More Than Just Xs and Os – The Role of Product Managers and Coaches
Overview: With clearly defined goals, a focus on incremental success, and reliance on teamwork, Agile development is similar to team sports. Product managers, like coaches, design strategies, motivate team members, and adjust to changing circumstances with an eye on continuous improvement.
In light of the ongoing Stanley Cup Finals, I wanted to share some thoughts that have been on my mind for quite some time. I have spent 22 years of my life playing the greatest sport to ever be played, hockey. When we were younger, we were always told that hockey and sports teach you more than just how to play the game. As I get along in my young career in Agile development, I am amazed at how many parallels I can draw back to hockey. Whether the similarities are between the leaders, the iterative nature of both the projects and the sport, or the idea of a group of individuals working together to achieve great results, the two may be more similar than one might think.
The Project Manager is a Coach
First, what is a product manager? Atlassian defines this as, “the person who identifies the customer need and the larger business objectives that a product or feature will fulfill, articulates what success looks like for a product, and rallies a team to turn that vision into a reality.” Similarly, a coach is a motivator who defines strategies, identifies shortcomings, makes game time adjustments, and ultimately unifies and leads the unique individuals on the team to achieve peak performance and the best outcomes. In either case, both are thought leaders who can clearly convey the end goal, design the overall strategy, and motivate and excite all parties involved. Ultimately, each is responsible for the end product.
The hockey team is the product. Every night a hockey team steps onto the ice, they are ideally a better team than they were the game before. They have watched the last game’s film; the coach has gathered feedback from other stakeholders and clearly identified shortcomings and how to improve. This sounds extremely familiar. I think this iterative process needs to be more than just a process; it needs to be a mindset. One shift, one period, one game at a time is a common mindset you find on hockey teams and I think that mindset translates well into the world of software development and product management. Tackling one day, one sprint, one release at a time has been proven to be a more effective way of developing value for your customers.
Product Vision/Common Team Goal
Where are we driving? What are we striving for? These are important questions to answer, and hockey players look to their coach for those answers, just as a product team and stakeholders look to the product manager. Coaches and PM’s bring that vision to life with a clear idea and a logical plan that the team can execute. Coaches often break the season up into segments, sometimes dictated by long stretches of road or home games. The tasks at hand are much more manageable and obtainable when broken up into smaller, bite-sized pieces, much like we do in Agile development with giant stories. This also allows for that iterative process to implemented and ultimately leads to a better product for the consumer.
There are many more connections you can make between the great sport of hockey and product management. Both are led by passionate and thoughtful leaders who are always looking for an edge against the competition and strive to improve game-to-game or sprint-to-sprint. Those improvements add up over the course of a season—or fiscal year—and hopefully are leading you to that shared vision of the team: To win it all!