Anthropology | Culture | Product Management  January 11, 2011 5:00 am

The foreigner who could be undermining your global team

So, you’ve got a global team. People based in several different countries are working on your product.

How are they all going to work together?

They’ve spent all kinds of effort and money on training and cultural sensitivity to be more compatible with your work culture. The heavy-lifters are papered with certifications. The managers are degreed. There are Service Level Agreements in place to ensure their commitment to getting things done. The remote collaboration tools are up and running, so work can continue 24 hours a day, rotating through the longitudes, time zone by time zone.

Global team graphic

But in spite of these preparations, there is a foreigner that might be undermining the entire project. They just don’t get the complexity and subtlety of a global team working together. They haven’t put that much effort into adapting or developing genuine interest in how the other teams’ members think of the product, the work, collaboration, or any ostensibly shared point-of-view. It’s not that they consciously mean to introduce difficulty, but they are operating with some old, stubborn and largely unconscious assumptions that blind them to the significant risk their blindness entails. Even if the risk is recognized by another, it will be difficult to escalate, since the problem foreigner has high status, so their bubble is largely unchallenged.

Who is this threat to the global team?

It’s you.

Or it could be, if you’re operating under a few common fallacies:

1. It’s all the other people that are foreign, not me.

2. It’s right and proper that the others mold themselves to my culture.

2a. Okay, it’s maybe not right and proper exactly, but at least necessary, since the project originates here. It’s “our” project, it’s “their” job to conform.

Are these fallacies obvious? If you’re an experienced product manager and/or an observant traveler then perhaps they are, but they are not obvious to everyone.

Even if these fallacies are obvious to you, what concrete actions will you take to counter them? While acknowledging them is a start, acknowledgement alone won’t protect your project nor open up the possibility of harnessing the differences across your global team to build a more integrated, more effective culture.

Consider constructive profiling. While there is simply no substitute for understanding individuals individually, reading up on the business culture tendencies of the nationalities of your global team can at least provide you a framework for study, to consider what policies and procedures may need to be changed. For example, how might a particular group’s perceptions and expressions of authority make getting honest input a challenge? What types of communication could surface more brain power and less deference? This is just one example of a myriad of team integration considerations that are worthy of pursuit.

Organizational Culture

It’s often we Westerners that assume the “others” are foreign, but we are not… it’s that West-centric assumption of being the measure of all things modern. But it’s more interesting and more effective to accept that you, the Westerner, are a foreigner too, that the entire team is an aggregate of “foreigners”. Teamwork is nurtured by an attitude that pursues a new, synthetic culture, and that all cultural ingredients should be considered as potential enablers for success.

Time and attention pressures often minimize a product manager’s willingness to put the day-to-day on pause long enough to consider the cultural aspects of a project. But not doing so increases the risk of unspoken disconnects and reduces the opportunities for social innovation that could raise the quality of the overall result.

Trevor Rotzien
the product manager

Anthropology | Product Management  November 8, 2010 10:31 am

Knees and Elbows for the Product Manager

Editor’s note: We invited Laurie Jane, Product Management Director at Yesmail, to wrap up our exploration of martial arts insights for product managers with her personal Muay Thai perspective. The three of us co-facilitated a session at ProductCamp Seattle last month, so we thought it would make for nice symmetry if we extended all three perspectives to this blog.

One of the things I like about product management is communicating concepts to a variety of different audiences that may be new to the subject matter. In fact, there are some days when I feel more like a translator than anything else. Not only do I attempt to translate or explain business initiatives to engineering and other stakeholders, but I also try and translate market trends and customer feedback into product ideas, product capabilities into positioning, and so on.

Thus, when discussions began with fellow avid martial artists and ProductCamp Seattle attendees Paula Gray and Trevor Rotzien around doing a session on product management and martial arts, it ultimately seemed like another type of translation exercise on two subjects I enjoy discussing. I’ve been training in martial arts since I was a teenager and have practiced everything from Muay Thai, Wing Chun Kung Fu, Tai Chi, Eskrima, and a few other styles. I’ve been back practicing Muay Thai, also sometimes referred to as Thai Boxing, for the past several years. While the art has gained popularity across the globe, (especially in the United States and UK), it is still something that many people have not been exposed to. The art of Muay Thai originated in Thailand and while the origin date is often debated, it is generally believed to be several hundred years old and was developed as a close combat fighting method that used the entire body as a weapon.

While it may seem difficult to weave a fighting style into the realm of product management, even though there may be times when it seems like a problem could best be solved with a jab or a swift kick, there are some basic tenets to the art and practice of Muay Thai that may help provide a refresh for your product management perspectives.

Train the Body, Mind, and Heart

The basic training philosophy of Muay Thai is to train the body, mind, and heart. Muay Thai fighters train their body for speed, strength, and endurance. Within product management, your body could be thought of as your product foundation, or the core function of what your product does. To identify if your “product body” needs training, evaluate whether or not the key functionality is strong, if you are able to execute effectively, or perhaps if your product is enduring in the market space. When sparring in Muay Thai, you train your mind to make quick changes to your strategy and technique responses. Similarly in product management, you also need to be able to know how to make sudden decisions that are aligned with your overall strategy. Last, it’s important to have enthusiasm or “heart” for studying Muay Thai to truly be successful, and you need to ultimately enjoy what you do to be effective in product management.

The Science of the 8 Limbs

Muay Thai is called the “science of 8 limbs” because you use your fists, feet, knees, and elbows as weapons. Each one is used differently depending on your range or opponent, and some people are more adept at utilizing certain limbs more than others. Good products are threatening because they also have a variety of “limbs” or deadly weapons that allow them to be more successful than competitive offerings. These could be things like differentiation, market share, brand recognition, technology, service, or price. In Muay Thai, it’s important to know when and how to use each limb in a fight, and in product management, it’s essential to understand your product’s overall value and identify which of your product’s “deadly weapons” could benefit from improvement.

The Wai Khru Ritual

Prior to boxing matches in Muay Thai, practitioners perform the Wai Khru ritual (also known as Ram Muay, the boxing dance) as a show of respect for teachers of the art of Thai boxing. It’s a series of movements that not only prepares the fighter mentally for their match, but also demonstrates their skill level and style. Likewise, product managers often have a series of movements or process to guide a product through different stages before it is released to their customers and into the market. The Wai Khru ritual is improved with practice and feedback. Product managers should also seek to better their product process “ritual” to ensure that products are truly ready for release.

While the worlds of Muay Thai and product management are generally very far apart, they both offer techniques and training methods that focus on improving oneself to be as effective as possible within the discipline. It is often said that Muay Thai was “born on the battlefield” as a result of weaponless fighters needing better ways to fight against those with weapons. Unless your product is somehow impenetrable to the competition, I think every product manager could use more ways to be effective in our respective battlefields.

Note: A special thanks to both Trevor and Paula for inviting me to participate in my first ProductCamp session (it was also my first time attending a ProductCamp) and for the attendees who joined us to learn more about our martial art and product management experiences.

Laurie Jane
a product manager

Anthropology | Culture | Product Management  October 11, 2010 9:00 am

Guiding Principles of Karate for the Product Manager

There is a legend of a great karate master that I’m sure circulates in many dojos (karate studios).  The story is that of a young karate student who begins his practice and shows a natural talent.  He is aware of this talent and asks to demonstrate for the class and calls attention to himself whenever possible.  As a beginning student he walks with the lower belt swagger which is common among newbies.  He makes sure to line up in the front of class.  However, as his training continues and he begins to progress through the belts, he becomes aware of the enormity of how much there is to learn, and how little he yet knows.  It is a deeply humbling process.  By the time he reaches his black belt, he walks with his head held low and humbly lines up in the back of class.  It is then that he truly grasps what it means to practice karate.
Gi on mat.jpgThe style of martial arts I practice, Karate (specifically the Gosoku Ryu style), has a long history originating in the Ryukyu Islands (now called Okinawa).  More than the practice of an art or defense form, it is a philosophy or way of living called Bushido “the way of the warrior.” Its principles were a code of ethics similar to those that guided the Samurai.  Though “the way” is steeped in tradition, honor and spirituality, following it made the warrior no less fierce.

Master Gichin Funakoshi set out to pen these principles in his book The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate: The Spiritual Legacy of the Master.  One of his most famous quotes is “the ultimate aim in karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.”  He  believed that success lies not just in the mastery of moves and technique but in how we choose to live our days.

Japanese scroll.jpgI recognize many who read this don’t choose to walk the path of the warrior but as I observe and study product managers I see them often in conflict, even under attack or at war.  As both a martial artist and anthropologist I see how the culture of those ancient warriors, who often were forced to stand alone, parallel some of the challenges faced by product managers, often the lone warriors themselves.

I believe Master Funakoshi’s principles can offer some guidance and maybe even a code for the product manager warrior.

  • Karate-do begins and ends with rei.

Rei is the term for respect.  We show it in karate class by a respectful bow to our teacher or our opponent.  However, it is much more than that.  It is what makes martial arts, an art.  By incorporating this respect in the workplace, not just the respect for our peers, but respect for our critics and our opponents as well, we often find our greatest teachers.

  • There is no first strike in karate.

This is often a tough lesson for beginning martial artists.  Possessing the skill to strike a mortal blow is not license to do so.  Karate is not designed for offense but rather, defense.  The confidence and ability to avoid an altercation altogether is what we are going for here.  In the workplace this same idea holds true.  Though you may hold enough information to strike a “mortal” social blow to a coworker or team member, stop.  Just because you can is not justification enough to strike.  There is far more potential to lose the trust of an entire team, because each one will mentally, even if only for a second, put themselves in the shoes of the stricken team member.  Even if they supported you in the strike.  They will see what you are capable of, and realize you may one day do the same to them.

Lady karateka.jpg

  • Karate stands on the side of justice.

When the time comes when you are certain your point, belief, thought is right, and for all the right reasons, do not hesitate to use your strength and skill to fight on the side of justice.  You are, in a way, the protector of what you feel is right – be prepared to defend it.  This is still a defensive move on your part so do not pick a fight (see #2).

  • First know yourself, then know others.

In life, as in martial arts, an understanding of our true strengths and weaknesses is crucial.  Not an ideal picture of ourselves, but our true traits and qualities.  In my field of anthropology, we stress conducting participant observation within populations because research has shown that in surveys and interviews people often speak of an ideal rather than the reality.  Be accurate with yourself and do not over inflate your strengths.  From this place of honesty you can then look at others and more accurately gauge their strengths and weaknesses as well.  From there, a strategy can unfold.

  • Mentality over technique.

This principle is about being aware and not putting yourself in a position to be forced to defend yourself in the first place.  It is ultimately better to avoid the use of any technique than it to use that honed technique and skill.  In short, use your brains before your “fists,” think it through.

Though it may be popular in the group and easy to slip into the “lower belt swagger” you will find less desire to do so as your own skill and confidence levels grow.  Unlike the ancient samurai, you still have to work with the people you confront.

Paula Gray
the anthropologist

From the book The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate:  The spiritual legacy of the master
by Gichin Funakoshi

Product Management  September 13, 2010 7:30 am

What Kung Fu teaches about Product Management tactics


unfashionably late with this posting. ProductCamp Seattle 2010 preparations, not to mention my day job, have
been keeping me busy.

for ProductCamp as part of the volunteer team necessarily also means
preparing a session for the event, and my co-blogger Paula and I have
been throwing some ideas around. Punching and kicking them even!

turns out Paula and I both practice martial arts, albeit fundamentally
different forms. Is there an increased statistical likelihood that
someone who practices product management also practices martial arts? Anecdotally, I’d say definitely maybe. There’s Brian Lawley’s notorious
martial arts presentations at PMEC (where one’s attention on his martial
arts analogies are distracted only by the plethora of shiny, sharp
and/or heavy demonstration weapons). There’s Paula and I comparing notes
between her advanced Japanese karate

and my intermediate Chinese wushu (known in the West as kung fu or gong fu). Just last week,
when I brought up the topic in the context of a ProductCamp session, one
of the people who had registered also shared with me her interesting
and varied history in various martial arts styles.

Are you one of those “martial” product managers or marketers? I’d love to hear from you.

Martial Arts and Product Management
Martial Arts - Gear Up.jpg


and I divide up our duties as co-bloggers primarily along the line
between theory and practice, strategy and tactics, philosophy and craft.
While we may work on both sides of that line at our jobs, it makes for a
clear separation of blogging responsibilities and, more importantly, an
interesting dance of ideas – since the abstract must intertwine with
the concrete. When we realized our mutual interest in martial arts was a
rich topic to mine for product management nuggets, it was obvious that
Paula would present principles and I would present tactics and

task is further facilitated by the style of wushu I study, Fang Sheng
Chuan. It is a very practical, no-nonsense, real-world combat style. As
my Sifu says, in Fang Sheng Chuan, there is no “dancing”. There are no
ritualized movements and no decorations. Fang Sheng Chuan seeks the
ultimately achievable bio-mechanical efficiency and power to end a
conflict, if a conflict is genuinely necessary. Even the philosophical
side of this style is primarily about tactics.

can martial arts, specifically Fang Sheng Chuan, teach about Product
Management tactics? Consider these examples as just a start:

  • Master both stability and readiness-for-movement: Beginning
    students in martial arts are usually taught “stances” that emphasize
    balance and stability – rootedness. Intermediate students spend years
    unlearning those stances to become light and quick on their feet, so
    they can respond more effectively to changing circumstances. Advanced
    students and practitioners master both: they are stable
    agile. Their trick is to attain stability just for the momentary
    flicker of time needed to deliver a powerful blow, and
    then uproot in the next half-heartbeat so they can be where they need to
    be next, like chess on purified caffeine. The rest of us only see a
    continuous blur of movement, not realizing that there are ephemeral
    islands of immovable rootedness in that blur. Likewise, you, your
    organization and the culture and methods around your product, must be
    stable enough to withstand external assaults, but outward-sensing and agile
    enough to alter position and direction very quickly.
Martial Arts - Bad Form.jpgClearly unfamiliar with any actual martial art form

  • Don’t telegraph your intentions: Your
    preparations for action should be externally imperceptible. Your
    opponent should find it very difficult, if not impossible, to anticipate
    your next move. If something must be detected, let it be only a
    deliberate and economical feint that invites your opponent to squander
    their resources or open their defenses. In practical terms, this is
    basic secrecy about new product or market development, optionally
    combined with misdirecting “leaks” that your competitors take interest
    in, but your customers don’t.

  • Take the shortest possible path to a target: Large
    movements may be flashy and exciting, but they squander both time and
    energy. Squandering time means you could be too late; squandering energy
    means you may not have the impact you need to be successful and/or you
    are stealing energy from important future actions. Projects and features
    can take on an ever-expanding life of their own. You must constantly
    and vigilantly triage, even when it’s unpopular, so that the energy you
    have makes the impact you need at just the right time. Also, marketing
    should have a fine focus, both in terms of the message and its target
    audience. Make your point concisely.
Martial Arts - Kick.jpgSomebody is gonna hurt, but probably not this guy’s opponent, who has all the time in the world to prepare a “landing” for the flashy flying kick man

  • Hard against soft; soft against hard: If
    an opponent offers a fist, deflect it with an open hand. If an opponent
    offers an open hand, strike it with a fist.  Respond to an opponent’s
    product offering of rigorous technical features with your product’s
    flexibility and lower implementation costs. If your opponent’s product
    seems vaguely defined in an area important to your customers, hammer
    home how your product does it specifically better. It is not effective
    or healthy to repeatedly exchange equivalent blows.

  • Combine defensive and offensive actions: This
    is both more efficient and more surprising to your opponent. Strive for
    product or marketing enhancements that strengthen your product
    defensively and offensively at the same time. Utilize formal techniques
    such as SWOT to compare and contrast alternatives. While is can be
    difficult to achieve combined action, when you do, the impact is huge.

you are product person and a martial arts practitioner, let me know
about your insights. Even if you are not both, throw some questions into
the ring and see what it provokes. Either way, join me later over at
Paula’s post, where we can consider some martial arts principles that
may make us better product managers by further informing our tactics.

Trevor Rotzien
the product manager

Anthropology | Culture | Ethnography | Product Management  August 10, 2010 2:13 pm

The big bang and the evolution of brand and product management culture

An excerpt from the white paper entitled “Business Anthropology and the Culture of Product Managers.”

Brand or product management was born from intense, sustained and rigorous trial and error in the market research department at the giant consumer packaged goods company, Procter & Gamble.  In 1931, D. Paul “Doc” Smelser, a PhD economist from Johns Hopkins University and the head of the new unit at Procter & Gamble, called the Market Research Department, hired female college graduates to conduct fieldwork.  He sent them door to door to survey homemakers about their use of all kinds of household products and their usage patterns in a method akin to anthropological customer ethnography.  Within several years, the size of the department’s staff grew to around 34 with dozens of field researchers.  The first brand to incorporate these market research methods in the product design process was Camay soap (Dyer et al. 2004).

Camay soap would be the catalyst and Neil McElroy would lead the charge, in defining brand management.  Procter & Gamble’s perfumed beauty bar, Camay soap, challenged the purity positioning of P&G’s own product, Ivory soap.  The two products targeted very different markets and were in competition for resources within P&G.  This convinced McElroy, then a young advertising manager, of the need to establish assignments for its marketers in brand-specific teams to allow those teams a measure of autonomy in running marketing campaigns (Dyer et al. 2004).

In a P&G company memo written by McElroy on May 13, 1931 (McElroy, 1931) he outlined what he felt the duties and responsibilities of the “brand men” should be.  He assigned them the task of studying and analyzing the brand history and instructed them to “study the territory personally,” both the dealers and the customers.

It is interesting to note that both Smelser and McElroy understood the importance of fieldwork.  They both advocated for getting out of the office and talking face to face with customers.  Like anthropologists, they were aware that there is no more valuable data about people, than how they behave in their own environment.  They recognized that surveys, scheduled interviews, focus groups still only give a partial picture.

McElroy’s (McElroy, 1931) memo laid the groundwork for a reorganization and shift from a geographically aligned sales perspective to one oriented around the brands.  This resulted in a fundamental restructuring of P&G to its core (Dyer et al, 2004).  John Pepper (Pepper 2005), former P&G chairman of the board, president and CEO, states “responsibility and accountability for discreet business units were assigned to separate organizations” by Neil McElroy, when he helped create the brand management system in the 1930s (p. 305).   Procter & Gamble (Dyer et al, 2004) brand managers assumed responsibility for the coordination of all activities and tasks involving their brand. Far more than just marketing, the brand managers would also coordinate product development and field sales.

As a result of this comprehensive training, from McElroy forward, every one of P&G’s chief executives would hold the positions of assistant brand manager and brand manager on their way up the executive ladder.  The discipline of brand management forms the very culture of P&G and shapes its landscape.  It has has been emulated in a variety of forms within companies from every sector all over the world.  In a recent article, Tyagi and Sawhney (2010) state that “product management is the most common organizational mechanism to manage products, relative to other mechanisms like a functional structure or key account management” (Howley, 1988; Skenazy, 1987; Workman, Homburg and Jenson, 2003 as cited in Tyagi & Sawhney, 2010).

Shared Challenges

In the 1980s (Dyer at al, 2004) P&G discovered a way to improve upon the brand management system.  Procter & Gamble sought to redirect the internal competition between brand managers, outward toward competitors and the new focus was on teamwork.  David Swanson, the senior vice president of engineering began using cross-functional (read cross-cultural) teams to speed up product development, improve product quality and trim costs.  This cross-functional team system set up what would become one of the greatest challenges for brand and product managers.

According to Gemmill and Wilemon (1972) product managers are often assigned profit responsibilities for their product(s) but not given authority over the cross-functional team units on which they depend in order to carry out those responsibilities.

Therein resides the major challenge still shared and faced by product managers today; gaining support and cooperation while wielding little to no formal authority in the cross-functional team.

Paula Gray
the anthropologist

“My goal is to use anthropology to better understand human behavior in all of its settings, whether those settings be an isolated village in the Himalayas or a corporate office in New York City.”

Ann T. Jordan

The entire white paper can be accessed at


Dyer, D., Dalzell, F., Olegario, R., (2004)  Rising Tide:  Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter & Gamble.  Boston, MA:  Harvard Business School Press

Gemmill, G., & Wilemon, D., (1972)  The product manager as an influence agent.  Journal of Marketing, Vol. 36 (January 1972).

McElroy, N. (1931)  Procter & Gamble company memo, May 13, 1931.

Pepper, J.  (2005)  What Really Matters.  Cincinnati, OH:  Procter & Gamble Company.

Tyagi, R., & Sawhney, M. (2010)  High-performance product management:  The impact of structure, process, competencies and role definition.  Journal of Product Innovation Management 2010: 27