Jeremy Jarrell

What Chess Can Teach You About Product Management

Productivity Updates Community

Chess — the game of kings. For most, chess is a lifelong journey, a skill crafted over years of study. But, unlike most chess enthusiasts, I didn’t discover chess until well into adulthood…and several years after I jumped into the field of Product Management. However, this late discovery afforded me the chance to recognize the parallels between this ancient game and the emergent field of technology Product Management.

On the surface, both chess and Product Management share a staged approach, with strategies and goals specific to each of three high-level stages. In this post, we’ll examine each of these three stages as well as what each stage has to teach us about the field of Product Management. But, as we’ll also learn, both the parallels and the lessons this ancient game has to teach us run far deeper.

Opening Game

Just as in Product Management, many of the decisions you make in the early moves of chess can determine your ultimate fate in the game. While opening game strategies vary, many share a common theme of “move early.” Put simply, this means that chess players should move out as many of their pieces as possible early in the game, ostensibly to claim space on the board. But there’s another, deeper reason for this.

The variations in movement across the different chess pieces can enable a nearly infinite number of permutations to the game. How your opponent responds to your early moves, as well as their own moves in response, can reveal much about their own strategy.

If this sounds familiar to you, then you’re not alone. Much of modern Product Management is built on a concept of continuously learning. And while learning should always be a core part of your Product Management strategy, it’s arguably never more important than at the beginning of your product’s lifecycle.

Getting your product into the market as early as possible can not only create strategic advantages, such as the ability to capture market share or generate early revenue, but it can also create new learning opportunities about your customers.

Allowing your customers to interact with early versions of your product gives you the opportunity to get early feedback, which can significantly inform your strategy moving forward. This allows you to make better-informed decisions and progress to your Product Management strategy’s next stage with much more information.

Middle Game

The middle game of chess is where you use the area of the board that you captured during the opening and, building on what you’ve learned from how your opponent responded, create a plan for the game and then put the pieces into place to execute on that plan.

Product Management takes a similar approach by encouraging you to create a product strategy based on the lessons you learned by getting to market early and understanding how your customers received your product. For example, learning the most important outcomes that your product can create for your users.

Now, building on that knowledge, you can create a strategy to realize those outcomes and deliver them to the market where your customers can benefit from them.

End Game

All games of chess end with what is often referred to as the end game. During this stage of the game, you execute on the strategy you laid out in the middle game. Win or lose, this is the culmination of any great chess game. However, no game plays out exactly as you predicted, so you must be prepared to adapt that strategy to the reality of the game that’s unfolding before you.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise if this also sounds familiar to Product Managers. Every great product needs a well thought out product strategy backing it, but no product strategy looks the same at the end as it did at the beginning. Technology product management is a fast-changing game, and the best Product Managers understand how to rapidly evolve their product strategy to match reality while still staying true to their overarching product objectives.

Options, Not Strategy

It may not surprise you to learn that a game so associated with strategy has so many parallels with the world of Product Management. What may surprise you, however, is that at its core, chess is not a game of strategy, but actually a game of options. And that, perhaps, is the more important lesson for Product Managers.

The best chess strategies are those that put the player in a position to win, regardless of how the game unfolds. This is especially true in the choices that the player makes in the end game.

Product Managers can learn much from these ideas, as much of successful Product Management is about creating options to respond to unexpected developments in the marketplace. Even the best Product Managers can’t predict every move their competitors will make, every new feature their customers will ask for, and every unexpected development that will occur in their market. Therefore, the most successful strategies in Product Management are differentiated by the options they create, above all else.

Bringing It All Together

Modern Product Management is an amalgamation of many disciplines, not the least of which include business, technology, and design. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that there is much to be learned outside of our own traditional domain.

The game of chess is just one example of how an unrelated discipline has much to teach us about our own craft. I challenge you to find other disciplines with lessons to teach us that can be woven into our daily practice of Product Management.