Saying no is a true art.
First off, it’s in our nature to say yes – humans are eager to please, seeking positive confirmation from those we respect. This can be traced back to our prehistoric ancestors, who viewed belonging to a group as a survival tactic while facing the hardships of Ice Age living.
And it didn’t die off with wooly mammoths. In business, the stereotypical “yes-man” builds their career by nodding, agreeing and going along with whatever the boss wants to remain a loyal and trusted employee that eventually, gradually works their way up the food chain.
But for product managers, the yes-man model definitely doesn’t work.
Successful product leaders are initiators, risk takers and truth seekers, which can rub some folks the wrong way. And, as the person who decides what’s in and what’s out of a product release or roadmap, a product manager is often the one who must say “no.”
Saying no isn’t a bad thing—if we didn’t say no our products would never be released because they would include thousand of features and support every use case imaginable.
“An effective plan for product development includes prioritization as its most important facet,” says Cypd’s VP of Product Jason Burke. “Creating that plan requires the discipline to use data and analysis to strategically say no and to say it often.”
When one path is chosen, you’re effectively saying no to the unselected option. Every time you move a feature request to the backlog, you’re saying “no, not this time” to the requestor.
An essential part of the job
As the objective owner of a product, your job is to maintain focus on the long-range, big picture goals while selecting the right baby steps to reach them. Mapping every request back to those goals makes it far easier to say no with confidence.
“Everyone has his or her pet projects or biases toward what matters,” says author and coach Diana Kander. “A value assessment removes subjectivity from the decision-making process and helps whole teams agree on which projects rank.”
Sometimes those decisions are straightforward and simple, but you really earn your paycheck when solid suggestions still don’t make the cut.
“Identifying and eliminating the bad ideas is the easy bit. Real product decisions aren’t easy,” says Des Traynor of Intercom. “They require you to look at a proposal and say ‘This is a really great idea, I can see why our customers would like it. Well done. But we’re not going to build it. Instead, here’s what we’re doing.’.”
Your product management career will be filled with opportunities to say “no.” What’s important is when you say “no”, and what comes before and after it.
Timing is everything
We’ve all been there. You instantly know an idea is absolutely not the right move… you might even be tempted to laugh at its ridiculousness or roll your eyes in response. It’s tempting to give into those base reactions, but that’s not the reputation you want to build.
Instead, remain measured in your response and grounded in fact. Don’t leave the requestor feeling shunned or ignored—take the time to really understand what they’re asking for and why.
“This means making sure you have asked good questions and listened closely to their responses,” says George Roberts of OpenView Venture Partners. “Otherwise, they will feel like you have not given them due process and just jumped to ‘NO.’”
There are several options for getting to a well-considered no, all likely with the same eventual result based on concrete evidence and respectful of the requesting party:
Make them do their homework: When someone asks for something you’re pretty sure isn’t a great idea, put the onus on them to provide the supporting case and ensure you’re not falling victim to feature blackmail. Ask them to identify enough customers or prospects asking for it, quantify the deals or increased revenue tied to adding this specific feature, and pinpoint competitive offerings encroaching on your business because they’re already offering this. If your instincts are correct, they’ll probably come up empty… and if they don’t, maybe it IS worth considering.
Offer to do the homework for them: As the subject matter expert, you are often in a position to validate (or invalidate) the justification for a request far more effectively than the person who’s asking for it, particularly when it’s a superior who might be reacting to something they’ve heard from a board member, learned about during a sales call or read in an industry publication. By taking ownership of the exercise, you’re acknowledging that you value their input, plus it gives you the opportunity to formulate a well-constructed case against their request vs. a shoot-from-the-hip no-go response.
Use a stalling tactic: Many requests come in the heat of the moment—”I just had a sales call with XYZ Enterprises and they will sign a gazillion seat license if we only offered integration with twelve different databases!” These are earnest requests that the person asking for truly believes will close a deal or catapult the business to the next level. But many features have been built on the promise of inking a new deal, only to lie fallow after that ship never came in. So employ savvy stalling tricks such as requiring a signed contract before beginning work, getting clients to commit to integration and customization fees, or simply waiting for further market validation (i.e. identifying other potential customers interested in the same thing). As time goes on, a legit case might be made from the customer feedback that’s coming in, or your initial doubts may prove correct that there simply isn’t much demand.
Employing the “I can’t commit to a release date” card: Some requests aren’t terrible and in a perfect world you’d toss them into the next sprint to satisfy an internal stakeholder or minor customer. But we don’t live in a perfect world and what makes it into each release is simply scratching the surface of the pile of enhancements you’d love to bring to market. As long as all parties understand that the request will continue to be considered but must fight for its priority with everything else in the queue, there’s sometimes no harm in a non-committal response.
But no matter how you get there, it’s important to remember each “no” is a potential blow to someone’s ego.
“Most innovative companies have an impressive ability to generate lots of ideas. Attached to each idea is someone’s dream,” says author Whitney Johnson. “But not every idea can be pursued, which can make people grow angry, jealous, or bitter.”
When a quick no is the way to go
There are exceptions that prove every rule, and that certainly applies to product management as well. Sometimes, you do need to pipe up with an immediate negative, but these should typically be reserved for cases that meet the following criteria:
- You have already personally considered this topic and come to the conclusion that you shouldn’t proceed
- You have a solid foundation on which to base your “no” and can quickly and succinctly make a justification
- Considering the request will unnecessarily consume resources and potentially sidetrack the organization
If not, you still must go through the motions, vet the request and respond with a fully-baked, data-backed response.
Respecting authority while still saying no
Since every yes is a no to something else, you can shoot down your boss’s request without appearing to be negative by reframing the exchange. Simply asking what should be dropped, skipped or delayed to accommodate this new request immediately repositions the discussion to one of relative value assessment and not a binary snap decision.
“The times in which we should actually say ‘No,’ are exceedingly rare; rather, we should always be saying ‘Not now,’ or some variation thereof,” says Cliff Gilley, The Clever PM. “Rather, you need to instill and reinforce the cultural belief that anything is possible — that it’s entirely a matter of prioritization and justification.”
In cases where you’re saying no because the idea itself is problematic vs. your company’s ability to implement it, you should always fall back on the facts and figures you’re supposed to be basing every decision on.
“You are a proxy for the data,” says Stefan Von Imhof of HG Data. “It’s not you that says no. It’s the data that says no.”
Regardless of whether it’s your boss, an entry-level customer service rep or your biggest client, the most important thing to remember is that the people asking want to feel heard. Show that you’ve listened to them, provide a thoughtful and considered response, thank them for their feedback and encourage more of it in the future.
That might mean even more opportunities to say “no” are coming, but it also means you’ll stick around long enough to say “yes” a few times, too.