Saturday, May 16, 2009

musashi-sensei: rules for product management

Shinmen Musashi No Kami Fujiwara No Genshin, or as he is commonly known Miyamoto Musashi, was born in the village called Miyamoto in the province Mimasaka in 1584.

He was the author of A Book of Five Rings (Go Rin No Sho), a philosophical treatise on the way of the sword.  To the Japanese he is Kensei (literally "sword saint"), and his teachings are an essential part of the Kendo bibliography.

In his 1974 translation of the book, Victor Harris remarked that "the book is not a thesis on strategy, it is in Musashi's word 'a guide for men who want to learn strategy'  and, as a guide always leads, so the contents are always beyond the student's understanding.  The more one reads the book the more one finds in its pages.  It is Musashi's last will, the key to the path he trod."

Go Rin No Sho is definitely worthy of that warning.  I've been reading it for 25 years and it reveals something new each time I visit it.

Musashi-sensei generously provided a list of nine guidelines for students who would follow his Way:
  1. Do not think dishonestly.
  2. The Way is in training.
  3. Become acquainted with every art.
  4. Know the Ways of all professions.
  5. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.
  6. Develop intuitive judgement and understanding for everything.
  7. Perceive those things which cannot be seen.
  8. Pay attention even to trifles.
  9. Do nothing which is of no use.

For individuals interested in strategy these are powerful and quite intimate personal lessons.   Victor Harris describes the book as ". . . unique among books of martial art in that it deals with both the strategy of warfare and the methods of single combat in exactly the same way."  Put another way, Musashi-sensei teaches that you cannot master the grand strategy of armies without also mastering the self.

For product managers, this is the most powerful lesson of Go Rin No Sho.  We operate in a world in which we are called on to assimilate information, formulate plans, execute on campaigns and adapt to changing conditions - all without direct control of or authority over the resources who will perform the work required to achieve the goal.

I believe the superior product manager is able to accomplish this work of grand strategy if he or she demonstrates a strong competency in personal strategy - in the individual disciplines that give evidence of an ability to direct and accomplish the larger works.

Musashi-sensei wrote "all of the five books (that make up Go Rin No Sho) are chiefly concerned with timing.  You must train sufficiently to appreciate all this."  When to strike, and how, and why, are at the core of his teaching.  Is there anything more fundamental to our craft than timing?  This is worthy of some discussion, I think.

I carry these nine guidelines with me wherever I go.  Next time we meet, ask for a copy and I'll give you one.  You'll probably be better at many of them than I am, and I'll look forward to learning from you.


A Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, translated by Victor Harris (The Overlook Press, 1982)

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