Building Great Internal Products – Part I: Cultivating the Right Culture and Values

Published by
Marc Rutzen
June 5, 2023
Building Great Internal Products – Part I: Cultivating the Right Culture and Values

From launching and exiting a real estate predictive analytics startup, to leading the development of a robust internal product suite as Chief Product Officer in a publicly traded company, and most recently, diving back into the startup space with – my unique career path has allowed me to experience and address the unique challenges of both external facing and internal product development. Much has been written about how to develop great products, but not as much has been said about how to build great internal products within a large organization. Today, I want to talk about the cornerstone of any successful internal product development initiative: Establishing Strong Culture and Values.

Let's set the stage. The process of developing internal products comes with a minefield of potential pitfalls unique from those of external customer-facing products. The failure to foster an environment of continual innovation can leave you in the dust with slow and inefficient solutions. Ineffective stakeholder relationships may push you into adopting a waterfall model, resulting in delays and poor user adoption. And, even if you can force employees to use your internal tools, if you don’t continue to improve, you may find yourself supporting dreaded (by developers and users alike) enterprise bloatware.

This nuanced landscape demands a different approach to product development – one that borrows from the agility of startups, but scales to fit within the organizational dynamics of larger companies. Over the next several posts, I will describe how I’ve approached the development of internal products that are loved and adopted broadly within organizations. Fostering the right cultural and working values within your internal team is step one.

Cultivating a Culture of Excellence

Famed management consultant Peter Drucker once said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." If you've been in the product development game long enough, you know this statement rings true. A strong culture becomes the lifeblood of your team, permeating every decision, large and small. It helps align your current members and acts as a beacon for those you wish to attract.

While each team is unique, some core cultural values have consistently proven instrumental in delivering strong results in my own journey. Let's explore them:

Support Freedom & Responsibility

Just as startup teams are granted autonomy over their actions, internal product teams should enjoy the freedom to decide how they solve problems, and importantly, bear responsibility for the results. This balance fosters a spirit of creativity and innovative problem-solving. It’s like turning loose a horde of entrepreneurial spirits within your organization, supercharging productivity and innovation.

Encourage Mutual Respect

An internal product team is a melting pot of diverse skills and backgrounds. Everyone brings something unique to the table, and this should be acknowledged and respected. It's critical to ensure no one disparages their teammates and all voices are heard – everyone should feel that they learn valuable things from each other. Strong product teams must live by the "No a**holes" rule. You have to hire slowly and meticulously, and be ready to quickly let go of those who hinder positive team culture.

Be Radically Candid

Kim Scott, in her influential book "Radical Candor," emphasized the importance of direct, constructive feedback within teams. When a potential improvement is spotted, people should feel safe and encouraged to voice it. Constructive critique helps us learn, adapt, and grow. Radical Candor only works with mutual respect though – if everyone on the team feels respected by their peers, the stage is set for constructive criticism to be well received.

Maintain Transparency

Transparency is the backbone of trust. As product and engineering leaders, we should keep our teams abreast of what’s going on, involve them in decisions that affect their work, and strive to understand the business lines we serve. Of course you should celebrate the wins, but make sure don't hide the losses – they’re equally powerful learning opportunities.

Be a Servant Leader

The managerial philosophy of a successful product team is one of service. Product leaders should be advocates for their teams, fostering their growth, and providing them with what they need to succeed. This support is essential for any team's success and individual growth.

Don’t Respect the Status Quo

The drive for continual improvement should be the only status quo on a productive internal development team. No process or issue should ever be considered "settled” – on a strong internal product team, each team member should always be questioning how they are doing things, seeking optimization opportunities, and fostering innovation.

Never Stop Learning

Whether it's technical skills, sales techniques, or specialized knowledge, continual learning is crucial. Expanding your knowledge not only makes you more valuable to the team but also fuels creativity and innovation. As the saying goes, readers are indeed leaders.

Don’t Forget to Have Fun

Lastly, it's essential to maintain a positive spirit and have fun! Not every day will be perfect, and not every product will be a home run. Keeping a sense of humor and positivity can go a long way in making the journey enjoyable.

As we navigate the world of internal product development, it's crucial to remember that it's not just about the product – it's about the people who make it happen. Cultivating the right culture and values will not only make your team more efficient and focused but also infuse joy and satisfaction into the journey, leading to extraordinary results.

In the next part of this series, I’ll delve into the product management philosophies that support an efficient internal development process. I’ll discuss key principles like minimalism, the importance of clear communication, and why every interaction is a potential sales moment.

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Marc Rutzen

Marc worked in real estate for 5 years before launching multifamily analytics startup Enodo, which he sold to Walker & Dunlop (NYSE: WD) in 2019. At W&D, he served as Chief Product Officer, developing products that helped source billions in loan volume. Outside of work, he enjoys reading, running, and spending time with family.

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