How Product Managers Can Say No In 4 Easy Steps

Saying “no” is one of the hardest things a product manager must do. And it’s something you, my dear product manager friend, should be saying a lot.

James Clear, the author of the bestselling book “Atomic Habits” recently spoke about the importance of saying “no.”

“When you say no, you are only saying no to one option. When you say yes, you are saying no to every other option.

No is a choice. Yes is a responsibility.”

Let that really sink in.

How many times have you been given a product idea or feature request and then responded with “We’ll put it on the backlog and consider it for an upcoming sprint.”

So many product managers worry about disappointing their stakeholders so they do a little dance around the subject to avoid saying no.

Not only is it critical to be willing and able to say ‘no’, but it’s important to do so quickly and decisively.

When I was working as a product manager for a start-up a few years ago, we had a team dinner one night and someone pointed out that I seem to really enjoy saying no and “killing people’s dreams.” Yes, I was called the dream crusher. I compared myself to Katniss Everdeen, oh so swift with a bow and arrow. You see, I would lock on to certain product ideas that threatened to derail the company and I would shoot those things down.

Why should you be ruthless about saying no? Because when those requests and ideas sit on a list somewhere without taking any action whatsoever, bad things happen. You lose trust with your stakeholders because they don’t see you as someone who takes their feedback seriously. You lose trust with your team because they see you tossing more ideas without vetting them onto the backlog where they most likely shrivel up and die. You lose trust with your boss because she will often end up being asked by your stakeholders why you haven’t done anything with their idea.

Here is my 4-step process for graciously saying no to feature requests:

  1. Create a dialog – when you are presented with an idea or feature request, spend a few minutes talking (and more importantly, listening) to the person to understand their idea. Try not to make assumptions, pay attention, and repeat what they’ve said to show that you are listening.
  2. Look for the value – ask questions to determine the potential value of their request. Try to quantify the value with real data. If necessary, suggest you or they do some additional homework to get the data.
  3. Describe the cost – help them understand the cost likely to be associated with their idea. Most often, the effort needed to implement those ideas is enough to help them understand the idea isn’t viable. Perhaps the idea would negatively impact the usability of your product. Sometimes you’ll need to help them understand the things your team would have to stop doing to focus on this idea. Whatever the expense that would be associated with their idea, help them understand the rationale behind it.
  4. Just say no – this is the hard part, but if you’ve done steps 1-3 properly, the person making the request will likely realize the futility of their idea on their own. But if they continue to press the idea, use data to back up your decision. I’ve found it can be also very useful to help stakeholders (and anyone who’s in a position to make feature requests) how prioritization decisions are made. If you haven’t already done so, document the framework you use to make product decisions.

Steve Jobs once said “I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”

What have you said ‘no’ to recently?

4 Ways To Become A Better Product Manager During A Crisis

These are trying times. I’ve been a product manager for 25 years and I’ve survived several economic crises. I’ll be honest. I’m nervous about what the COVID-19 pandemic is going to do to the global economy. But I’m also a strong believer that looking for the silver lining in times like this can make a big difference in our well-being.

The way I look at it is you have two choices: you can live in fear that your company might be forced to lay people off (if that hasn’t already happened) OR you can make the decision to take action and use the time you now have to move forward and advance your career.

Here are four things you can do now to take charge of your situation to grow your career as a product manager.

Build your network

So many of us are uncomfortable with networking. I have good news for you. There’s a way to connect with tens of thousands of product managers without leaving your house! That’s right. If you have a Slack or Facebook account, you can connect with more than 50,000 other product people.

Whether you’re looking for a job or you’re a seasoned professional wanting to connect with like-minded individuals to exchange ideas or get advice, all of these product management communities have something to offer. If you’d like to learn more about roles at a specific company, for example, you can almost always find someone in one of these PM communities who’s willing to help.

Update your resume

Whether you have a job or not, this is the perfect time to dust off your resume and give it a makeover. In fact, if you’ve been in the same role for a while, you may find it challenging to go back and update your resume to reflect your accomplishments over the past few years. Just like product management has become more data-focused, so have hiring practices. Did you know that most companies are now using software (Applicant Tracking System, aka ATS) to screen job applications.

According to a popular study conducted by search services provider Preptel, as many as 75% of the candidates don’t make it past the ATS screening! An ATS friendly resume is absolutely critical to a successful job hunt.

Here are some of my resources for creating the perfect PM resume.

Improve your time management skills

I see a lot of product managers wondering how to manage their backlogs or not spending time with their stakeholders because they’re not sure how to deal with all of those sometimes conflicting opinions. So they just don’t do it. They find a million little tactical issues to contend with rather than just getting the hard things done.

You are a product manager. Just like you manage a product, you have to manage your time.

The technique I’ve found to be most effective for managing one’s time is time-blocking. Check out my recent blog post to learn more (p.s. Elon Musk supposedly uses time blocking to run two companies!).

Read every day

I’ve made it a goal to read for at least 30 minutes every day. There are some great books on product management out there. I’m currently reading Start with Why, The Jetsetters (for something light and easy) and The Body: A Guide for Occupants.

Another book that I’ve read which I highly recommend for anyone who needs some inspiration to find the silver linings while we get through the next several weeks is Man’s Search for Meaning. Based on his experience in Nazi labor camps, Based on his own experience and the experiences of others he treated later in his practice, the author Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purposeI. If there’s just one book you read in the next month, I encourage you to order this. I read this years ago and have been thinking about it a lot recently.

I’ve also pulled together a collection of my favorite books, podcasts and blogs I recommend everyone consume, whether you’re trying to break into product management, are starting a new PM job or are a seasoned product expert.

These are just a few simple things you can do now to keep moving forward. The choice is years. How will you use the time you have now? Will you use it to become a better product manager? I certainly hope so!

How to be a more strategic product manager

Many product managers feel stuck at a time when they most need to take action. “I just don’t have the time” they proclaim, rather than scheduling customer interviews that will help them decide which features to build. Or they can’t decide which features or bugs their team should work on. “I don’t have time to dig into the data and make these decisions because I’m in so many meetings.”

Does this sound like you? If so, you’re not alone.

Seth Godin, the best-selling author of Purple Cow, Tribes, and This is Marketing, wrote about the fallacy of writers’ block, saying “Plumbers don’t get plumbers block.” Why is that? It’s because a plumber knows they’re hired to do the job so they don’t sit around looking at a clogged sink waiting for inspiration to strike.

I think this analogy can apply to product managers, too. I see a lot of product managers wondering how to manage their backlogs or not spending time with their stakeholders because they’re not sure how to deal with all of those sometimes conflicting opinions. So they just don’t do it. They find a million little tactical issues to contend with rather than just getting the hard things done.

You have to take control of your time. You are a product manager. Manage your product and stop wasting your time on things that don’t move the needle.

Ready for the silver bullet? Sorry, there isn’t one. We all are given 24 hours in a day and often find ourselves at 6 p.m. wondering where the day went and why we didn’t get more done. The trick is managing your time.

“A 40 hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.”

Cal Newport, Author of Deep Work

The technique I’ve found to be most effective is time-blocking. I love time-blocking because it promotes focused deep work. Time-blocking is how Elon Musk runs two innovative companies simultaneously. If he can do that, surely you can add this to your toolkit and become a better product manager, right?!?

Image from Conversion Minded

Here’s how to get started blocking out your time most effectively.

  1. Fire up your favorite Spotify playlist, grab a cup of coffee and get ready to take control of your days!
  2. Review your OKRs for the month, quarter and/or year. If you’re not using OKRs (oh, the horror!), hopefully, you have goals that you are aspiring to reach. You always want to start by thinking about the most important, strategic areas that you as a product manager should be focusing on.
    Insert example OKRs for a product manager here.
  3. Using these OKRs as your navigational system guiding you to where you need to be in order to be most successful, break things down into smaller activities. For example, if your goal is to become more strategic in how you make product decisions, you could set aside 2 hours every Tuesday afternoon for the next month to research different prioritization frameworks, to experiment with a couple of different frameworks and to select one that you can use moving forward to help you prioritize your backlog.
  4. Open your calendar app and plot these activities on your calendar. There’s no need to be granular. Try a one-hour block for checking email in the morning and late afternoon. Add a 2-hour block for anything writing-related. Add 4-hours for customer insights. Get the picture?
  5. Pro tip: Use a different color for each type of activity. This helps you see the bigger picture of how you’re spending your time. Doing so will help you find your blind spots.

Here’s a list of common product manager activities you can batch:

  • Checking email
  • Meetings with stakeholders
  • Writing user stories
  • Talking to customers
  • Creating product briefs
  • Updating the roadmap

At this point, you may be skeptical. All product managers are used to being reactive and dealing with fire-frills on an almost daily, if not hourly, basis. If you are the only product manager at a start-up, you may be expected to handle incoming customer support issues and write tickets for your team on a near real-time basis. This is when time management is really critical!

Let me tell you what happened to me a few years ago. I found myself stuck and unable to make progress hiring. The company I worked for was a start-up that had finally hit the growth-stage and the number of employees needed to double within a year. I needed to hire new product managers in an effort to scale the product organization so that we could harness this growth opportunity. The only problem was that I wasn’t taking the time to review resumes that were sent to me by the recruiter. Nor was I finding time to do phone screens. Weeks went by without a single interview. I realized I had to take action and take control of my time so that I was spending it on the things that matter the most. I started time-blocking. By using a different color specifically for recruiting new hires, I could look at my week confident that I was going to spend at least 4 hours working towards my goal of hiring a new PM within the next 60 days.

According to Cal Newport, there is still a great advantage to blocking out your time.

“Periods of open-ended reactivity can be blocked off like any other type of obligation. Even if you’re blocking most of your day for reactive work, for example, the fact that you’re controlling your schedule will allow you to dedicate some small blocks (perhaps at the schedule periphery) to deeper pursuits.”

In other words, even the smallest amount of control you can get over your schedule will help you become a better product manager.

I challenge you to try time-blocking as a tactic to becoming more strategic. After 2 weeks of managing your time more effectively, I bet you’ll feel more productive and confident that you’re helping your company build better products, which is what it’s all about.

If you’d like even more help with being more strategic as a product manager, sign up for my PM Power Hour. This one-hour call with me will provide you with the clarity you need to move forward. I’ll give you no-nonsense advice that you can put into action immediately. Click here to sign up!