Anthropology Culture Product Management

Guiding Principles of Karate for the Product Manager

Written by Paula Gray

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.

The 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.

I 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.

  • 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

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About the author

Paula Gray

Paula Gray is an anthropologist and the Director of Research and Knowledge Development at AIPMM. She has traveled the globe to work with companies throughout the US, Europe, Africa and Asia-Pacific to help them gain a deeper understanding of their customers. She is featured in Linda Gorchels' book The Product Manager's Handbook and has contributed to several books on product management including The Guide to the Product Management and Marketing Body of Knowledge (ProdBOK). She is also the author of numerous blog posts and papers including Business Anthropology and the Culture of Product Managers.