Anthropology Product Management

Knees and Elbows for the Product Manager

Written by Paula Gray

Editor’s note: We invited Laurie Jane, Product Management Director at Yesmail, to wrap up our exploration of martial arts insights for product managers with her personal Muay Thai perspective. The three of us co-facilitated a session at ProductCamp Seattle last month, so we thought it would make for nice symmetry if we extended all three perspectives to this blog.

One of the things I like about product management is communicating concepts to a variety of different audiences that may be new to the subject matter. In fact, there are some days when I feel more like a translator than anything else. Not only do I attempt to translate or explain business initiatives to engineering and other stakeholders, but I also try and translate market trends and customer feedback into product ideas, product capabilities into positioning, and so on.

Thus, when discussions began with fellow avid martial artists and ProductCamp Seattle attendees Paula Gray and Trevor Rotzien around doing a session on product management and martial arts, it ultimately seemed like another type of translation exercise on two subjects I enjoy discussing. I’ve been training in martial arts since I was a teenager and have practiced everything from Muay Thai, Wing Chun Kung Fu, Tai Chi, Eskrima, and a few other styles. I’ve been back practicing Muay Thai, also sometimes referred to as Thai Boxing, for the past several years. While the art has gained popularity across the globe, (especially in the United States and UK), it is still something that many people have not been exposed to. The art of Muay Thai originated in Thailand and while the origin date is often debated, it is generally believed to be several hundred years old and was developed as a close combat fighting method that used the entire body as a weapon.

While it may seem difficult to weave a fighting style into the realm of product management, even though there may be times when it seems like a problem could best be solved with a jab or a swift kick, there are some basic tenets to the art and practice of Muay Thai that may help provide a refresh for your product management perspectives.

Train the Body, Mind, and Heart

The basic training philosophy of Muay Thai is to train the body, mind, and heart. Muay Thai fighters train their body for speed, strength, and endurance. Within product management, your body could be thought of as your product foundation, or the core function of what your product does. To identify if your “product body” needs training, evaluate whether or not the key functionality is strong, if you are able to execute effectively, or perhaps if your product is enduring in the market space. When sparring in Muay Thai, you train your mind to make quick changes to your strategy and technique responses. Similarly in product management, you also need to be able to know how to make sudden decisions that are aligned with your overall strategy. Last, it’s important to have enthusiasm or “heart” for studying Muay Thai to truly be successful, and you need to ultimately enjoy what you do to be effective in product management.

The Science of the 8 Limbs

Muay Thai is called the “science of 8 limbs” because you use your fists, feet, knees, and elbows as weapons. Each one is used differently depending on your range or opponent, and some people are more adept at utilizing certain limbs more than others. Good products are threatening because they also have a variety of “limbs” or deadly weapons that allow them to be more successful than competitive offerings. These could be things like differentiation, market share, brand recognition, technology, service, or price. In Muay Thai, it’s important to know when and how to use each limb in a fight, and in product management, it’s essential to understand your product’s overall value and identify which of your product’s “deadly weapons” could benefit from improvement.

The Wai Khru Ritual

Prior to boxing matches in Muay Thai, practitioners perform the Wai Khru ritual (also known as Ram Muay, the boxing dance) as a show of respect for teachers of the art of Thai boxing. It’s a series of movements that not only prepares the fighter mentally for their match, but also demonstrates their skill level and style. Likewise, product managers often have a series of movements or process to guide a product through different stages before it is released to their customers and into the market. The Wai Khru ritual is improved with practice and feedback. Product managers should also seek to better their product process “ritual” to ensure that products are truly ready for release.

While the worlds of Muay Thai and product management are generally very far apart, they both offer techniques and training methods that focus on improving oneself to be as effective as possible within the discipline. It is often said that Muay Thai was “born on the battlefield” as a result of weaponless fighters needing better ways to fight against those with weapons. Unless your product is somehow impenetrable to the competition, I think every product manager could use more ways to be effective in our respective battlefields.

Note: A special thanks to both Trevor and Paula for inviting me to participate in my first ProductCamp session (it was also my first time attending a ProductCamp) and for the attendees who joined us to learn more about our martial art and product management experiences.

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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.