4 Product Management Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn From The 2016 Olympic Games


You may wear T-shirts, and they wear tights. But with the hard work and bumpy road to victory, entrepreneurs and athletes share unique commonalities: under time and rules-of-the-game constraints, both visionaries of their domain try to break a record and leave a mark.

We can all learn a lot from the 2016 Olympics about how to better manage our products and lead them to success. Here are 4 Product Management lessons from this summer’s games to help you in your effort to reach Product-Market fit:

1. Keep your eyes on the prize, not on the routine

The best PMs are utility players who have a defined goal and a range of skills that lets them jump into almost any role and tackle the task at hand. They are problem solvers who will do whatever it takes to ship the right product at the right time. At the same time, they are responsible for coordinating and allocating resources to deliver value and achieve business objectives.

PMs can take a page from Bahamian sprinter, Shaunae Miller, who won the Gold medal in the 400 meter race at the recent 2016 Olympics. When Miller realized that simply running to the endpoint won’t give her the gold, she challenged her own game and dove across the line to beat Allyson Felix. Thinking out of the box like she did, gave her the seven-hundredths of a second needed to win the gold and achieve her personal best time of 49.44 seconds. It made for a thrilling finish and showed intense will and commitment on her end to achieve her end goal.

2. Know your rivals and follow the data

If you were an Olympic wrestler you wouldn’t show up to the ring without knowing who you might be competing against and understanding their strengths, weaknesses, and how you stack up relative to their accomplishments.

The most epic example is none other than American wrestler Helen Maroulis who was only 18 when she was pinned by legendary Japanese freestyle wrestler Saori Yoshida and lost in just 69 seconds. Five years later, they competed again in the 53kg gold-medal match in Rio. However, this time Maroulis was prepared. Having studied her rival, she identified a weak point and devised a strategy on how to battle the 13-time world champion and three-time gold medalist.

What was her game plan? As she said after her stunning 4-1 upset win made her the first American woman to ever win gold in the event: “From what I saw, she’s just better at being patient [during a match]. Then I was like, ‘When you’re used to being patient, knowing someone panics, what happens when you’re patient and someone matches you in that? Then you’ll be the one to panic.’ That’s the thought I went into the match with.”  And? “It happened”.

With the entrepreneurial life sharing many parallels to a wrestling match, developing and managing a product without truly knowing who the competition is is a useless game. And you should do it not just in the beginning stages of your product, but throughout its entire lifespan.

3. You don’t get to the Olympics in one game

Athletes prepare several years ahead of the Olympic Games by undergoing intense, focused physical and psychological training with other rivals in order to challenge themselves and reach their peak performance.

Learn the lesson of launching fast and playing early from Simone Biles.  Biles first tried gymnastics at six years old and began her career at the age of 14 in the American Classic in Houston. She placed third all-around, first on vault and balance beam, fourth on floor exercise, and eighth on uneven bars and was not seemed like a star to be.  In July, 2013 Biles competed at the 2013 Secret U.S. Classic. She performed poorly, falling several times, and did not compete in the vault after twisting her ankle on the floor exercise. Afterward, she was invited to a private camp with the national team coordinator and consulted with a sports psychologist. She took the opportunity to analyze her poor performance in order to learn her weaknesses. This approach paid off in dividends as she nabbed a gold medal recently for the individual all-around, vault and floor routine.

All too often, we strive to get everything right the first time around. As a consequence, our products suffer from costly delays and insufficient feedback prior to launch. Once your product is out there, only then can you see the real issues that are standing between you and success. 

4. PMs are Product Coaches

A PM leader who possesses skills, expertise, and perspective beyond market expectation is critical to making sound decisions as both an Olympian and a company working on it’s next product.

An excellent case in point is coach Bryan Ryan.  Until the Rio 2016 Olympics, Fiji had never won an Olympic medal, in any sport. But under the brilliant coaching of Ben Ryan, this Rugby team fulfilled their potential and stormed to gold by beating Great Britain in the final, transforming the island’s athletes as players to be reckoned with. Ryan said the key to Fiji’s resurgence in the past two years has been going back to basics and following a well-defined framework.

Whether in the world of sports or the world of business, it would be impossible to overstate the value of powerful management. The Fiji team is a proof you don’t need massive funding to be successful; sometimes you just need great coaching to maximize on the potential of wonderful talent to create a really good product.

And last but not least, a bonus tip: just like synchronized swimmers, Good PMs get Organizational Alignment with their Product Roadmap. A lesson that Ryan Lochte has not internalized.

— by Moriya Kassis, Product Management Consultant and Summer Venture Associate with UpWest Labs for two consecutive years