Why Product Management Is Like Rock Climbing

You’re faced with a seemingly insurmountable wall. One wrong foothold can send you plummeting to the bottom. But you’ve prepared for this climb, and you have all the tools and the teammates that you need to get to the top.

Are you a Product Manager, or a professional rock climber?

The similarities don’t end there, and if you happen to be a Product Manager and a rock climber, perhaps you’ve already noticed the parallels…

You need the right equipment

One thing rock climbers have to know is which tools they need for the job. Climbing on limestone and climbing on ice are two very different things, and require a different set of tools. The wrong shoes for the environment can send you on a quick slide down to the bottom! If you forget your bag of chalk, you’re going to find your hands complaining pretty quickly.

The same thing can be said about building products. If you don’t choose the right tools, you’re going to find yourself building more slowly, with less information, in silos, and maybe even building the wrong thing entirely!

The right tools for Product Management can load you with all the data you need, can help you to collaborate with teammates across the world, and can help you communicate with your customers.

Note that when we say that you need the right tools, we don’t necessarily mean the most expensive tools. Sure, sometimes the right tool is the most expensive one. But it’s more about understanding the requirements of the job, your budget, and the level of support you need.

(If this is a topic you’d like to dive into deeper, we’ve actually got something for you. Check out our free micro-certification: Choosing Your Product Tech Stack.)

You need to know where you’re going

person walking on snow field near mountain

Developers will be familiar with the concept of pathfinding in computing: the act of plotting the shortest route between two points. When you look at a mountain from a distance, it can be hard to even fathom how to go about climbing it. It’s a long way from the bottom to the top, with all kinds of problems both seen and unseen along the way.

Product Managers and rock climbers get from A to B in very similar ways. A rock climber may speak to people who have made it to the top before, with the more famous summits having well known obstacles and markers. They may practice the skills needed to make it to the top at climbing gyms, where it’s not the end of the line if you fall.

In Product, the process is fairly similar. You have a vision for what you want to build, a north star for you to follow, and you know the points you need to hit to get there. You know that you’re going to need to follow each phase of product development to get there.

To stay on the right track, rock climbers study the route they’re going to take to the top, understanding when they’ll have an opportunity to rest and take in the view, and when they’ll need some extra grit and dexterity to reach the top. Product Managers do the same thing, but with roadmaps.

A roadmap helps to keep you on track, and to understand each step you need to take to get to where you want to go. It’s easily shared, and used to communicate the journey with stakeholders and teammates. Because every adventurer knows that you should always tell someone where you’re going!

You need the right support system

Whether you’re a rock climber or a Product Manager, having the right people by your side is critical to your success. For rock climbers, it could be the people climbing with you, the people at your gym helping you solve problems, and the mentors you look up to who inspire you to keep going.

For Product Managers, it’s your team. It’s the engineers and designers who build the product, it’s the other Product Managers who help you to perfect the culture of Product at your company, and it’s everyone who forms the global Product community.

The culture among rock climbers is not so different from the Product community. A group of adventurous people, united by a shared passion for what they do, but all with their own way of doing it. What ties this community together is a set of core principles. Rock climbers have a set of principles that help them to be better athletes, and so do Product Managers.

It’s risky…but worth it

So we say this firmly with tongue-in-cheek, because you’re likely not going to plummet to your death in Product Management. Unless you’re doing something truly out of the ordinary.

When you’re a Product Manager, you’re always trying something new. Whether you’re building a new feature, changing an existing product’s direction, or even launching a whole new company as an entrepreneur. It might not involve sheer drops, but it’s risky all the same. Customers could hate your feature, you could ruin a product with the wrong changes, and your new business could flop as soon as it hits the market.

When you try something new there’s always a fear of failure. But if failure wasn’t an option, there would be no beauty in succeeding.

Reinhold Messner, an avid climber featured on The Alpinist, says…

“If death were not a possibility, coming out would be nothing. It would be kindergarten, but not an adventure, not an art.”

Like we said, Product Management is very rarely life-or-death. But that doesn’t mean that the work Product teams do isn’t impactful. And every business venture does come with some level of risk.

When you’re a Product Manager, you’re taking on the responsibility of leading a team. For many new Product Managers, it’s their first time taking on a position of leadership.

Much like climbers, Product Managers assess risks in order to understand how to face them. Risks come in various different forms in Product development. You risk wasting resources on building something that no one actually buys, or if you take too long to build it you risk a competitor making it to market before you.

You might also be interested in: Product Launches and Risk: A Tough Teacher

But if there was no risk to building something new, or trying to add even more value to a well loved product, then there would be no reward. It’s only by running the risk of disappointing customers that you stand a chance of delighting them!

And not unlike rock climbers, Product Managers need to control their fear of failure. When climbers fall, the equipment keeps them safe and still on the wall. Sure, they’ve lost some progress, but now they know that they have to climb a different way. Product teams also have to learn how to bounce back from failure, and learn how to be better next time!

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