A Product Manager is a coach

Gain a better understanding of the role of PM by taking a look at the world of sports.
January 27, 2020
3 Minutes
Matthias Dyckerhoff
Product Manager

Software development insights from the world of sports.

Numerous attempts have been made at comparing the Product Manager role to jobs in more established industries. I’ve heard ‘architect’, I’ve heard ‘chef’, and (of course) ‘project manager’. I suppose the purpose behind this is mainly to explain the role to people unfamiliar with the industry, in the same way people describe their startup as ‘Uber for X’ or ‘Air Bnb for Y’.

For me, the term ‘sprint’, a word commonly used in the design & development world, (and increasingly by those outside of it) begs us to look at the world of sports for comparison and inspiration, and specifically the role of a coach, for the following reasons.

Coaches turn strategy into tactics

On a typical sports team, the coaching staff have the unique task of taking the strategic plan from upper management and turning it into game plans and systems for their players to follow during their next game and throughout the season. This is not an enviable task, especially when you consider that the coach often takes responsibility for team performance more than anyone else in the organization. If the team is underperforming and failing to meet expectations, the coach is often the first to go. After all, it’s much easier to fire the coach than to replace all the players. Great coaches thrive on this pressure, however, and use this as motivation to come up with creative ways to leverage the team’s skills in order to have success. Pressure is indeed a privilege.

What’s important for a coach to realize is that while they are deeply involved with strategic planning, their players often are not. Players may understand strategy and its importance, but their main focus is training and preparing mentally for the games ahead. An effective coach will find the balance between involving their team in strategic tactics and planning while also giving them time to prepare and perform their best when the pressure is on.

They’re close to the action but not involved

Take a look at a practice today and you’ll likely find the coach dressed in a track suit, ready for action. They may even participate in drills initially to show the players the ropes. But while many coaches will lace up the skates or kick a ball around during practice, they’re not directly involved in game action themselves and they have to trust that what they’ve instilled in their players will be successful come game time.

The vast majority of professional coaches were themselves players at one point, and bring their love and passion for the game into their daily lives. Having experience playing the game themselves helps them understand their players better and helps them communicate to players on their own terms and in their own language.

They deal with legacy systems

When a coach joins a team for the first time, they are dropped in a situation where they have to manage people they didn’t hire and deal with legacy systems and mindsets, often created by the current leadership team. It takes time, but a good coach will realize that their philosophy and leadership style will leave their mark on the team over time. Any good coach will also realize that buy-in from the players is key in achieving high levels of performance. Good coaches recognize that it takes time for a team to adjust to new leadership and are patient with introducing significant change to an organization.

Typically a new coach is given extra space and flexibility to let their new philosophy and approach for the game before they are judged for the success of their team. If management and the coach are aligned on strategy and tactics, hiring decisions, trades, and playing time will reflect the agreed on decision for the team, and, if their tactics are proven successful, coaches will have greater decisions and input into management’s decision making (Think a Bill Belichick or Greg Popovic)

They take the blame, but pass on the credit

Listen to any post-game interview and you’ll find that they often follow the same pattern. If the team won, the coach will often give credit to the players for their execution and effectiveness during game play. They will likely call out certain players and key moments in the game that contributed to their success and are quick to pass credit to the players themselves.

At the same time, they are quick to take responsibility personally if the team underperforms or fails to execute on key fundamentals, even if the coach has taken effort to instill these values in their team during the weeks and months of practicing and training leading up to game time. After a loss, and even after a win, they will adjust their tactics in upcoming practices and design drills that will address deficiencies in the team so that they are more prepared for the next game.

Hopefully you can read between the lines and be encouraged to study what makes a coach successful in order to take your dev team to the next level. If not, good luck with the game next week.

Matthias Dyckerhoff
Product Manager

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