The PM and the Rock Climber
Learning from an unexpected symbiotic relationship.
You’re a PM starting a new project. You’re hopeful about all the cool things you’ll be able to do and learn. Ah! The vision is exciting. Time passes. You’re now in the thick of it; a smidge tired from the effort, but you keep pushing forward. The end of your project is nigh, and you feel the pressure building up. You take a deep breath, reset, and find the optimal way to move forward. More time passes. You deliver, bringing everyone along with you for the ride. Congratulations! Doesn’t it feel like you’re on top of the world?
A product manager often goes through this series of emotions on their journey to launching products, as do climbers — the quirky community of people who like to scale up rocks using nothing but the sheer strength of their body, safety gear, a rope, and (hot take alert) a healthy fear of failure. As a part of the climbing community, I have much to share about how my passion for rock climbing bolsters my approach to product management and makes me a better PM.
Like product management, rock climbing has a very specific vocabulary. Here is a list of terms and how they relate to product management:
|THE CLIMBER||THE PM|
|Route or problem: The path taken up a rock face to reach the top||The product roadmap|
|Send: When a climber reaches the end of a route, they have “sent” the route or problem||Shipping a product|
|Project: Attempts the same route or problem multiple times||Iterative product development|
|Beta: The set of moves a climber makes on the rock face to send a problem||The PM’s processes and rituals|
|Belayer: A person on the ground who secures the other end of the climber’s rope||A teammate|
|Belaying: The act of feeding in or taking out rope as the climber progresses upward||Collaboration|
|Catch: The act of a belayer successfully securing the rope when their climber takes a fall||PMs removing blockers|
|Crag: A small rock climbing area that often has numerous routes||The landscape of product features you could release|
Climbers usually preview the problem and think about how to make the most of their time on the wall. We try to visualize the beta before we start. There have been plenty of times when a series of moves that looked like it would work did not do as well as I had hoped, driving me back to thinking on my feet — quite literally! Sound familiar?
As PMs, we constantly solve complex strategic problems while addressing our users’ needs. We establish a clear product vision and align stakeholders to manifest that vision into reality with each iterative release. We drive the vision forward, adjusting our processes and efforts to better account for the feedback we receive along the way. We build prototypes to visualize how we might build the actual product. Strategic problem-solving enables PMs (and rock climbers) to analyze risk, impact, and value from the realm of possibilities and identify the right approach to get closer to the top.
Planning and execution
Climbers and product managers are often cautious optimists. Both must be good at planning a complex expedition, prioritizing the most important things first, anticipating and mitigating risks, and executing the plan, all while expecting and preparing for curveballs. As PMs, we are responsible for establishing product roadmaps, internal standups, check-ins with our stakeholders, feedback collection processes, retros, and continuous improvement.
Out in the wilderness, climbers need to plan for sustenance, appropriate safety gear, account for public and private land laws, weather conditions, and much more! Just as climbers must be mindful and plan out their day in the wilderness, PMs must plan to protect their product’s integrity in the technological wilderness.
Data-driven risk mitigation
It’s easy to presume that rock climbers are risk-taking daredevils in total and complete control of their fears. I have found this to be absolutely untrue for most climbers. Climbers constantly mitigate their risk of injury — whether training specific muscle groups to climb better or finding ways to tailor hard climbing moves to play to their unique strengths. We depend on the real-time data we collect while climbing; some log it into a journal where we detail how our body and mind reacted to specific moves.
For product managers, our discovery activities, product roadmaps, and KPIs act as our journals. High performing PMs leverage these data-points to identify risks early and often. They anticipate and mitigate risks by assuming risks and coming up with strategies before it becomes a problem. PMs rely on data, identify patterns, and determine the best next steps for their product, given the available information. It is a skill that requires connecting the dots between where the product is today and what it needs to do to achieve its goals.
Trust and communication
A rock climber and their belayer share an almost sacred bond based on communication and trust. As the climber scales a beautiful rock face upward with nothing but a rope to catch them, their well-being is effectively in the hands of the belayer. Climbers and belayers need to communicate so they know what to expect while performing sketchy maneuvers.
In a much less dramatic way, a product manager is the “belayer” equivalent to any project. As PMs, we enable our teams to help them do what they do best. PMs also climb the metaphorical rock face of a product lifecycle with empathy and influence, communicating openly and honestly along the way. Our cross-functional teams trust us to catch their falls when they hit a blocker, and we trust them to do the same. Trust and communication are such beautiful things!
As climbers, we fall more than we successfully send, or it could be true just in my case. Falling is how I learn what worked and what didn’t. Climbers get frustrated when they’re not making progress on a project, but an inherent desire to take on challenges and be better climbers keeps us going. Climbing has made me mentally more resilient, patient, and humble. I learn from others by watching what works for them as I reap the benefits of persistence with each experience on the wall — successful and otherwise.
These are all extremely valuable skills for product managers. We’re not experts on everything; we require a deep sense of self-awareness and humility to work with others and learn from them. Most successful climbers and the most successful product managers are a group of forever learners who actively cultivate the practice of continuous learning. It is also one of the key pillars of Postlight’s PM Growth Framework.
Whether climbing or product managing, a little emotional intelligence goes a long way! Emotional intelligence is about self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Being such an intensive sport, climbers need to exercise all tenets of emotional intelligence to maintain a level-headed approach while pushing their limits. Effective PMs wield their masterful emotional intelligence skills while moving the needle toward the vision of their product, being mindful of the needs of their team and customers.
While there are so many similarities I observed between climbing and being a PM, the biggest common denominator between a PM and a rock climber is that both are always a work-in-progress. No matter how much you send, no matter how many products you ship, there is always something (or someone) out there that can teach you a thing or two about becoming better at your trade. To my fellow PMs (and climbers): Keep learning, follow that vision, and enjoy the journey and the views from the top!
Prachi Jhala (she/her) is an Associate Product Manager at Postlight. Say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story published on Nov 8, 2022.