Product Management as H-O-R-S-E

Popular backyard basketball game or career strategy?

What’s the best way to get promoted in the mysterious field of product management?

For many PMs it’s hard to know what you should be doing to impress your product leadership. Somehow, even the best organization’s attempts to define a career ladder seem to end up as buckets of nebulous skills. No matter how you slice it, product management is a squishy discipline.

So what should you *actually do* to get promoted as a PM? My suggestion: think about advancing your career using the classic hoops game HORSE .

Just like in HORSE, to succeed in your product management career, you need to:

1. Pick your shot,

2. Call your shot, and then

3. Make your shot.

Let’s dive into each one.

Pick your shot

One of the most important parts of HORSE is also one of the most important parts of the PM game. Picking your shot is where you put on your strategy hat and figure out what your plan of attack should be.

This is pretty straightforward in HORSE. You can decide, for example, that you’re going to go for a high-volume strategy. Taking lots of easy shots you’re confident you can make, and wait for your opponent to miss. This can work in the PM world too. Choose a bunch of simple bug fixes and features that will let you build a steady lead on your competitors. Then knock ‘em out.

That said, in product-land, whether you can do this depends on the product and the situation you inherit. You might not be able to bank on (pun intended) a strategy of easy layups, especially if you’re creating a new product from scratch. Like facing a stronger opponent on the basketball court, a competitive market will push you to take riskier shots to win the game. You might not hit all your shots in that scenario, but when you do you’re guaranteed points.

In HORSE as in PMing, it’s worth thinking about the difficulty of the shots you’re planning. Be sure to balance some easy and some hard shots to hedge your risk.

Calling your shot

The next step in HORSE: you have to call your shot. You have to describe what you’re about to do so the other person knows what you’re attempting. Oh cool, you made a random no-look, behind the back sky hook? Whoopdy shit - it only counts if you called it.

This is true for PMs too. To get credit for your work, you need to broadcast the problems you’ll be solving, why you’re solving them, and what the solutions will be. Without calling your shot, you may release something awesome, but miss out on the opportunity to showcase your (and your team’s) success. To score points in the PM career game, you gotta make sure you call your shots as you release features.

To be clear, this isn’t solely a political “get credit” issue, there’s actually a deeper reason that this analogy matters. Calling your shot as a PM is important for coordinating teams across the company. By calling your shot, you’re signaling to customer-facing teams what your priorities are (which shot you’re taking). You’re also giving them a chance to help you with your shot selection (by getting their feedback). And you’re letting them help you make the shot when they prepare customers for it.

So really, calling your shot lets you adjust and improve your chances of choosing the best shot and making it. Pick your shot, then make sure you call it out loud and clear.

Making your shots

Okay, so you decided if you’re going for a half-court trick shot or a layup, and you’ve announced what you’re gonna do. Now it’s showtime, and the **most crucial part** of both HORSE and building product: execute on the shot.

If you miss a shot in HORSE, the other player gets a chance to go on the offensive, and you’re forced to play their game. You cede control of the game to their strategy (not good). It’s not always as dire in the PM world, but it definitely puts you on the back foot when you miss.

To add to the complexity of product management, in the PM game you aren’t the one shooting. You’re more like a coach for the team that’s shooting the shot for you. You’re trying to give them all the advice you can, while not getting in their way or overwhelming them.

That means that “making the shot” as a PM is about giving your team frequent feedback about their work. Telling them what’s working on a strategic level (which shots are scoring points) as well as on a tactical level (shooting form). For a product, this manifests itself in metric-setting and constant customer feedback.

To win, you gotta hit shots. It’s tempting to move on and “choose and call” the next shot as a PM, so don’t forget, none of it matters if you don’t execute well.

The thing that gets product managers promoted is trust - trust that you are good at playing the product game. So while you can choose smart shots, and call them consistently, if at the end of the day you don’t make them, then nobody’s gonna bet on you. Make your shots.

PM Career advice, simplified

So, if you’re a PM trying to show off your “leadership behaviors” or “insights driven nature”, take a step back. Instead, consider whether you’re winning at HORSE.

Chances are you’ll gain trust (and get promoted) faster if you focus on:

1) Picking good shots

2) Calling your shots

3) Making all your shots.