I learned how to sail long before I had an intention to become a product manager. I inherently found myself in the PM position when I became the co-founder of Defter Notes, among other roles. As I advanced in my journey, I started to notice that I was applying certain aspects of my skipper’s training into my way of managing. Here is how sailing inspired me, and how you can make use of it.

Know your team as you know your boat.

Your boat is a perfectly engineered machine, with each part having a specific function, designed to work in harmony with the rest. When you begin to train as a skipper you’d often start with the names and functions of each part of the boat. The lines, the keel, the rudder, the mast, the mainsail, the jib, the rigging, the cunningham, the boom vang… The reason for this is that it will show you that everything on a boat’s sailing system is virtually connected. If you are to command a boat, you have to know it inside out. Are you preparing for a race or is your boat more suited for leisure sailing? How deep does your keel go, and can you navigate shallow waters? Knowing your boat will guide you in your decisions as you set goals and define success.

The same principle goes when getting to know your team. Who works best with whom and under which circumstances? Who is the problem solver and who needs a little push? What inspires and motivates your team? Observe frequently and ask yourself if you’re doing your best to conduct this machine that is your team. Have reflective conversations often, align your team around the product's vision and create a shared brain. Empower independent decision-making and assertive responsibility. If each crew member is their best selves, they will be more driven for future odysseys with you.

Always be measuring, always keep track.

On a sailboat, keeping track of data and making sense of it is a big part of the skipper's job. To keep track of your navigation, you should be logging your coordinates on a schedule. To comprehend the balance of your boat, you should create a tuning journal to document settings and correlate to boat feel. To plan a route, you should be getting reports for weather and reading historic documentation about the seas you’re about to sail.
As a PM it’s a valuable habit to keep measuring and taking notes. This doesn’t mean you should be a data hoarder. It means you have to understand what your KPIs mean for your product’s lifecycle and articulate what success looks like. Have a defined vision and make sure everyone is aligned around it for the product. Learn from your metrics to make sense of where you are, prioritize product features and plan ahead accordingly.

Observe and adapt to changing winds.

One of the basic things about sailing is that you always have to be aware of the wind. It might change direction and strength at any moment. If the changes are major, you might have to tack or jibe, depending on the wind and your course.
To tack is to change direction by turning the bow of the boat through the wind. A jibe is another way of changing direction, in which you bring the stern of the boat through the wind. Whether you choose to tack or jibe depends on what’s around you, and the direction of the wind. (source: learnz.org.nz)
Much like in sailing, as a PM you should always be watching out for the changes surrounding your product. This can be monitoring the market and developing competitive analyses. If you are sensing anything that can influence your roadmap, you should be planning for your next maneuver.
You might not always have sufficient wind and you can’t sail directly into the wind. Adapting can be key at times like these, but don’t let it steer you off your course. It’s a good idea to have a reference point, to keep your relative bearing in check.
In navigation, relative bearing refers to the angle between the craft’s forward direction and the location of another object.

Calibrate and refine. It’s all about balance.

As any race team's sail trimmer would tell you, trimming your sails has a huge effect on how the boat feels. To master your balance and have an understanding of your controls on the boat, what you should thrive for is refinement. For optimizing sail performance, trimmers would record everything from the conditions, rig tune, and sail trim, and be sure to include true wind speed and angle for reference.
Trimming: adjusting the tension on a line known as a ‘sheet’ that is attached to the sail. If the boat is too powered up, I’ll look to make some adjustments to the sheets to see if easing gives the boat a nice feel, or if in easing, the boat becomes too inefficient going upwind. If we have to ease too much to get the boat tracking, we’ll depower through other controls to flatten out the sails. Knowing the range of these controls and trim is super important. (source: North Sails)
Just as the way trimming would win a yacht race by seconds, attention to detail makes the difference between good and great in every situation. Finding the perfect balance for your vision, the product, your team, and stakeholders requires constant awareness and engagement. Try journaling and practicing mindfulness. Use experience and methodology to your advantage. Explore your narratives and conditions, experiment with fine-tuning, take notes, and iterate.

Maintenance is crucial.

Last but not least, a good percentage of sailing is maintenance. Rinsing your sails with fresh water and patching minor tears. Having your engine serviced regularly, inspecting electronics, and hull cleaning. Looking for worn areas, loose screws, and UV damage. These are all safety precautions that will allow for smooth sailing later on.

Much like a skipper taking care of her boat, as a PM, it’s your job to keep the team functioning and the product progressing. This may mean assigning tasks or providing motivation at times. It may also mean taking action for team-building and problem-solving. Whether to reach a destination or win a race, your goal is, essentially, to keep sailing.

Becoming your best self as a PM all lies in the details. Know your team, understand how to communicate, and gather knowledge to make sense of your product. Always check your course as well as your surroundings. Define your vision and see it through. And learn to sail, ideally, with your team. It can take your management process to a whole new level.
This post was originally published on Defter Notes' blog.