Product Management: Saying No Without Shutting Them Down


As a product manager, one of the hardest things you have to do is say ‘no’ to ideas, suggestions, requests and urgent demands from customers and internal stakeholders. However, adding the word ‘no’ to your management vocabulary is essential in order to make those difficult product decisions. You can’t be afraid to use it or else you end up with half-baked projects with an archive of features and no finished product. Making these decisions aren’t meant to be easy, but it is necessary. Saying ‘no’ to requests helps provide a focus around what is most important. Remember: you can’t do it all.

To be a successful product manager you must get used to saying ‘no’, but that doesn’t mean it must be done confrontationally. You must learn to do so in a way that is strategic and constructive without completely shutting down the other person. Listening and asking questions to give the other person some control shows that you respect their point of view. Giving an outright ‘no’ as a response and immediately shutting the other person down creates conflict and friction, leaving them feeling as though they have not been heard. Below I mention some helpful tips to guide you in the process of rejecting stakeholder requests without shutting them down and making them feel inadequate.

6 Helpful Tips for Saying ‘No’ to Stakeholder Requests

One option is to scope a small feature fake to test assumptions and get user feedback. You don’t have to commit to an entire project, instead, you can focus first on a single feature and then measure its impact. And then from there, you can decide whether or not to go further.

A feature fake: a fast, frugal way to learn whether users are interested in a feature.

You should consider different factors before saying yes or no to a feature/change, because even the smallest features can have a large impact on a product. It is important to analyze the development cost, maintenance cost and whether or not the feature can be maintained, whether it fits in with the business model, if there is any technical debt as a result of building the feature and whether customers will be unhappy with the change.

1. Be Transparent

Product managers can provide transparency on vision, strategy, roadmap, backlog, value and cost. It is important to have open and direct conversations about the impact certain decisions can have on a product. You can even walk your colleagues through your methodology for prioritizing by showing them a visual product roadmap. In doing so, they might better understand why you can’t accept their proposal.

2. Be Prepared with Solid Reasoning and Make Informed Decisions

The ability to make informed decisions requires the use of analysis (qualitative and quantitative) and the discipline to say no in a strategic manner. Identifying business themes can help with the prioritizing process as well as asking yourself: What do we want to do? How will this feature benefit the business? Is it worth the investment? What is the cost to build it?
When preparing yourself to say ‘no’ to a request, have a solution backed with data and make a case based on the company’s strategic orientation. Having a solid understanding of your market, internal resources and competition can affect your decision in whether or not to include a feature/change. Equipping yourself with knowledge and relevant data such as user feedback, usage reports, competitive information and sales details can help you to explain why a stakeholder’s request might not be impactful and why it can’t be supported for the time being.

3. Saying No Without Actually Saying the Word ‘No’

It is always good to provide options. Go over the pros and cons of each idea to encourage a positive and constructive conversation. You can suggest their idea is something you can look into later (however this strategy shouldn’t be used in the hopes that their idea will be forgotten). You must be honest, transparent and upfront.
You could say "how about we add this to the next section of our roadmap after we’ve implemented X, Y, Z…" to show that it’s not forever. Explain why their idea could prove useful further down the road. This is a great way of showing you are not rejecting their request and that they will be taken into consideration later on.

4. Be Aware of the Common Arguments Used to Sneak Features into a Product

Building features that don’t count can create unnecessary costs for a business and so you’ll have to learn to say ‘no’ and familiarize yourself with these common arguments which will continue coming back again and again: ‘The data looks good’, ‘It will only take a few minutes’, ‘This customer is about to quit’, ‘Our competitors already have it’, ‘If we don’t build it, someone else will’. Remember that executing a great product is more important than dealing with these esoteric requests.

5. Saying ‘No’ with Empathy: Acknowledge and Discuss your Colleague’s Request

As a product manager, it is always important to listen twice as much as you talk. People want to know they are heard and understood, that way, no matter the outcome, they will feel like they were a valued participant in the final decision. Listen attentively, put yourself in their shoes and empathize with the person that is describing their pain and the feature they believe will solve the problem.
Be collaborative: saying ‘no’ puts up a wall and ultimately ends a conversation. It is important to keep the conversation open and flowing. Saying "how about this…" keeps the conversation moving. Jumping to an immediate rejection can deprive the stakeholder of feeling heard, which is why it is important to take the time to acknowledge their request and explain that you understand why they would need it.

6. Do Not Refer to Yourself when Saying ‘No’

The decisions you make and the requests you accept or decline are not based on your personal feelings, but on your expert knowledge of your product, market and customer. Don’t refer to yourself at all in the conversation because it is not about you, your decision is based on what is right for the product and what will support your company’s strategic orientation. In doing so, your stakeholder will understand the decision is not personal and it isn’t lightly based on emotion.
Saying ‘no’ as a product manager can be a difficult and necessary task, however, it is possible to do so in a way that encourages an open and positive conversation between you and your colleagues. Saying ‘no’ does not have to be a negative experience.
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Bain Public is a Product consultancy that helps companies make smart decisions, and ship top-notch products that captivate customers and achieve business objectives. We help ambitious organizations create new value by establishing company-wide product-related processes. Our group of experienced Product Managers works closely with CSuite leadership teams removing friction from all touchpoints of the digital consumer experience to deliver product-market fit allowing companies to operate at scale.
Written by Loren O'Brien-Egesborg. Thanks to Paul Ortchanian and Charles Mon for reading and editing drafts of this article and overseeing aspects of its publication. The photo can be found on the free stock photo site Unsplash. Also, if you have any feedback or criticism about this article then shoot us an email info@bainpublic.com.