What Game of Thrones (and the Rest of Hollywood) Can Teach You About Product Management

In his controversial bestseller Everything Bad is Good for You, author Steven Johnson made the case that TV, movies, video games and the rest of popular culture are actually making us smarter.

Johnson pointed out, for example, that in just the first few minutes before the opening credits of a show like The West Wing, the viewer had to process and remember more information than in an entire episode of older shows, like Starsky & Hutch or Hill Street Blues.

In this post I am going to offer a similar type of thesis: Popular culture, even the bad stuff, can actually offer some useful advice for product managers.

Although my colleagues and I here at ProductPlan are huge fans of books, which is why we wrote a post offering our 10 must-read books for product managers, here I want to demonstrate that you can mine some rich product management lessons from the movies, TV shows and other pop-culture fare you probably take in all the time.

Maybe your Amazon Prime binge watching isn’t just downtime. Let me show you why.

5 Product Management Lessons from Pop Culture

1. Never get complacent. (A lesson from Game of Thrones.)

If there’s one thing Game of Thrones has taught viewers, it’s to stay alert under all circumstances, to never get too comfortable, and to never step back and admire your work. That’s when you’re likely to get your head lopped off.

Product managers can easily fall into the trap of celebrating a product victory just a little too long. They understandably want to enjoy the moment when a product becomes a hit with users, or when they finally push something new out after a long-fought development process.

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“Product managers, never get complacent. (A lesson from Game of Thrones.)”

But you need to keep those victory laps short. Because while you’re celebrating, your competitors are sharpening their knives. So if you take your eyes off the competitive landscape for even a short period — and in the era of rapid development where everyone has the tools to copy your successes, that period is growing shorter all the time — you could find yourself in a dangerous, Red Wedding-esque situation.

Or as Jack Reacher, the Hollywood character I’m going to discuss next, might put it, “Watch your six!”

2. Keep your moral compass pointing true north. (A lesson from Jack Reacher.)

One of the most intriguing things about Jack Reacher, the character featured in the books by Lee Child and more recently popularized in the movies starring Tom Cruise, is his unflinching moral compass.

The ex-military cop turned drifter and occasional vigilante always finds himself in difficult moral situations. To save a civilian he’ll have to kill a group of murderous soldiers. To get justice for a mother he’ll have to murder her son’s killer in cold blood.

It’s ugly stuff. And one of the conceits of the books and movies is that Reacher is on his own, off the grid, and answers to no one. He never has to get involved. Never has to get his hands dirty. But he does have to make the hard choices. As one character puts it, “He doesn’t care about the law. He only cares about what’s right.”

So, if he were a product manager whose product was delayed and had to tell that to his executive team, do you think Jack Reacher would hide behind a bunch of corporate double-speak or technical jargon? Do you think he’d “smooth out” the revenue numbers to make his investors happy? He’d sooner stab himself in his neck with a dull pencil.

The lesson? Always do what’s right, rather than what’s easy, when it comes to your products. Own your product decisions. When you make a mistake, stand up and state it plainly. Don’t cut corners. Have the difficult conversations; don’t avoid them. Don’t play games.

Be a badass, like Jack Reacher.

3. Go deeper in learning about your personas. (A lesson from Criminal Minds.)

The long-running TV series Criminal Minds is a fictional version of the FBI’s real criminal-profiling unit, where agents are trained to learn an astonishing amount of detail about the serial killers and other monsters they track.

John Douglas, the real-life founder of the FBI’s Criminal Profiling Program, was famous for helping law enforcement find suspects by intuiting the type of car they’d be driving, the type of job they’d hold, where they’d likely be living, and even what they’d probably looked like — all based solely on examining the crimes they committed.

My point here? You can go deeper in learning about your customer and user personas. No matter how many surveys you’ve sent out, no matter how many industry studies you’ve read, you can still compile a great deal more actionable information about your personas — details that will help you deliver them products that add more value to their lives.

So after you’ve drafted up a user-persona profile to help guide your product development, ask yourself: Would the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit stop here, or would they keep digging?

4. Wear your flaws on the outside. (A lesson from Dave Chappelle.)

In 2017, comedian Dave Chappelle appeared in two live standup specials produced by and streamed on Netflix. After nearly a decade in which his career was in freefall, both Netflix and Chappelle himself billed these specials as a comeback.

And soon after the specials hit subscribers’ “New Releases” queues, Netflix proudly announced that the Chappelle standup hours were its most-watched comedy shows ever.

One reason for the massive success of Dave Chappelle’s return to comedy was his utter candor and openness, even about the most embarrassing details of his career missteps and his emotional issues.

Chappelle talked honestly, for example, about having been insanely jealous of the other hot comedians who’d enjoyed superstardom while he was out of the spotlight. He also admitted that he’d made terrible decisions with his career. And the audience loved him for it — because as much as they wanted to hear their favorite comedian tell jokes for the first time in years, they really wanted to know what had happened to him.

The lesson here is that Chappelle knew that no matter what he said or did in his first big standup show in years, his fans would be wondering the same things: What happened to you? Why’d you walk away from your hit show? Why did you just disappear like that?

So rather than walk onstage and try to act like those questions weren’t thick in the air, Chappelle did what MSNBC host Chris Matthews suggests in his book Hardball: He hung a lantern on his problem.

As a product manager, your products are going to have flaws. Be upfront with your users about them. Take the initiative to point them out yourself — before your customers have a chance to discover them on their own.

5. Just because something worked once… (A lesson from the TV shows MacGyver, Prison Break, 24, 24: Legacy, Heroes: Reborn, and others.)

Finally, here’s a major trend in Hollywood that’s worth examining as an example of what not to do as a product manager.

It seems every TV network has hit on the same idea over the last few years: “Let’s take our popular shows from 5, 15 or 25 years ago — and just start them up again.” Which is why someone who hasn’t watched a lot of TV lately and fires up their DVR — only to find recent airings of shows like The X-Files, Prison Break, 24, Gilmore Girls, Twin Peaks — might understandably wonder if their couch is actually a time machine.

In most cases, as you might have guessed, the new versions of the old series are failing. (The biggest flops, as of this writing, seem to be Prison Break, 24: Legacy, and the Heroes reboot.) And maybe it’s a bit of Monday-morning quarterbacking to suggest that the professionals in Hollywood should have known that in most cases this would be a bad idea.

But it doesn’t seem like a big leap of faith to assume that viewers won’t be overly excited about watching the exact same shows they watched years ago. Does it?

Which is where Hollywood unwittingly provides a great lesson for product managers: Just because something worked once doesn’t mean it’s going to work again. You can’t rest on your product’s laurels, and you shouldn’t try to keep cashing the same check from your customers over and over.

Product management is at least partly about innovating, about identifying and charging ahead toward new opportunities. And if you can apply that lesson to your work as a PM, you’ll be serving your customer base better than Hollywood does.

Of course, I’ll probably still go and see the new Top Gun movie when it hits theaters next year… three decades after they did it the first time.

Any other great lessons Product Managers can learn from TV or movies? Being agile shouldn’t mean you have no strategy (Lost)? Product first impressions matter (basically every rom-com ever)?