5 Product Management Lessons I Learned from Game of Thrones

Thrones is coming back for its final season in a few days, and it’s all I can really think about.

I’m so excited that as I was preparing a speech for Rocky Mountain Product Camp - which was supposed to be about what I’ve learned from podcasting over the last two years - I scrapped my original agenda and wrote an entire presentation about product lessons I learned from watching Game of Thrones.

Originally, I started this blog because I thought about product management in the context of everyday things, like efficiency at the airport, buying wine, and scheduling doctor’s appointments. Game of Thrones is no different. When I sit down to watch this show, I can’t help but see lessons in product management… and leadership - although perhaps not always leadership lessons you’d want to imitate.

So, here you have it: 5 product management lessons I learned from Game of Thrones.

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1 - Be strategic about timing.

When Dany is captured by the Dothraki, she knows she needs to GTFO as quickly as possible. Instead of making any fast, haphazard moves - like setting small fires throughout the village to burn the whole thing down - she waits until she has every single important Dothraki leader in one, fragile wooden hut. Dany chooses this strategic time to burn the fragile hut to the ground (along with all the Dothraki leaders), while taking the rest of their resources to work towards her cause.

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As product managers, our focus is always on shipping as quickly as possible. However, there are factors around timing to take into account such as competitor launches, market conditions, and events that affect the product. For example, if you’re launching a new fantasy football app and football season just ended, you may want to rethink your launch strategy.

2 - A lean but effective team is best.

Cersei’s team is increasingly streamlined with only 3.5 people remaining: The Mountain, Qyburn, Euron Greyjoy, and Jaime. (Jaime is the .5 because we’re not really sure if he’s legit left her.) Yet, even with only 3.5 team members, Cersei has been able to kill a lot of her enemies and retain power. Keeping a small team yields some important advantages: There are fewer communication channels, and thus fewer opportunities for leaks and betrayal. Also, every single team member fills a very important, strategic, and necessary role.

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I’ve seen a lot of product teams try to solve their problems by just adding more people to the team. This increases the number of communication channels and in general can slow the team down. Oftentimes, the problem isn’t lack of resources but lack of priority. Which brings me to my next lesson…

3 - Set priorities.

Dany could take King’s Landing tomorrow with her enormous army, but after seeing the Night King and all those winter zombies, she’s not as concerned with Cersei as she used to be. That’s because she knows she should focus her resources on the most important goal, and the most important goal only: Defeat the whitewalkers.

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I can honestly say that every product team I’ve ever worked on has struggled with focusing on priorities. 99% of the time, teams are trying to accomplish way too much, and thus will only have a fraction of the success they could have with more focus on their top one or two priorities.

4 - Double down on what you(r product) does well.

Tyrion is a dwarf (in a world where dwarfs aren’t exactly accepted graciously into society), but he also can drink a lot … and (more importantly) he knows things. Tyrion has the gift of gab; he’s a great negotiator. If Tyrion spent all his time trying to be a great swordsman like his much taller, much stronger brother, he probably wouldn’t have gotten very far in this imaginary world. Tyrion understands what he’s good at (and what he’s not good at), and he doubled down on his strengths.

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As a product manager, it’s easy to get caught up in competitive research and what the competition is doing that you’re not doing. But it’s even more important to recognize what your product does well, and what your competitive advantage is. Trying to imitate your competitors’ competitive advantage will always leave you two steps behind. In sum: Define what you(r product) does well and double down.

This applies to you as an individual as well. All product managers have different strengths. Some are more technical, some are great communicators, some are fantastic at managing growth. Figure out what your competitive edge is, double down, and make your strengths part of your brand.

5 - When things aren’t working out, fail fast and pivot.

When the Great Masters burn all of Dany’s newly acquired ships in Slaver’s Bay, leaving her no way to get her Dothraki and Unsullied armies over to Westeros, she does not give up. Most leaders would have probably thrown in the towel and just settled down in Essos.

Dany and Tyrion quickly pivot, arranging a fake surrender where they turn the tables and burn the Masters instead (SURPRISE!), taking control of their armada so they can get their Dothraki and Unsullied armies over to Westeros.

Now that’s a brilliant pivot!

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Product managers have to be able to think on their feet. Things go as expected about 50% of the time (actually, < 50%), so PMs have to be ready with a backup plan or ad hoc ideas. Just because your plan doesn’t work out the way you expect doesn’t mean it’s a complete failure. Realize the lessons learned and the opportunities at hand, and you’ll be able to pivot and turn that failure into a success.

BONUS - Women can lead.

I mean, seriously. Dany is going to take over the world while Jon Snow is moping in the corner.

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