Colby.so Writing on bootstrapping, product, and web development

Product managers: your job is not to say no

One of the most damaging pieces of advice you can receive as a new product manager is that your job is to say no. This advice, well-meaning and oft-repeated, isn’t wrong but when taken at face value it is incredibly damaging.

Your job as a product manager is not saying no; your job is saying yes to the right things.

This might seem like a silly distinction — in either case, you’re saying no a lot, right? — but your mindset makes all the difference.

How you perceive the idea

When you define your core function as saying no, you approach every new idea closed off, ready to fire off a no, especially if what you are hearing doesn’t align with the plans you already have. When your job is to say no, you look for reasons to throw an idea onto the no pile so you can check the box — “Great job, you did your job and protected the product!” — without giving each new piece of information the right level of consideration. Each time you say no, you should be able to articulate why you’re saying no — to yourself and to anyone around you.

If you can’t articulate why it’s a no, you are not ready to say no.

Forcing yourself to articulate why you’re saying no will help you build better products. You never know where the next great idea will come from. If you are tuning in to a variety of directional inputs you are going encounter new ideas constantly but these new ideas are useless if your mental model doesn’t allow you to approach each idea with an open mind.

This shift in perspective — from starting at no to starting at why not — will have a profound impact on how you perceive new ideas. Each new idea becomes an opportunity to learn and expand your understanding of your product’s place in the market instead of another distraction from your goals.

How others perceive you

“I know you’re going to say no to this but I have to ask you anyway.” A CSM started a conversation with me by telling me what I was going to say before I said it. That sentence opened my eyes to how my approach to internal conversations was making others feel. Focusing on saying no — protecting the roadmap instead of hearing and considering each new idea — caused others to feel unheard. Despite wanting to give everyone an opportunity to make their voice heard, my approach to conversations with my internal team made them feel left out.

When people come to you, the product manager, they’re bringing problems and ideas that matter to them and they want to know that they matter to you too. Leading with no means that you won’t engage deeply with the idea in front of you, and others will pick up on that energy. They’ll get tired of hearing no — even if you let them talk before you say no — and eventually they’ll be too discouraged to bring new ideas to you since they expect you to shut their idea down.

If you start each conversation by looking for the right things to say yes to, you create an environment where others feel heard. They’ll feel you engaging with the idea, digging in deeper, asking why, and encouraging them to think through the idea themselves.

This shift makes a big difference in the tone of a conversation. More questions get asked as you take the time to learn more about the problem they need to solve. You interrogate your current assumptions and share those assumptions with the person you’re talking to. They learn from you as you talk to them about how the idea they have might fit into the overall product strategy, and you learn from them as they bring you new information. If the conversation ends in a no, the right mindset can soften the blow that comes with hearing no.

This might sound a lot like being a good listener which, yes — true. But product managers with great listening skills don’t always deploy those skills equally. Some PMs will use their strong listening skills when talking with someone who has a high level of influence in the organization or on the roadmap. When those same PMs are talking with someone with little or no influence, their great listening skills disappear, replaced by a race to say no and move on.

Good ideas can come from anywhere, not just from the top. If you approach each product conversation as a chance to learn, grow, and maybe uncover a great new idea, you’ll build stronger relationships and a better product.

Thoughtfully saying no

So you’re saying I’m supposed to say yes to more things? No (ha). You are still going to say no a lot. I’m not arguing that saying no is bad, instead, I’m encouraging you to think about the impact your mindset has on you, your users, your peers, and your product.

Remember that your job is to say yes to the right things. You are tasked with deploying your limited resources to delivering the most value to your customers. Each time you encounter a new idea, look at that as an opportunity to learn and approach the conversation with a goal of discovering if the idea is the right thing for your product. If it isn’t, thoughtfully say no by keeping these key points in mind:

  • Be clear — if the answer isn’t yes, the answer is no. Not “not right now” or “maybe later”. Just say no.
  • Explain your reasoning — why isn’t this the right thing to work on right now? What are we saying yes to and why? Give context so everyone understands why the answer is no.
  • Acknowledge the impact — the idea got to you because someone cared about it. Hearing no is disappointing at best and in the worst cases, it can cost you business. Have empathy for the people who have to hear (and deliver) the no.

Thanks for reading!