Guest blog: in response to "The Five Belts of the Product Owner

25 Oct, 2016
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This is a response to Chris Lukassen‘s excellent post titled, "The Five Belts of the Product Owner." If you haven’t read it, my post won’t make much sense, so go read it before you delve further into my post.
Chris’s post brought up many thoughts and feelings because it hit the intersection of two of the things that are taking up much of my focus as of late, Judo and Product Management.

Short version of the story is that our dojo’s sensei (3rd Dan) had to move because of employment, and as a result he shut down his dojo. Still wanting to train judo with my son, I got together with some of the other students and have put together a somewhat grass-roots club to continue our training such as we could. As the most senior belt (Sankyu Brown Belt), much of the progress for our small group falls on me. On the other side of the equation, I’m in charge of a go-to-market on two products, and as our organization doesn’t have a formal product owner, or product manager, much of that duty falls on me, so I’ve decided to start learning more about it to help do an effective job.
So excuse this following wall of text, first are my thoughts on the Judo, and then my thoughts on Product Management as framed by Chris’s post.
The first thing that struck me is how different the belt system looks to an outsider, vs an insider in judo. Anything other than white belt to an outsider means that you are skillful in the art, but because they have no experience with judo, it becomes all the same, as in, ‘they know more than me.’ However, on the mat, there is a pecking order that comes with the belts.
The Japanese have the Kyu system, which is a rank system for the white belts. So, to say that the Japanese don’t have a rank system below black is not accurate, rather, the more precise way to say it is that the Japanese don’t display rank on their uniforms. And more to the point, the underlying Kyu rank system is universal between all dojos, but some recognize this progression with a change in uniform (belt color).
I’m under the USJA system, so our belts go White, Yellow, Orange, Green, Brown, Black. That said, when I was a a yellow belt, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the functional difference between a brown and a black belt. If asked, my answer would have been, "more techniques?" …and I would not have been more wrong.
Now, I’m on the other side. I’m getting people under me trained and prepared for their next tournament and next promotion test. I am beginning to know what is being looked for, and it is completely different than what I thought it was when I was getting tested for my own promotions.
When I went to a judo coaching certification class, one of the things that surprised me was that the instructor there (6th Dan) said that we should never put a student up for promotion unless we have seen them do all the techniques on the test done under pressure. Meaning, if they haven’t done the techniques in competition or sparring, then they shouldn’t be taking the test. The reason being that judo techniques for their own sake are fairly useless. Judo techniques when creatively applied in a situation that requires them are what is required. As a result, the technique display is more of a formality.

Techniques when creatively applied in a situation that requires them are what is required

Techniques when creatively applied in a situation that requires them are what is required

Here is the breakdown of what is being looked for on the test…
From white to yellow, do they have the gross motor skills? Are they falling safely? If you tell them to do a hip throw, are they doing a hip throw? There are the perfect ukemi techniques that you want them to do, but a safe fall is the goal. You may have taught O-goshi, but the major thing on display is the gross motor skill to get a hip throw done. So, if they do Koshi Guruma when you asked for O-goshi, it doesn’t really matter, because the gross motor skill is there. So I guess this can be boiled down to fundamentals. Are they versed well enough on the fundamentals that they have a solid base to build from? If yes, that is the most important part.
From yellow to orange, are they properly building on the fundamentals to create complex movements on the mat? They know and O-goshi and Kesa Gatame, so are they able to end the O-goshi in a way that will set up a Kesa Gatame?
From orange to green, are they starting to modify their techniques to maximize their advantages and minimize their disadvantages? This is a wordy way to ask if they have started developing their Tokui Waza. Everyone is different, and learning which techniques need to be in the tournament toolbox to win is an important part of this stage, as well as throwing out that which is not as effective. Obviously, learning the techniques is important, if only to properly evaluate and discard them.
From green to brown, is the articulation stage. Can you teach these techniques? Can you explain to a white belt why they are having a problem executing? Can you help identify other people’s tokui waza? The funny part about this stage is that people start teaching other people their own techniques, and their techniques start becoming much more refined because the act of articulating your own techniques polishes them up in a big way.
From brown to black is where I am now. Again, I had no idea what the difference was until I got neck deep into it. The thing that a black belt has that a brown belt doesn’t is the education outside of the mat that improves the quality of training and success on the mat. Things like CPR certification, First Aid training, Concussion training, or event SafeSport certification are important to making this transition. As an example, the concussion training is important because someone on the mat needs to know how to identify someone that got a concussion. Most people that have a concussion don’t realize it and as a result they keep training, and someone that can recognize and treat concussions will be able to get that person off the mat before more damage is done. The same with SafeSport, which is sexual and physical abuse training. Someone that has that training will be able to structure the program to help prevent many forms of abuse because they are trained to watch for red flags and can minimize opportunities for misconduct. At this point, we are not talking about judo techniques at all, but skills that make training judo an overall better experience for everyone that steps on the mat.
All that said, one of the things that I think wasn’t clear in Chris’s post is that there is no ‘white belt.’ Mainly because if you are wearing a white belt, it is understood that you are working on yellow, or if you are a green belt, you are working on brown, because you are always building forward.
All that said, having you reflect on the similarities between something I’m intimate with (judo) really revealed gaps in my knowledge. Things that I didn’t know because, how would I know. I see things that I haven’t quite done in the yellow belt level, and parts that I’ve already started exploring in the brown belt level, but that I haven’t built a foundation for them to be effective.
Really, the brass tacks of my self-evaluation of what I’m doing in the product manager role reveals that I shouldn’t be doing things piece by piece, but rather I need a complete system of thinking and doing that wrangles all of the product manager and product owner tasks into a structure that allows me to create and execute goals.
First, are the fundamentals done? If not, then I haven’t earned my yellow belt and I should back up and take care of these things.
Second, are all the fundamentals working together to create a complete product? if not, the I haven’t earned my orange belt.
Now, have I started getting some results from A/B testing that has created a leaner and more effective product that paves the way for demand. If not, have not earned my green belt.
Next, have I started listening to customers and refined the product to directly address their needs and started folding that into new iterations of the product and promotions? If not, no brown belt.
Finally, am I addressing every end of the product and the customer experience? Do I own the customer experience and have the ability to react and build the foundation to bulk up and create a better or new product to tap into make a happy customer? If not, no black belt.
So, during a ‘go to market,’ I’m hitting all the fundamentals and listening to customers but there are severe holes in what needs to be done, but now, at least, I have identified goals.
Rey Berrones

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