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

Categories: Product Management

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