lighthouse; the goal isn’t to use the oars or boat engine (agility) for the sake of using it. You can only use the tools effectively if you know what your goal is and have an environment that enables you to do so. As the stoic Seneca once said, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”


Let’s talk about that environment – the sea, in our case. To have an effective cultural shift in a typical organization, the leaders must go first. They need to be coached through the differences between leading people and managing people, unlearn some existing ways of working with others, co-create some values and operating principles with a top-down and bottom-up approach, and set the stage for incentivizing the ideal behaviors.

The Culture Iceberg

The Culture Iceberg above depicts the relationship between values, operating principles, and behaviors. Using the metaphor of an iceberg, the values and operating principles are invisible but important starting points for creating the desired behavior, which is visible to all members of the organization and beyond. The invisible portion of the iceberg can also be referred to as mindset, and the water-line is the point at which decisions are made on how individuals act and manifest their thoughts and beliefs.

As a change agent, it’s a good idea to kick things off with defining the values that the organization would like to represent and embody. This list doesn’t have to be static – it’s often a good idea to revisit them periodically and discuss potential changes, if any. The values should be closely couple with the vision and mission of an organization. For example, if your vision is “To be a platform that democratizes access to real-estate data“, then some of your values may include “Transparency”, “Ease of access”, and “Data accuracy”.

While the values are often geared towards the benefits your organization provides to the external customers, you also want to think about how you’re encouraging your employees to live up to that. This is where operating principles come in. Operating principles are statements that describe how individuals that are building the product will interact with each other, as well as with different levels of users and customers. “It’s better for us to build nothing than something we’re not proud of”, “Build something that customers need”, and “Understand the problem, validate your solution, then scale” are some examples.

You can use a sense-making approach to understand what the operating principles are, and what behaviors are currently exhibited in an organization/department/team. One model that can be used for sense-making for displayed behaviors is the Schneider model.

Another approach that I’ve used with past clients is by gathering the participants of an organization/department/team together and asking them to share past stories of success and failures in their teams/departments. Once they have done that, you want to describe the different archetypes (watch the Organic Agility video reference) that can exist in any given context and ask the leaders to group their success and failure stories into the archetype categories based on the behaviors that were exhibited. This approach has the value of being empirical by relying on past data – the stories that have already occurred, rather than non-specific behavioral questions which may or may not be reflective of the current climate. Based on the groupings, you will notice more stories in one (or a few) archetypes than the others. This information can then be used to baseline the current behaviors and use it to move towards the desired archetype/set of behaviors.

Non-specific behavioral questions

Treat the problem, not the symptoms. Rather than trying to directly manage the behaviors of individuals, change agents and leaders need to start at the bottom of the iceberg, by defining and clarifying the values and operating principles, to create a lasting shift toward the desired culture. This approach has a higher likelihood of resulting in impacting the visible layer of the Culture Iceberg – the behaviors that individuals exhibit day to day in your organization.


A product is a vehicle that delivers value to a set of given customer needs. In simpler terms, a product or service helps an individual do something that they weren’t able to earlier, without it. When measuring the effectiveness of a product, Product Managers often look for the outcomes, the change in customer behavior, that the product has helped enable. In the image above, the ship represents the value-carrying vehicle for the customer needs lighthouse.

The sea of culture acts as the enabler for the boat of product to move toward the lighthouse of customer needs. Without the right culture – that is, values, operating principles, and behaviors – it’s hard to build a product that will effectively deliver value to the customers.

For example, you’re building a tool that allows team members to remotely collaborate online. However, you have a culture of silos in your organization where the developers only want to be responsible for coding, the testers only want to be responsible for testing, and the designers only want to be responsible for designing. This sort of culture is never going to enable valuable product creation, let alone one that is aimed to allow team members to collaborate online. In this situation, leaders can create values and operating principles with the team. When building tech products, it’s generally advisable to have product teams where each member is responsible for the quality and value that each product increment delivers. This means that the developers, testers, and designers collaborate with each other to discuss different design, code, and test aspects related to the product, to tackle them upfront and make each other’s lives easier by reducing dependencies, back-and-forth, and time to market. One such operating principle could be “Quality is everybody’s responsibility”, which then should encourage a behavior of collaboration between the different roles. As a result of this new behavior, the product could improve its time to market, attractiveness to customers, and overall value.

As shown in the example above, the effectiveness of a product heavily relies on the values and operating principles, which the individuals who build it use.


Lastly, an agile mindset is represented by the boat motor that is used to drive the product forward. Just as there can be different types of boat motors – fuel engine, steam, and manual oars, agility is one set of values that can propel the product. Depending on your need, you would choose the appropriate boat motor(s).

Using cynefin terms, if you are working in the simple/complicated domain with sequential steps, perhaps an overall waterfall approach might be better suited. That does not mean that agile and waterfall are exclusive. Agile values can be used within waterfall ways of working. For example, if you are building a house, you would like to first lay the foundation before creating the skeletal structure of the walls, and then proceeding to creating doors and windows within the house. You can’t create the windows before laying the foundation and creating the skeletal structure. However, when you’re creating the windows, you can work incrementally and use customer feedback to inspect and adapt your work prior to completion. This is an example of using agile values alongside waterfall ways of working.


Leaders and change agents often focus on applying practices and frameworks, or introducing new product roles and techniques to help them better address customer needs and eventually be a profitable organization. However, it’s more important to build a culture that enables an effective way of working towards addressing customer needs and business goals. Rather than treating it as an exercise that is done once, it’s important to treat building the culture as a constant and evolving process.


Want to continue the conversation? Connect with me on LinkedIn and let’s chat about how I can help you and your organization out.

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