I was talking with a group of product owners the other day and mentioned that one of the hallmarks of good product people is the ability to say “no” often, without getting fired.
I couldn’t get away with making a statement like that without explaining how you could actually do that.
Here’s what I told them.
Why Saying No Is Important
To start off, it’s important to explain why saying “no” is a good thing.
As a product owner, one of the main things you do is keep the team focused on delivering maximum outcome with minimum output. Said another way – you help the team make sure they’re delivering the right thing.
One of your best tools for doing that is a simple two letter word – “No”.
As in “No, we don’t need the spinning, flashing fluorescent colored logo. It’s not going to help the claims adjusters process claims faster (in fact it may give them migraines and slow them down).”
As in “No, we don’t need to account for that one edge case that happens .005% of the time as long as we have a perfectly acceptable manual work around.”
As in “No, we don’t need to provide the ability to sort, order, and filter that data set out of the gate. Let’s provide a simple view of the data and see how people use it first.”
You need to be able to say no to new features, different user types, gold plating, and things that “would be nice” or “would be really cool” if they don’t result in a clear impact on the outcome you’re trying to deliver.
You need to keep the team focused. You need to protect them from distractions, and often that comes from things that show up on the backlog that really don’t need to be there yet, or at all.
Establish Expectations That You’ll Say No
If you want to be effective as a product person, you will have to say no, often to someone of power or influence in your organization.
This article focuses on an internally focused situation where you will need to say no to your boss, or to a sponsor who has the influence to get you fired if they are displeased. The ideas apply equally well if you’re working in a product organization and you have to say no to the CEO, or head of product.
In order to be in a position to say no when the stakes are high, you need to have a conversation when emotions are cool. This is a good conversation to have when you’re establishing a relationship with the sponsor.
Let the sponsor know that your overriding goal is to deliver the outcome that they seek. That requires you to have a clear idea of what the outcome is and have a shared understanding of the outcome along with your sponsor.
If you don’t have that, now is a good time to brush off the problem statement exercise to come to that shared understanding.
Once you have that shared understanding, explain that in order to keep a ruthless focus on that outcome, you will run everything that shows up on your team’s backlog through the “will this help us achieve outcome X” decision filter.
If the backlog item passes this filter you explore it further.
If it doesn’t pass the filter, it’s off the backlog.
This even applies to items that the sponsor suggests should be on the backlog. So when you run across an item that your sponsor has a vested interest in and it doesn’t pass the filter. You should say no, and you should explain why you said no.
Perhaps “because it doesn’t help us achieve our outcome” is sufficient. Perhaps a little more explanation is necessary.
If your sponsor indicates that they think it does help you reach your outcome, ask them to explain how. There may be something you’re missing. Or, talking it through will help your sponsor realize that it really didn’t help your outcome.
The key here is to set the expectation that you are going to say no, and that you’ll explain your reasoning. That way, when you do have to say no, it’s not a surprise and it doesn’t come off as you being difficult.
What if “No is not an acceptable answer”
You may run across the occasional sponsor who is so convinced they are right and are so sure of their own position of power, that they will not allow you to say no to them.
When you find yourself in that situation, and conversations like I suggested above have no effect, then it’s time to change the players. Either the sponsor is not the right person to achieve the outcome, or you extract yourself from that situation because you can’t be effective.
This is where getting help from your leader is a good course of action. Of course if it’s your leader that is the one being obstinate, then you may be in a situation where if you can’t change your organization, change your organization.
What happens if you get fired?
If you set up the proper expectations, kept the outcome at the forefront, and got fired for doing the right thing, I’d look on it as a good thing.
The organization was sending a message that they didn’t want certain people to be effective at making decisions and driving outcomes, so it’s probably not an organization you’d want to be at long term.
I’d also suggest that you won’t have to worry about finding another job.
If you got fired for making decisions based on driving the right outcome and you had the courage to say no to items that didn’t get you there, you’ve exhibited a key skill for product owners.
Organizations that understand the value in strong decision making will be more than happy to give you a spot, and chances are you’ll be happier as well.
What is your experience?
What experiences do you have saying no? Do you have some techniques that you have found helpful to keep your team focused and keep your job?
Leave your thoughts in the comments below.