What Product Managers can learn from Jon Snow

How to avoid getting murdered (as a product manager)

Brave, selfless Commander of the Night’s Watch

*Spoiler Alert* This story references content from the season 5 finale of Game of Thrones. If you haven’t watched it (or read the books), be warned!

If you are a big Game of Thrones fan like me, you are undoubtedly reeling from the last scene of the season finale. How? Why? Say it isn’t so!

Jon Snow was one of the best characters in Game of Thrones. Like the Batman to Dany’s Superman, Jon fought for the greater good with nothing but his courage, tenacity, and determination. A bastard with no name, no fortune, and certainly no dragons, Jon nonetheless rose to the occasion and challenged death incarnate to defend the Seven Kingdoms. And in many ways, product managers are quite similar to Jon Snow.

Like Jon Snow, product managers are driven by a great sense of duty. They understand that without a vision and strategy for the product, they are just shepherding a spaghetti monster of features. To develop products that are not only usable but actually useful, product managers know that they must rally their teams to see their purpose and appreciate the true value of their work. They do this with no expectation of glory — they do it for the good of their users. In fact, product management can be a thankless job at times. When they succeed, they’ve merely done their duty. But if they fail, it can spell disaster for the entire company (or kingdom!). Yet in the face of such peril, they still suit up in their battle armor each and every day, ready to fight for a better tomorrow.

Also, just as Jon Snow relies on the noble houses to send more men and supplies for the Night’s Watch, product managers are in an equally challenging situation where they have little control over inputs but must deliver consistent outputs. Contrary to what’s been written about product managers being “mini-CEOs”, product managers have no real authority. They don’t manage the engineering team, they have little control over resourcing, and they must answer to a variety of internal and external stakeholders from executive leadership to sales to end users. Instead, product managers lead through persuasion and inspiration by articulating their vision, setting clear objectives, building partnerships between different divisions, and holding themselves accountable.

So, how do product managers avoid a fate like Jon Snow? I think the most important point is that as a product manager you only survive if you stick together with your team. It’s all too easy to become so absorbed with solving problems for your users that you lose focus on winning the respect and support of your team (or your broader organization). No matter how righteous, noble, or selfless your intentions, never assume that — just because you’re on the same side — everyone will share your sense of duty or buy into your vision for the future. Even if winter is coming, you should not take action by yourself even if you know it’s the right thing to do. In fact, it’s your belief that you know better that will earn you several sharp stabs in the gut. People will follow a leader that is ten steps ahead, but they’ll lose interest if that leader is a hundred steps ahead.

Despite possessing all the qualities that make a great leader, Jon Snow never won over the hearts and minds of his brothers. Even his friends and supporters, who witnessed his acts of courage during the wildling invasion, could not fully back his decision to make peace with their lifelong enemies for they had never shared in the same experience that Jon had with the wildlings. Although Jon was right that they had bigger issues to worry about than the rift between crows and wildlings, he foolishly forced the decision upon his brothers instead of practicing statesmanship to win them over. And when that final dagger stabs him from the hands of Olly, Jon’s face seems to acknowledge that he really knew nothing at all. For what good is knowledge if you’re the only one who believes it? And what good is leadership when you have no one left to lead?

Don’t be like Jon Snow. As a product manager, you must remember that you cannot do great things without the support of others.