The Product Managers of the Mahabharat

Over a meeting, someone recently asked me to describe the archetype of a product leader. While I answered the question, a broader thought stayed with me. What are the various archetypes of product managers?

An archetype is a powerful storytelling device – making it easier for readers to identify and understand a concept. And PMs come in all shapes and sizes. I couldn’t ask for a better book than the Mahabharat – with its unlimited supply of interesting characters and its greyness – to come up with PM archetypes.

Karna – the Giver

A master in every form of warfare, Karna was beset by a lot of baggage that never allowed him to truly achieve his true potential. A giving personality and a true prince amongst men – Karna had some truly remarkable abilities. However, he forgot his hardest learnt lessons at the time he needed them the most. And his obsession with proving that he was better than Arjun was his undoing.

  • PM Perspective:
    • A giving nature is supercritical as it builds trust and reciprocity in a team – cornerstones of a collaborative work environment. But self-sacrifice (parting ways with the armour you were born with on the eve of battle) is not advisable.
    • Forgetting hard learnt lessons in the heat of battle – every PM needs to watch out for this. It’s a mistake all of us make – we act against our better judgement while designing and executing to our product’s peril.
    • Competition is important. But products whose North Star is beating another product (or to become better than another product) seldom ever win the market. Critical to chart out your own path.
  • Aside:
    • I am a massive fan of Shivaji Sawant’s Marathi novel Mrityunjaya (the one who conquers death or rather the one who is victorious in his death) – with Karna as the protagonist. Some great translations are available. A must-read for mythology fans.

Arjun – the Questioner

Renowned for his prowess with a bow, an unparalleled archer who had complete mastery of his craft, Arjun was sadly prone to making tall claims (and he invariably fell short of them and had to be rescued by Krishna). Prone to bouts of existential crisis, massive ego, but always ready to learn. Always top of his class – great pedigree one could say. Was also well known for his single-minded focus (eye of the fish). Arjun’s greatest ability was to question his purpose in life and the status quo. “Why am I the right person to solve this problem?”

  • PM Perspective:
    • Single-minded focus is a huge asset for any PM. But watch out for any blind-spots that develop as a result (the flip side of focus is a blinkers-on perspective).
    • PMs need to ask hard questions. They need to challenge the status quo. Striving for answers is what leads to great products.
    • Setting the right expectations is supercritical for PMs. Never overpromise and underdeliver.
    • All PMs need good mentors. Arjun probably had the best combination in Krishna – friend, philosopher and guide.
  • Aside (longish):
    • Mahabharat is choc-a-block with jaw-dropping scenes. But my personal favourite is an under-appreciated battle scene. The Kuru kingdom has invaded the Matsya kingdom where the Pandavs are living out the last year of their 13-year-long exile. The last year was supposed to be lived incognito so the Pandavs are disguised as servants, cooks, cowherds and even a eunuch dance teacher (Arjun was also a master of classical dance which he learnt from the apsaras in heaven).
    • Arjun finds himself as the charioteer of the young prince Uttar – the two of them about to face the might of the Kuru army alone. Uttar (it was his first time in battle) loses his composure and asks Arjun to drive the chariot away from the battlefield. Arjun agrees and takes the chariot into the thick forest. There, masked under the odour of dead animals, Arjun reveals a bundle of weapons wrapped in oil-soaked cloth.
    • As the final moments of the incognito year dissolve away, Arjun (as Brihannala the eunuch) picks up his mighty bow Gandiva (he hasn’t touched his weapons in over a year). He bends the bow and strings it with gut and then he pulls the string back and lets go. The twang can be heard across the battlefield.
    • Back in the day, warriors knew how to announce their presence. Blowing on a conch shell with a distinctive sound was one usual way. Others used their loud booming voices. Some rained down fire. Not Arjun. He entered the field of battle by pulling back the string of Shiva’s bow Gandiva – producing a sound so terror-inducing and with a resonant frequency so powerful that weapons would break, ears would bleed and bladders would give way. Now that is an entrance.
    • Mahabharat – the great war – had some phenomenal battles. But it never saw Arjun’s best. The Kuru-Matsya war was Arjun in complete battle-lust berserker mode. He single-handedly defeated his grand-sire Bhishm, his old teachers Drona and Kripa, his nemesis Karna and his arrogant cousin Duryodhan.
    • There is a lot more to this story – layers upon layers. Some other day. Some other medium.

Bhim – the Workhorse

People forget, but Bhim is the one who single-handedly killed every single one of the 100 Kauravas. He is perpetually overshadowed by his younger, flashier sibling Arjun. But Bhim is the true core of the Pandavs. Bhim lacked finesse but made up for it through brute force.

  • PM Perspective:
    • Every team needs a PM who is dependable and capable of moving mountains
    • PMs should not obsess about the glory of it all – it is a good trait to have as a PM – you might be the most important player on the team but the win still belongs to the team
    • Brute force has its place (I’m a big fan) especially when one wants to move fast. But finesse can go a long way to establish market dominance.
  • Aside:
    • The translation of MT Vasudevan Nair’s masterful retelling of the Mahabharat from the perspective of Bhim – Randamoozham – Second Turn – is a must read.
    • Adishakti Theatre’s ‘Impressions of Bhim’ is a virtuoso solo performance by the great actor Vinay Kumar which deals with the inner depth and sorrow of Bhim. A must watch.

Bhishm – the Devoted One

Bhishm – the grand old warrior – known for the intensity of his vows and his devotion to his father’s kingdom. He serves as the anchor to the entire story – his shadow ever-present.

Bhishm was a warrior so strong that he once defeated Parahsuram (Vishnu himself) in an eighteen-day one-on-one battle. No one could kill him – he could choose the time of his own death.

  • PM Perspective:
    • Every large org has (and needs) an old-timer who is completely dedicated to the company and its cause. This is the PM who leads the effort on the most mission-critical projects (AKA the-shit-has-truly-hit-the-fan-somebody-save-us projects).
    • This is the PM who acts as the custodian of all the tribal knowledge floating around the org – he knows where all the skeletons are buried and is usually the tape holding together the fortress.
    • Prone to blindspots – sometimes can’t see the wrong that is happening right in front of him.
  • Aside:
    • My love for this character knows no bounds: my son’s middle name is Bhishm.

Eklavya – the Self Taught

Eklavya’s story arc is one of the most inspiring (and simultaneously heart-breaking) of all the characters in the Mahabharat. A self-taught savant, as an archer he was the only one who came close to beating Arjun.

Giving away his thumb in dakshina to Drona and essentially relearning archery with four fingers on his right hand set him back in a big way.

  • PM Perspective:
    • So many PMs are self-taught warriors, biding their time to shine on a large stage. They invariably start in a different function (sales, marketing, design) and move to a PM role. Most of them have only worked at early-stage start-ups and haven’t had the opportunity to work at established orgs with large PM teams where they can be nurtured and mentored.
    • Sometimes these PMs have no choice but to reinvent the wheel – this can waste invaluable development cycles.
    • But these PMs are also free from all conventional baggage and learn PMing the way it was always meant to be learnt – by doing.
  • Aside:
    • Eklavya serves as a great role-model in the present day. A resourceful autodidact can find enough resources and teachers (Dronas) online to master a subject on their own.

Drona – the Teacher

Drona exemplifies what it means to be a hermetic master. A formidable warrior, born with the knowledge of all warfare and weapons, a master strategist (who can forget his stratagem – the Chakravyuha) and the teacher of kings – he also lived a life of extreme poverty.

Drona was prone to favouritism – even sidelining his own son Ashwatthama in favour of Arjun. His death in the Mahabharat was truly tragic and shameful.

  • PM Perspective:
    • These old timer PMs are always willing to extend their craft to others. An integral part of any large product org.
    • The Bhishm and Drona type PMs also make for great mentors.
    • There are very few PMs who can get their hands dirty with execution and yet lead an army and come up with both the strategy and the tactics for an org. Truly rare.
  • Aside:
    • Drona’s epic-sounding name always makes me laugh. Drona did not have a mother. In fact, he was a clone of his father the rishi Bharadwaj. He was named Drona because he was born out of a dronapatra – a clay vessel. Imagine being named Pot or Mug or Cup. 

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