5 Things a Product Manager Can Learn from Game of Thrones

Each of the main characters in HBO’s adaptation of G.R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic Game of Thrones have their own motivations and methods that forward their goals, for good, evil, or something in between. And a careful examination of those characters reveals some common risks that Product Managers (and other roles) face in the business world on a daily basis. Here are five examples of things that any clever Product Manager can learn from watching Game of Thrones:ned-615x200

1) It Doesn’t Matter If You’re “Right”….

It matters what you can prove.

Good old Ned…always trying to do the right thing, with the right information, for the right reasons. And completely incapable of comprehending that there might be people who do illogical and counter-productive things for their own purposes, and who care not a single whit for the “truth” so long as it doesn’t serve their nefarious end-game goals. Ned wound up giving his life for his family, because he discovered a “truth” that was inconvenient for those in power, and because he had absolutely no hard data to back up his accusations.

Similarly, there are many times in a PM’s life when we’re faced with absolutely ludicrous plans — things that would require years of development man-hours, things with absolutely no resonance in the market, UI/UX “suggestions” that come from people with no conception of how actual customers interact with your product.  And, you can choose the Ned Stark way: trust that the people around you will back your play with absolutely no hard evidence whatsoever; or you can choose the Clever PM way: collect as much data as you reasonably can to confirm your position and to force someone who objects to provide their own data in return.  You’ll never win a fight of opinions with the exec team or a rogue CEO, but if you can provide them with hard data that backs your assertions, that’s going to go a long way toward providing them with a face-saving out that doesn’t result in your head on the chopping block.

You just don’t go calling the king a bastard without having something to support the accusation — and honor isn’t enough.

joffrey-615x200

2) You Don’t Have to Be Liked to Be Kind, but You Won’t Last Long…

And speaking of the bastard, King Joffrey is an object lesson in the concept that absolute power corrupts absolutely — particularly if you’re already a raving psychopath with mommy issues and a chip on your shoulder. Joffrey takes the throne like a dog with a rope toy, pulling at it, pushing it, growling and snarling in private while proving with every new whim that he’s nothing but a craven madman with delusions of grandeur. He ostracizes nearly everyone around him, to the point that even his own mother wonders if she’ll have to take him out of the picture someday. And, of course, he pays the price in a fittingly gruesome manner.

Many people let power and authority go to their heads, and Product Managers are no exception. But even a king’s rule is only as legitimate as the loyalty that his subjects give him, and through the loyalty of those closest to him. The same goes for a Product Manager — if you’re the only one in the room who’s coming up with ideas, pushing them forward over all other sources of input, and basically dictating the strategy of your product, you’re alienating everyone else in the room. And down that path lies a glass of wine tainted by a Strangler, just for you…or maybe just a pink slip, depending on the customs of your company.

varys-615x2003) It’s Important to Have Eyes and Ears Throughout the “Kingdom”

It seems as though almost nobody knows more about the goings-on in Westeros and the surrounding lands than Varys, the “spider” with his “little birds” everywhere. Playing a long game, Varys rarely intervenes directly, and often simply waits and watches, and provides a soft “push” when things need to go in one direction or the other. His claims to be acting in the interests of “the Realm” place him in an entirely different class than many of the other players of the Game, and he’s only capable of doing so because of the many sources of information constantly feeding his able mind.

A good Product Manager should also understand the importance of information, from any and every source possible. They should be capable of inserting themselves into the daily jobs and processes that surround them, and of providing the necessary “push” every so often to keep things going in the right direction. They should be capable of processing a constant stream of information and picking out the important gems that are surrounded by useless sand — and in distilling complex, often contradictory data into actionable plans and clear statements of purpose.

But they need to do so in the name of their product, not in the name of themselves, unlike the other Westeros information broker…

baelish-615x2004) When You Play the Game, Selfishness Only Makes Things More Complicated

Petyr Baelish is a hard man to like, but in some ways he’s also a hard man to entirely dislike. He plays the game for his own goals — whatever they may be at any given time. He doesn’t look too far down the path, but isn’t entirely making things up as he goes along. He has a vision of the intended future, but often makes decisions that, either foreseeably or unforeseeably, result in setbacks to that vision, rather than forward progress on achieving that vision.

I’ve worked with Product Managers who treat their product and their market the way that Petyr treats the Game; they are the ones whose eyes are caught by the “shining things” out in the market, the new and different technology that promises to be a “silver bullet” if you’ll only invest the time, effort, and money (of course) to bring it to fruition. They’re the ones who wind up falling into the weeds rather then defining a vision of the forest, the ones who can articulate what the strategy should be, but then turn around and talk about the next random tactical objective as though there were no strategy around it. They want to find the quickest, fastest, and cheapest way to reach a solution, without regard to the side-effects of that solution.

robb-615x2005) Breaking the Trust of Others Rarely Turns Out Well…

Robb wanted to be a good man, like his father. But he was young, and foolish, and fell in love with a woman who was completely inappropriate for him at the time and place of their meeting. He then proceeded to marry her in complete and abject destruction of a truce made to secure a safe crossing for his army. And ultimately this breach of trust cost not only his life and the lives of many of his faithful men, but also the life of his mother. One act of betrayal fostered another — and the response was in no way proportionate to the original trigger.

So it goes in the world of business — as Product Managers, we must learn to lead through influence, and that influence only comes through building trust and respect among your peers and stakeholders. Even a single act of betrayal of that trust can utterly destroy your reputation, your credibility, and ultimately even your ability to just do your job on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean that you must always put the interests of others ahead of yours, but that you must be very careful when, where, how, and why you go back on something that you have committed to with others. If you can’t justify or explain your decision in a way that maintains some level of trust and respect, you’re going to find yourself hearing the Rains of Castamere playing at your next staff meeting.

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Cliff Gilley

Cliff has worked as a product manager for over 10 years in a variety of markets and working on a variety of products, many of which generated over $10M in yearly revenue for the companies owning them. He is experienced in facilitation, mediation, prioritization, and a bunch of other “ations” that are important to the job of a product manager. He has worked to transition several development and product teams from waterfall approaches to Agile practices, with varying levels of resounding success. His approach to product management is one of practical, pragmatic solutions to solving customer problems and wrangling stakeholders as though they were wild cats.