11: You are allowed to say ‘no’ – it’s strategic

11: You are allowed to say ‘no’ – it’s strategic


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I’m writing about one hundred things I’ve learned as a product manager.

Product managers hate saying ‘no’. It’s not in our nature to disappoint people. We want everyone to be happy with our products. We’d much rather say a nice, cooperative ‘yes’ that makes everyone happy and leaves us feeling warm and fuzzy.

The problem is that saying yes to everything creates manifest chaos.

Whatever passed for a roadmap is effectively torn up and thrown out. You’ve made a commitment to deliver everyone’s conflicting and baseless requests, something which is now a logical impossibility.

Your role as a product manager is first and foremost to guide and shape the success and growth of your product.

Your role as a product manager is first and foremost to guide and shape the success and growth of your product. So when a sales guy suggests adding some gaudy and superficial new feature to please his new bestest client ever, this is tantamount to your teenage daughter’s older boyfriend suggesting she wears something a little more slutty out tonight because it will impress his friends.

The correct response in both cases is to reach for the proverbial shotgun and suggest politely that this is in fact not something you’re willing to consider.

Being responsible for a product’s strategy means that you have to make choices simply because attempting to do everything results in an unfocused mess. Just look at Facebook. Or eBay. Or Spotify. This means you are duty-bound to say no from time to time and to justify why.

The justification piece is important. Sadly, few of us are in the exalted position where saying ‘no’ is justification enough. Expect that you will have to point out what other things will have to be traded out or how much additional resource you need to do the new thing in addition to everything else.

You may be lucky enough to be in a company which has set out its long-term strategy allowing you to demonstrate that this new thing is a distraction from or directly at odds with what needs to be done. Push comes to shove, you may even have to put a small set of delivery estimates together with some forecasts to show why the proposal is not going to pay for itself.

So if… when you have to say ‘no’ to someone, do so firmly, politely and unambiguously. Repeat yourself if the message doesn’t get through the first couple of times.1

Further reading: #

  1. How Saying “No” Strengthens Your Strategy, ThoughtLeaders: http://www.thoughtleadersllc.com/2011/07/how-saying-no-strengthens-your-strategy
  2. The Gentle Art of Saying No, Lifehack: http://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/the-gentle-art-of-saying-no.html
  3. 7 Simple Ways to Say “No”, zenhabits: http://zenhabits.net/say-no/
  1. …until you’re ordered to do it irrespective by the HiPPO (highest-paid person in the organisation), that is.  Natch.

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The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner’s Guide to Product Management
by Jock Busuttil

“I wish this book was published when I started out in product management”

Keji A., Head of Product

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Jock is a freelance head of product, author and conference speaker. He has spent nearly two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. His clients include the BBC, University of Cambridge, and the UK's Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS).In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, a product management consultancy and training company. He is also the author of the popular book The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management and the blog I Manage Products.

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