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Product Management: How Dungeons & Dragons Can Help Develop Key Skills

From Capacitor Partners PM Team

Photo generated by DALL·E 2

The demand for Product Managers (PM) has increased significantly in the last 5 years. More specifically, Forbes Business Council Member, Carlos Gonzalez de Villaumbrosia, notes that “between August 2017 and June 2019, demand for Product Manager roles in the U.S. grew by an astronomical 32%”. Engaging with stakeholders, bringing people together to develop ideas and storytelling are core elements shared in product management, and Dungeons & Dragons. What exactly does a Product Manager do, and how can it be compared to Dungeons & Dragons?

Dungeons & Dragons (also referred to as D&D) is a tabletop roleplaying game that is focused on communal storytelling and has been around since the early 70s. It requires a set of dice that add the chance to decision-making, pen, and paper to take notes on the development of the story, and creative thinking. It sets a group of players’ characters, that they create with the guidance of the Dungeon Master (DM), in a fantasy setting.

The customers in D&D are the players, and the PM can be viewed as the DM. The players’ characters are similar to the various teams working on a product, and the DM brings them together through precise communication to create a story (product). Both a DM and a PM engage with their stakeholders to develop a product and act as guides to the people they’re collaborating with.

At the heart of it all is storytelling. Both DM’s and PM’s practice and employ storytelling to fulfill their respective roles, bringing people together to create unique narratives that are defined by purpose and vision.

The Power of Listening

The most powerful approach to creating solutions is to truly listen to the problem at hand. If you don’t understand the problem, how will you create an effective solution? Dave Wascha, the Chief Technical and Product Officer of Zoopla said in a presentation, “Your job as a Product Manager is to be maniacally focused on your customer’s problems, and you cannot do that if you’re not listening to them”.

If a DM does not first establish the kind of story the players want, then the DM will be creating a story that nobody wants to tell. Similar to a Product Manager who creates solutions to problems that nobody has.

So the key to an excellent D&D story, and an excellent solution to a product’s problem, is to listen.

Stakeholder Engagement and Empowerment

A common challenge PM’s face is balancing stakeholder expectations. You have to consider the customers’ needs, the budget constraints of the marketing and engineering teams, the company’s financial targets, and time constraints to adhere to.

As a DM, you’re constantly faced with challenges such as accompanying different people’s imagination, because that’s where 90% of D&D takes place, time constraints, and developing the story accordingly. Players' preferences vary, so to ensure that everyone is contributing to the story, the DM should engage within and without the game.

So, how do PM’s and DM’s go about managing these expectations and variables, when working to develop a product or story? Julia Austin, from Harvard Business Review, explains, “by forming authentic and trustworthy connections with both internal and external stakeholders, the best PM’s inspire people and help them reach their full potential”.

That’s right, you nurture your relationships with the people involved. That way, you can truly understand your customer, the various teams involved, the C-Suites that you report to, and especially the players at your D&D table. The more input you have on the problem, the more accurate your solutions will be.

Impactful Narrative

Michael Morgolis, advisor to companies including Google and Meta stated that “by taking control of their narrative, they’ve got the best shot at defining the future.” In this statement, he refers to some observations in his time training a plethora of product managers.

It can be so easy to tunnel-vision on data, that we forget to humanize it. At any point in their stakeholder map, a PM must be able to make data relatable, as well as relevant to a purpose that is based on product strategy and vision.

Organizing your user stories and journey maps into purely data-driven, bullet-listed formats seldom warrants attention or understanding. Stephanie Judd, the Managing Partner at Wolf & Heron, discussed a time when she helped a product manager improve through storytelling. She mentions that without narrative, “her point was clear, but when shared aloud, it felt like corporate jargon-boring and emotionless.” Further in her article, she highlights that the product manager “used a personal experience with her product and its competitor to craft a story that highlighted the differences between the two”, referring to a comparison of two products.

Similarly, in D&D, a DM must really employ narrative to draw the players in. A combat encounter with an Ancient Dragon is much more enticing when there is lore tied to it, rather than the dragon simply existing in the setting to slay or be slain.

Taking these core elements into consideration, there is a clear correlation between the skills required to be an effective DM and PM. You learn to listen, encourage collaboration, and engage with the people around you in a way that elevates productivity and creativity.

Your teams are ready to head into an adventure. Are you prepared to tell the story?

Upscale your product management capability with our expert team at Capacitor Partners. Reach out to us at hi [at] for more details.


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