product manager

How to say “no” as a product manager

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  • Agile and project planning

As a product manager, being tasked with achieving the impossible is almost part of the job description—particularly when you’re routinely being asked to add something else to the existing roadmap, even as your resources to develop the product are already limited.

Successful product management often comes down to making the very best of difficult situations. Not every idea can be used nor demand be met, especially for Agile and Scrum teams. Some suggestions must be ignored and other requests denied, much to the dismay of stakeholders and customers.

Yet strategically, it makes perfect sense. In fact, exercising the power and mastering the ability of how to say “no” as a product manager makes you more effective in your role.

Why it’s important to say “no”

To gain an appreciation for when and how to say “no,” it helps if you try to understand why it’s important to say “no.” First things first: saying “no” isn’t about avoiding responsibility, being confrontational, or making a power move. Many assume that saying “yes” means they’re easy to work with.

But once you start saying “no” for the right reasons as a product manager, you can:

  • Ensure the integrity of your roadmap and focus on your most critical tasks
  • Provide greater bandwidth for high-ROI ideas and help reduce overall costs
  • Earn your team’s respect and solidify your reputation as a product manager

However, saying “no” doesn’t come naturally (or easily) to everyone. Whenever possible, most of us will avoid conflict. Especially when it involves rejecting someone’s proposal in person. Which is why it’s critical to read the signs and realize exactly when to say “no.”

How to know when to say “no”

When you’re a product manager, you’ve got relationships to maintain, stakeholders and customers to satisfy, and roadmaps to be kept in mind. Saying “no” without justification or simply to protect your ego can be counterproductive and demoralizing to your team.

Although situations vary and circumstances differ by organization or industry, you’ll find there are a few common indicators to look for when deciding whether or not to say “no”:

  • When their demands don’t align with the initial vision or strategy of the product
  • When the cost-benefit tradeoff or added costs outweigh the potential advantage
  • When adding new features pulls resources away from more important initiatives

In product management, every decision is based on key performance indicators. In your role as product manager, it’s up to you to prioritize your company’s priorities and clearly articulate the goals outlined in the roadmap.

How to say “no” effectively

By familiarizing yourself with even a few of the proven techniques for how to say “no” as a product manager, not only will you become more effective at turning down unrealistic or unreasonable requests. You may even win their immediate support for your decision.

The next time you need to say “no,” use the following tactics to frame the conversation:

  • Pay extra attention to (and empathize with) your audience: Whether it’s product management or everyday life situations, everyone wants to feel heard. Whenever someone comes to you with a demand that can’t be fulfilled, make sure that you fully understand their reasoning before you respond. Legitimize their request by using phrases a supportive and thoughtful phrase during your conversations like:

“The feature you’ve suggested is a good idea, in fact it’s similar to something we’ve initially/currently considered for a possible addition when creating our roadmap.”  Why? Showing you understand their request helps justify your reasons for “no.”

  • Turn active listening into a habit (and your superpower): Building trust with your team is paramount as a product manager. Active listening demonstrates that you’re interested in what they care about and need to say. It requires you to reserve judgment, not interrupt, and to pay attention. So, instead of concentrating on what you’re going to say next, focus on repeating everything back to them to prove you’re engaged in the conversation. Make a habit of using words like: “Walk me through this again” or “Remind me…”  or “Help me understand…” Active listening fosters respect, lending support to the decisions you make.
  • Establish yourself as an expert in product management: People are more willing to welcome your decisions once they accept your authority as product manager. Being the subject-matter expert is about backing up your choices with more than opinions. Know your roadmap inside and out. Validate your decision to say “no” with the relevant data. Demonstrate your insider knowledge of the competitive landscape and user feedback. You might say something like: “That USB feature you’re suggesting isn’t bad, but almost 95% of our users connect via Bluetooth.” Why? Clear, logical reasoning always helps soften the blow of being told “no.”
  • Look for opportunities to say “no” without saying “no”: Sometimes, a request is valid but just doesn’t fit within the current project timeline. Maybe the resources necessary to make a new feature viable simply aren’t available at the moment. If an idea shows promise, it may warrant further reconsideration by the team later on. However, the decision to bypass the suggestion (if only for the moment) still needs to be expressed. Clarify your stance by saying something like, “I like what you’re bringing to the table. Let’s plan to revisit your idea after our current dev cycle slows down.” That way, your audience feels appreciated and encouraged to keep the ideas flowing.

Learning when and how to say “no” as a product manager takes practice and dedication. But it does get easier and will enable you to build stronger team relationships.

Make your roadmap readily accessible

Not everyone knows or understands the methodology being employed by their product manager. If your team could see the reasoning behind the way you (and your company) prioritize decisions and which project phases, milestones, and dependencies comprise your roadmap, they might become more selective about the requests they bring forward.

This is where a virtual whiteboard and visual diagramming tool like Lucidspark comes in handy. Ideal for real-team collaboration across teams, it can be used to easily visualize, plan, and communicate your strategy, helping keep everyone aligned on key decisions.

By feeding customers and stakeholders valuable product information at every level and demonstrating how it ties back to the roadmap, the frequency of unreasonable requests decreases. Lucidspark’s Product roadmap template help simplify your ability for online sharing and makes it easier for you to say “no” as a product manager.

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