Product Lessons from “Game of Thrones”

I’ve seen a few articles about what lessons we can take from the characters of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Be reliable like Hodor. Don’t make enemies of your followers like Jon Snow. Any man who must say “I lead this company,” is no leader.

But the Game of Thrones franchise itself is an exemplary product story. Not every product is a premium cable television series, but there are lessons to be learned.

Don’t let expertise live with a single person.

Game of Thrones is the child of author George R. R. Martin, and for a long time, only he knew how it would end. But in case the worst happened and he passed away before the final episodes were written, he gave a rough outline to producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss with all the major plot twists and endings, so that they could finish the show without him.

Product teams can get overly reliant on a single super-PM who knows all the ins and outs of the product. Turnover happens, and if you lose your human encyclopedia, you have to start from scratch. Make documenting expertise a regular practice, and organize regular knowledge-sharing sessions.

Facilitate (and monetize) the unexpected ways customers use your product.

There have been successful HBO series, and pirating television shows is not new. However, illegal downloads and streams of Game of Thrones reached an unprecedented level.

Instead of grumbling that people insisted on using their product improperly, HBO introduced a variety of new ways for people with HBO subscriptions to watch shows on other devices, and most importantly, for people without standard HBO subscriptions to pay for streaming episodes for as many or as few months as they wanted. Last week’s season 7 premiere had 6 million viewers via pay-to-stream services.

Have your customers show you how they use your product. Power users will have found hacks and use cases you’ve never thought of. Pick the best of them, make them easier to perform, and then sell them.

Document well without expecting wide literacy.

Fans of the Game of Thrones TV series sometimes dive into the books, but they often don’t. Having read the books can enhance watching the series, but it is entirely optional, especially for a casual enthusiast. The episodes contain every detail necessary to understand them.

Similarly, you should develop both a robust knowledge resource that your users can access, and a product that teaches and explains itself as you use it. Some users will comb through your entire knowledge base, but many won’t even look at it. And, just like the episode recaps at the beginnings of Game of Thrones episodes, you should give your users a way to “skip” walkthroughs and tutorials if they’re already experienced with your product.

You can’t support every beloved feature

One of the most remarkable things about the first episode of season 7 of Game of Thrones is that it managed to touch on nearly every major and minor ongoing storyline. In previous seasons you might go many episodes or even an entire season without seeing a particular important character. But after the joining of storylines (and culling of the cast) that happened in season 6, season 7 feels much more focused and coherent.

Likewise, while during your company’s infancy you might try to develop every feature you can think of, as the business matures certain features will need to be rolled together or discarded entirely. Create a product, not a feature-heap. The rest of your product will flourish for it.

“Kill the boy and let the man be born.”