Product management as a game of chess

The Queens Gambit (Netflix Series)
The Queen's Gambit - Netflix Series

Moves and countermoves. Constant decision making. Fast and sometimes slow. Chess is one way or another product management. Well, minus the opponent and the fact that you're never done, but we will set these aside.

I've recently been watching the Queen's Gambit on Netflix, and I can't help but draw some chess lessons into the product world.

1. Align every move using a product strategy

In chess and product management, things take shape very quickly. There will be thousands of decisions to be made. Many decisions you will make without hesitation and others you might spend a reasonable amount of time contemplating. 

These small moves will create a distinctive board arrangement.  The more you play, the more dug into your position you become. It will become harder to make fundamental changes later in the game. If you do, your opponents could take advantage. You're committed.

It's the same in the product world. These tiny decisions will push your product into a specific shape defining factors such as the product-market fit and product adoption. The more code and features you build, the more complex a product will become. That's why it's essential to be very deliberate about the product strategy.  

Your product strategy will help you achieve your product vision, a future product state acting as a shared goal for the entire organisation to rally around. If you understand the underlying strategy and how this connects to the product vision, your everyday decision making becomes more manageable. 

A strong product strategy is crucial, particularly inside large organisations with multiple teams. Instead of having numerous goals that are merely symbolic of 'progress', you need alignment across these teams to push towards a single outcome that underpins the strategy. 

Building a product without a strategy is like playing chess as a multiplayer game where you can't communicate with your teammate.  You would end up with lots of tactical moves but no underlying game plan, regardless of how talented each player is. 

2. It's your game - play your style

There is lots of advice on the 'best tactics' in chess or the 'best advice' in product management, but you have to remember it's your game. You are the one in the driving seat, making the decisions. 

Does this mean you shouldn't listen or seek out the opinion of others? No, of course not. However, it does mean you need to be comfortable with the decisions you make. If you entirely rely on someone else's decision-making process, it gets a lot harder down the line because you might not have the full plan. You need to understand 'the why'.

To gain this understanding, you have to get your hands dirty. Dig into the data, talk to customers, collaborate with stakeholders. Disagreement and discussion are healthy and should be encouraged. It will level up your thinking and could uncover options you missed. However, once a decision has been made, you must move forward until you can reevaluate with new data.

I find it helpful to write down the problem, why we need to solve it, the technical constraints and my various options. I'm writing to think. Not to document, but as a by-product, you will end up with documentation you can could use for a presentation. It's a win-win. 

3. Recognise the critical decision 

Not all chess moves are equal. Some are crucial and will define the game, others not so much. You need to be able to recognise these moments and make the right next move.  Pause, think, breath and then make a move. 

In product management, there are critical decisions where you need to ensure that you are making the best decision. These decisions will have a lasting impact and can lead to the success of failure of the project.

You will make decisions every day without hesitation. What bugs to fix, the priority order of features, whether you should change a process, attend a meeting etc.  However, hidden in these day to day, decisions will be the critical decision. A way to recognise these decisions is to consider their consequences. How many ripple effects can this have? Does it impact revenue? How many customers? Is it easily reversible?  Will it impact other teams? 

We never have 'all the data', and certainty we want, but when you feel its a critical decision, you are always better off taking a moment, thinking it through and then deciding on the best course of action. Decision making speed is essential, but you need to maintain a healthy balance when critical choices come up.

4. Be creative 

In chess, it's not always the player that looks like they are winning that ends up winning. Chess is a dynamic game. You can lose all of your key pieces but still win the game. This might mean sacrificing one of your pieces to 'trick' your opponent so that you can make a significant move. Just think back to Harry Potter and Ron's move in the Philosopher's Stone, 'knight to h3' and the subsequent checkmate. 

With complex constraints, the need to innovate and tight timelines, creativity is your greatest ally. The first solution is not always the best or most effective route. There is another more straightforward solution if you're willing to look hard enough. I often try to look for inspiration by looking at entirely different industries or products to understand how it could apply to what my team is trying to solve. 

5. Keep adapting to feedback 

You can't win every game of chess. Well, unless you're Magnus Carlsen, but luckily you don't need to be. Product management is perpetual. You get to play another day. As long as you treat every moment as a learning experience, you will begin to recognise where you are succeeding or not. You will start seeing patterns of what works, what doesn't and where you can improve.

If you want to become a grandmaster at chess, you don't do it by playing chess endlessly but by deliberate independent practice. Replaying the critical moments in your game or analysing grandmasters games will make you a better decision-maker. Applying this same principle will make you a better product manager.