Stepping Stones: The product blog by Obo

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Tips for Saying No When Something's Gotta Go

Apr 17, 2020 1:33:24 PM

Product managers have to say no—a lot! When there are more must-haves, great ideas, and defect fixes than can possibly be done, something’s gotta go. Follow these 5 tips to make it a lot easier to say no, and maybe even say yes more often.

Product planning discussions can get heated when priorities conflict, so decisions for what’s in and out of upcoming releases can end up being driven by the loudest voice in the room (or on the Zoom) or by the HIPPO—the highest paid person's opinion.

Your job as product manager is to see the big picture and maintain the course of product strategy while recognizing that some must-haves really are must-have-nows. Other must-haves really aren’t.

In a world where you can't squeeze all must-haves into the next release or two, you’re going to have unhappy stakeholders: Some defects that wreak havoc with tech support won’t get fixed. Some new features that the sales team says are critical to close important deals won’t get built. Some important customer requests simply can’t be met. Because you can’t do it all.

So what's the best way to say no to what you won't do? 

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Clarify product priorities

Start with by clarifying your product priorities (aka goals). For example, if your primary strategy is to move into international markets, then features not related to international markets become relatively lower priority. 

Clarifying strategy in terms of clear priorities gives you and everyone else a framework for decision making. Two huge benefits to clarifying priorities are:

  1. When your priorities are clear, your stakeholders understand how you are making decisions, and they can frame their own priorities in terms of supporting your product priorities. They may be able to take some “must haves” off the table even before you have to say no. (Love that!)
  2. When you're clear on your product priorities, you won’t be swayed by the proverbial loudest person in the room or HIPPO. If someone is convinced that their priorities should take precedence, you can lead a rational discussion that focuses on goals and priorities—and potentially find more creative solutions.

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Empathize with stakeholders’ priorities

Empathy builds trust and enables you to better understand what stakeholders need—which is not necessarily exactly what they ask you for. 

One of the best ways to gain that empathy and understanding is to ask questions. If you can, have a discussion with your various stakeholders (or stakeholder constituencies that share or have overlapping needs) that focuses on their needs, not proposed solutions. By discussing needs, you may discover other good solutions that you can deliver.

Get specific

After you’ve had conversations about needs, get more specific about stakeholder priorities. List out the major priorities of each stakeholder or stakeholder constituency, ideally with their input. Keep this list to around 20 or so (too many is too hard to work with), which means you may need to group and reword some of them. Try to group together items of similar size. For example, internationalizing your product is a big project, while adding a widget to a dashboard is much smaller, and it doesn't make much sense to compare the two.

Focus on choices and trade-offs

Get input from stakeholders on this list. It's no longer an open-ended discussion. You're getting everyone focused on the tough choices ahead.

Show each of them (or each constituency) values each priority on this list. Get them to stack-rank rank the list and provide an estimate of value for the top few and bottom few.

Compare results. You and each stakeholder can see which priorities they have in common, which are different, and which conflict. 

Without more meetings, you’ve now engaged stakeholders in the process to build buy-in.

Now you have actionable data to use to make and explain those tough product decisions. Let’s face it, if someone’s critical must-have turns out to be low priority compared to other items, it’s easier for you to say so, and for people to hear you say, “Not doing that one now.”

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Compare apples to apples

When creating a product plan, consider the impact of each item (feature, solution, need) toward achieving product goals.

One way of quantifying impact is to use a value score, explained above, divided by a cost estimate. This will provide rough estimates, so don't sweat the decimals and, instead, use quartiles like:

  1. Big win: high value + low cost
  2. Win: high value + high cost
  3. Maybe not: low value + low cost
  4. Probably not: low value + high cost

Lay out plans with each item’s cost, impact, and value on hand to show why some items are in the next release, some are coming later, and some aren’t planned at all. 

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Say no with data, not drama

When you’ve clarified your product’s strategy and priorities, demonstrated empathy and understanding with your stakeholders, and built buy-in by engaging stakeholders in the processes, you've done a great job of setting the stage and explaining, rationally, why you've made the tough calls.  

Your visual product plan (roadmap) combined with stakeholder priority data is a powerful way to make “no” a lot easier for you to say and for stakeholders to hear. Follow-up discussions can be more focused on bigger priorities as opposed to “what I need right now” individual opinions. Just as important, you've set expectations around a framework focused on priorities.

Finally, share your product plans that contain the data you gathered and used to make trade-offs. When stakeholders can see that their must-haves are just too expensive or conflict with other stakeholder top priorities, discussions and resolutions are easier.

You’ll win fans and may not have to say “no” quite so often!

Jackie Holen
Written by Jackie Holen

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