… and still stay on good terms with your stakeholders
Imagine you’re a product manager and a co-worker from Marketing comes to you with a feature request. Let’s call her ‘fictitious Annie’. She asks you, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we built this amazing crypto-blockchain feature into our product?” Well…
Your inner voice goes, “Noooooooo…😩 we don’t have time for this!” Your roadmap is already packed with lots of promising ideas and experiments. You’ve fallen behind on your ambitious OKRs and you’re close to the end of the quarter.
It might be a cool feature, but now is just not the right time to focus on it. You have to say ‘No’ to fictitious Annie. What’s the best way to go about it?
To figure it out, let’s first look at three examples of how not to say ‘No’:
Mistake #1 — Reject
- The action: You could reject Annie with a plain, “No, Annie, that’s a bad idea. It’s never gonna work.” and forget about the relationship. After all, you can’t make everyone happy. Respect my authoritah!
- The impact: When you reject, you damage the working relationship. Next time you need something from Annie, she’ll turn you down. When she has a feature idea, she won’t tell you and go behind your back to get things done.
Mistake #2 — Accommodate
- The action: You could accommodate her and say ‘Yes’ when you really want to say ‘No’. You already said ‘No’ to the last feature idea… oh my god, she’s going to hate you! You don’t dare to push back and instead add yet another work item to your team’s packed backlog.
- The impact: When you accommodate, your team and impact will suffer. Your job as a PM is to not just to find the most valuable features to build. You also need to protect your team and make sure that features get shipped. You can’t afford your team being slowed down by random stakeholder requests all the time because you don’t know how to say ‘No’.
Mistake #3 — Ignore
- The action: You could ignore the request. You avoid the problem and say nothing, hoping the problem will go away. Surely, Annie will forget her idea after a few days. If she asks again, you’ll say, “Oh sorry, must’ve slipped through the cracks”. Let’s hope she never asks 🙏.
- The impact: If you choose to ignore the other person, you also ignore a fundamental human truth: people never forget their ideas. They might not follow up with you because they think it’s pointless anyway, but that doesn’t mean they forgot. Instead, you lose their trust. They’ll see you as someone unreliable who doesn’t follow up on their promises.
Clearly, it’s not effective to reject, accommodate, nor ignore. What should you do instead? How do you say ‘No’ to a stakeholder request and stay on good terms with them?
Introducing the ‘positive No’
You replace the negative ‘No’ with a ‘positive No’. Harvard University’s William Ury introduced the idea in his book “The Power of a Positive No”:
“We derive our No from what we are against — the other’s demand or behavior. A positive No calls on us to do the exact opposite and base our No on what we are for. Instead of starting from No, start from Yes. Root your No in a deeper Yes […] to your core interests and to what truly matters. [..] Saying No is an exercise in persuasion, not just communication.”
Let’s look at what your positive ‘No’ could look like for fictitious Annie’s feature idea:
- Before you say ‘No’, express sincere respect for the other person’s time investment: Thanks for reaching out and sharing your idea with me. I appreciate your interest in making our product even better. 🚀
- Express a strong ‘yes!’ to your interests: In our team, we always try to build the most valuable features for our customers. We are currently building [feature] which is an essential part of our company strategy to [achieve something]. We’ve already seen promising impact on [success metric] and are doubling down to hit our targets for this quarter.
- Say ‘no’ to the request, clearly and matter-of-factly: That’s why we won’t be able to look at your idea for now. We want to make sure we remain focused on our current goals.
- Propose a ‘yes?’ to follow up and reach a mutually satisfactory agreement: I’ll get back to you towards the end of the quarter when we plan our strategy for the following quarter. I’d love to have a quick chat to find out how your idea could improve the lives of our customers. What do you think?
4 tips to make your positive ‘No’ more effective
Now that you know how to change your ‘No’s from negative to positive, here are 4 techniques to make your ‘No’s even more effective.
🚀 Change your perspective from “us vs. them” to “we”. You both work toward the same outcome — company success. Make sure to relate your team’s work to overarching company goals. Don’t focus on the different individual positions. Bring it back to higher-level, shared interests.
🧐 Don’t miss out on good features by saying ‘No’ before you truly understand the idea. Julie Zhuo phrases it neatly: “If someone describes a feature that seems odd to you, asking ‘why do you think that’s a good idea?’ could lead you to understand the concept or notion behind it, which could then lead to promising new executions.” Be curious. Often it’s the crazy-sounding ideas which turn out to be 10X improvements as opposed to 10% incremental gains.
🤗 Know how to compromise. If your team says a feature request will be quick, won’t impact your schedule, and doesn’t have much downside, you should probably go for it. Even if it’s completely unrelated to what you’re currently working on. If you say ‘No’ to everything you will become the ‘No’ person everyone avoids. Spread some stakeholder love!
🎁 Offer a constructive follow-up. We often say what we won’t do and forget to say what we will do. Remember to propose a positive outcome. Suggest to revisit the idea in the following quarter and see if it could impact the new goals then (“later”). Or explain what needs to happen for you to say ‘Yes’ to the request. It might be more data, a more refined pitch, or just more time to investigate the idea (“if… then”).
And that’s it! Armed with a positive ‘No’, you’re ready to protect your team from too many feature requests, and still keep a healthy relationship with your stakeholders.