What lessons from antiquity would you apply to product management?

What lessons from antiquity would you apply to product management?

I’m asked questions about product management from time to time. Here’s one I’ve answered recently:

Hi Jock,

So this this might seem a bit odd, but are there any lessons from antiquity given your background in Classics that one might apply to product management in the year 2020?

Best regards,


Read on for my reply!

Hi R,

Well, 2020’s been a dumpster fire of a year, to put it mildly. But here we are at the end of it, and we can look forward to a more hopeful 2021.

I’m not a marathon runner, and I have no intention of becoming one. However, 2020 has felt like an endurance test for everyone. On first blush, the origin of the modern marathon seems like an apt choice. The Athenian messenger Pheidippides (fy-dip-id-ees) supposedly1 ran 25 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the defeat of the Persians. Then again, afterwards he keeled over and died, so that’s not exactly the hopeful note I was going for.

There’s a possibly more appropriate example in ancient Greek philosophy called Zeno’s paradox. If I remember it correctly, the way it goes is that if you’re going to run a marathon, you need to get halfway, but if you want to get halfway through a marathon, you need to get halfway towards that, and so on. So you end up with an infinite number of smaller and smaller divisions by half.

It can seem very overwhelming to run a marathon when you focus on how far you’ve got to run. But suddenly you’ll realise that actually you just need to take one step, then another, and another, then gradually you’re making progress, and that maybe it isn’t as overwhelming as you originally thought.

Zeno’s paradox tries to argue that you can never reach the finish line because of the infinite number of divisions you need to run through. Clearly that doesn’t bear out in real life because people do run marathons and of course they can reach the finish line. So if something seems overwhelmingly far off and difficult to achieve, you just need to take things one step at a time.

Whether you apply that to 2020, or to working towards your product vision, that seems like eminently sensible advice. All the best for 2021!



Notes #

  1. Herodotus the ancient Greek historian does mention a Pheidippides who delivered messages for the Athenian generals, but his famous run from Marathon to Athens and his subsequent demise may well be fictions added much later by other writers.

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The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a freelance head of product, product management coach and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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