A Product Manager’s Guide to Saying no

As a product manager you have to say no to stakeholders, a lot. Find out how to master the art of saying no with empathy, so you can maintain positive relationships and stop all those zombie ideas from haunting you.

On a field trip, you speak to John, a user. John is super-engaged with your product and has lots of ideas about how it could be improved (well, perhaps he’s a little grumpy and thinks your product should do this stuff already). Back at the office Nikola, a developer, is frustrated that some of the business logic is in the wrong part of the code base, making development inefficient. You pass your CEO in the corridor, she’s read an article claiming blockchain will take over the world and wants you to investigate it… immediately.

You open your laptop and view the roadmap. You’re under pressure to deliver improvements that should increase the trial to paid ratio to 50% by the end of the quarter, your forecast shows you might, just, make the deadline. Any new ideas would jeopardise the current plan. So you say those four magic product-manager words that will get everyone off your case… “It’s on the backlog.”

Months pass. You’d forgotten about John’s ideas until you get a call from your customer account manager. John is asking why his ideas haven’t been delivered yet. He’s angry. Your customer account manager is angry that John is angry. You get off the phone and Nikola walks past. She’s frustrated. She’s still dealing with the technical debt she spoke to you about and is losing motivation. Your CEO wants a progress update on the blockchain initiative.

You might try those same words again. But this time your stakeholders have heard it once before, and seen no results, so are less likely to believe you when you say it again. You lose credibility and your stakeholders are dissatisfied.

What happened? You created an expectation mismatch. When your stakeholder hears “it’s on the backlog”, their expectation is “great, my idea will be in the product in the next couple of months”. What you really meant was the idea is not aligned to the product strategy, would deliver limited value, and is heading directly to the bottom of the backlog to die a slow death.

There comes a time in every product manager’s career when we learn we need to say no – a lot. To maintain positive relationships, we need to get good at it. When I first started to say no, I was terrible at it. The conversation would go something like this:

Person with an idea: I’ve got this great idea, we should do X.

Me: Yes, that is a good idea, but we’re working on Y right now. Then we’ve got Z lined up so we probably won’t be able to do X for a long time.

Person with an idea: But I need X because of all these reasons.

Me: We can have a look at X but we’ll have to see whether we can fit it in or not

<Time passes during which idea is validated and (de-)prioritised>

Me: We’ve checked and we can’t fit X in.

This conversation would often go round in circles. It left both parties feeling frustrated. I thought I was doing the right thing by setting expectations upfront.

I started to hear feedback that other teams in our business didn’t trust the product team to fairly represent their idea during prioritisation. I realised I was saying no before truly listening. Something needed to change.

When someone tells you their idea, treat it like you are receiving a precious gift. They have spent a long time crafting an ideal solution. In your contributor’s world, this idea solves one of their biggest pains. When saying no to an idea, it’s important to first spend time admiring the wrapping, reading the gift tag and carefully removing the paper. Try to look pleased at receiving the contents, even though the gift list was ignored.

I’ve found this framework enables you to say no with empathy, and in some cases, even facilitates the person suggesting the idea to say no themselves.

A Framework for Saying No

1. Listen Actively

Ask the requestor to explain the idea in their own words, even if you’re already familiar with it. Some useful phrases include “help me to understand…”, “could you walk me through…”, “remind me…”.

Your aim is to ensure the person knows they have been heard and understood. Use active listening skills during the time they are talking:

  • Reserve judgement, there will be a reason why this idea is meaningful in the other person’s world
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Use affirmative body language to show you are paying attention
  • Pay attention, don’t think of your next response while the other person is talking
  • Paraphrase by repeating what is being said, to show you have listened

2. Find the Value

Ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand the value the change would deliver. Find out who will be affected by the change and the problem it solves.  Wherever possible, quantify the value (for example, “it could reduce app crashes by 50%”). Sometimes you may need to take the idea away to gather additional data. Having measurable data will become important during the later stages of this process.

3. Summarise

Summarising is a powerful tool to demonstrate that you’ve understood what the other person has said.  It’s particularly important if there has been a break since the last conversation with your stakeholder. Summarising means you highlight the key points of what has been said in your own words, without changing the meaning. Focus on the facts and keep any opinion out of your summary. For example: “So it sounds like this change could save 25% of our customers two days of effort per month, and increase the satisfaction of our primary contact – is that correct?” Ask the idea contributor to confirm whether your portrayal of the data tallies with their understanding. By doing this, you ask them to agree that you have accurately represented the benefits their idea could deliver. Check whether you have missed anything.

4. Explain the Cost

Explain the impact of making the change. It is unlikely the idea contributor will have full sight of the cost and it’s important they understand the “why not” of their idea. The cost might include:

  • The effort to develop this idea gives a poor return on investment
  • What you would have to give up to work on this idea instead
  • A divergence from the product strategy or roadmap
  • A compromise to the overall user experience
  • Accrual of technical debt

5. Say no

Now that you’ve laid the groundwork, saying no becomes a lot easier. Your stakeholder may already be coming to this conclusion themselves. At this point, it’s worth explaining any viable workarounds. Reiterate that you appreciate their idea and would like to hear any more they have in the future.
When you say no, avoid saying “I”. It’s important that this is not your opinion but based on research and data findings. Use phrases such as:
“The data shows us…”
“When we look at our product strategy, our key focus is…”
“Idea A would deliver a bigger benefit of…”.
As a bonus, it helps to be transparent about how prioritisation decisions are made in your organisation.

Stop the Zombie Ideas

To prevent long-forgotten ideas coming back to haunt you while maintaining your credibility, it’s important to say no within a reasonable timeframe.  Saying no empathetically enables you to maintain a positive relationship with everyone involved.  Nearly all ideas have some merit, but we can’t and shouldn’t develop every one, which means you will inevitably find yourself saying no to a good idea.

Always say no at the end of the conversation, never at the start.  This ensures you have demonstrated to your stakeholder that you have fully listened to their idea, accurately considered the impact it would have and a fair decision has been made.

In the words of Steve Jobs: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on.  But that’s not what it means at all.  It means saying no to the 100 other good ideas that there are.  You have to pick carefully.  I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done.”

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Oh the Drama! What Product Managers can Learn From Actors

Sailesh Panchal, CTO at digital payments firm Orwell Group, is an unusual soul. He’s earned the gravitas he emanates from decades in software architecture and technology leadership.  However, what makes him stand out is a background in dance and acting, an Equity Card [the hard-won actor’s union card], and appearances in film and TV.

This seemingly contradictory background in acting has, he tells me, helped his business leadership in many ways.

And I can see how. When I left Guildhall School of Music and Drama, I was convinced that the skills I’d acquired there, and while performing in rep, could stretch beyond the boards. Today I run Switchvision, where we focus on theatre-based training in people skills for business.

We’ve had established companies such as Procter and Gamble, as well as start-ups, charities and academic institutions such as Kent University and Cass Business School, all enjoy the benefits of using acting in business training. They’ve used the theatre-based training to boost their presentation skills, influence and creativity.

Business is as unpredictable as life itself. Acting techniques give you a solid preparation for what’s to be thrown at you.

7 Areas Where Acting Techniques can Help

There are seven key areas where I see that product managers can benefit from acting techniques. None of the tips below involve face paint or dressing up, but feel free to add these at will.

1.Thinking on Your Feet

I perform at the Free Association Improv, where we’re trained to take a word from the audience and build a scene from it.  For example, someone from the audience shouts “chocolate”. An actor will spontaneously start the scene with, perhaps, unjamming a pipe in a chocolate factory. No one – actors included – knows that this was how the scene would open before the first move is made. From this sense of unknowing, a connected scene will emerge where everyone has a part to play and a story unfolds.

This applies to communication as much as innovation.The spontaneity necessary to create a scene is a quality that can become stronger with practice. Whether you’re called upon at the last minute to give a speech or respond to a conversation in a meeting, you’ll be less likely to be knocked back by the unexpected if you’re practised in thinking on your feet.

A simple exercise to develop this thinking on your feet is “gift giving”, whereby a participants exchange imaginary gifts. One person hands the other a mimed object. The recipient responds with “Oh, it’s a _______ (invent a likely object)”, and then reciprocates with another imaginary object.  I’ve given exercises like this to the shipping team at Shell, as part of training on managing difficult conversations. The exercises themselves build trust, so difficult conversations become less likely to happen anyway.

2. High-Performance Teams

Sailesh states that business, like theatre, “is a team activity of creative individuals under direction, focused on a common goal”. In theatre and film, the schedules are usually tight, the roles are defined and the goal is explicit and known to all. Product managers often are in teams are made up of individuals reporting into someone else. Like a theatre director, product managers need to ensure that everyone, from designers to marketers, is committed to the vision early. The team needs to know their parameters and have the required resources.

I’ve previously used filmmaking groups to drive home the factors that contribute to high performing teams. The exercise of completing defined roles such as scripting, acting and directing of a short scene relates to the balance that is struck in effective teams: that of collaboration and autonomy as a group works together towards a shared vision. Using this parallel world highlights what’s done back in the workplace and brings best practices into play.

3. Creative Thinking and Innovation

Improvisation techniques are fundamental to building on ideas and creating a plan. In business, the analysis and sorting of ideas often comes too early. This suppresses innovation. In a recent workshop on collaboration and creativity with the product team at TES, we used a simple improv warm-up called “Yes, anding” to introduce the theme of accepting ideas and building on them. The game, played in pairs, starts with one partner suggesting “Let’s go for a picnic”. Their partner responds with “Yes, and (let’s bring umbrellas).” Then the first person continues with “Yes and (fills with a suggestion)”.  We then move to the next level, where we substitute the “Yes, and…” for a “Yes, but…”  The group discovered that the ‘Yes, and’ kept the ideas flowing whereas “Yes, but…” stalled the flow and impeded creative thinking. This was an introduction to the level of acceptance needed to create great ideas. The “Yes, but” is called a “block” in improv.

A partial block in business can help steer ideas.  You start with “Yes, anding” then you could steer with phrases such as “How about..?”  or “What if we…?”  If people feel blocked they could stop contributing, but with a partial block, you can shape an idea without knocking it down.

4. Active Listening

In script work, actors are finely attuned to subtext. Much of this is given clarity through non-verbal language and behaviour. Listening sharply is key when improvising as other actors often give you clues about your relationship with them and the larger context, all of which propel the scene forward.

So, active listening combines reading subtext and body language as well as listening closely to the words themselves. It’s an important skill in handling objections and developing influence.  For example, my recent work with e-payment business PPRO involved recognising verbal and non-verbal cues in influencing styles so that the team is able to react according to what they’ve heard. Observation is actually a core part of acting training – I’ve even taken clients to pubs to observe body language.

I do weekly online training in body language to start-ups on how to recognise and respond to the unsaid.  In one script I use, the manager opens a scene with: “Sallyanne, can I have a word with you, please.”  The manager may point at Sallyanne while saying her name, or, for a different effect, bite their lip after the word “please”.  In workshops, we’ve either used actors or got some students to act, while the remainder sit as an audience and provide subtext. The audience can sometimes pause the scenes, discussing and then enacting strategies that help to steer the conversations. The participants gain through the practical and instant application of listening technique that stay them throughout their career.

5. Pausing

Unlike some cultures, for example, Finns and Japanese, English speakers like to fill up pauses.  The fact the lack of pauses in our communication makes their use all the more powerful. Actors are only too aware of how what they do in that gap can contain or leak thoughts and raise or shrink status. During training sessions, participants often record themselves reading a short text with marked pauses. They consistently remark how the pause seemed lengthy when they were reading, but not when they heard the playback.  Trusting that the silence is not an endless abyss means it’s more likely to be used.

There are several situations when pausing holds considerable influence:  presenting; pitching; giving feedback and negotiations. I’ve seen it used very effectively in negotiations, whereby one party proposes a fee that is greeted by silence. In the uncomfortable swell of nothingness then ensues, the proposing party then self-corrects by adding in modifications.

Using pause when presenting holds with it a certain confidence and power. You present a calm exterior that allows you to breathe, think and punctuate key phrases with silence. It also allows the audience to take in what you’ve said.

6. Storytelling

Recently I’ve been involved in storytelling slams. Here you take the stage with a five-minute true story along a theme publicised on the web before the night. Each time I’ve gone to a slam, it’s been brilliant practice in telling a story. The skill is in finding the right story to support the point, and then tell it engagingly, using expressive vocal and body language, whilst being authentic. Exactly what you need for a slam but also influencing and pitching.

Often, it takes someone else to find your story as we often miss the relevance of our own experience. Stories are the examples you bring in interviews. You pull them from up your sleeve when receiving feedback. In pitches, stories are key to your credibility. Having a strong narrative in your presentations means that you’re not depending on Venn diagrams and flow charts.

7. Identity

By experimenting with different identities, you’ll be more prepared to cope with a wider range of people and situations. For example, one of my clients, a CEO from a charity, won two pitches straight after presentation training with me: one for £1m and the next for £12m – that’s “my self promoting peacock” talking now.

Here’s the interesting thing: What made the difference for her was that she’d drawn on a character we’d discovered in our training session. She was able, with me as guide, to discover a resource that was already there and use it for this purpose.  We had “tried on” several characters from my selection, such as the game-show host, for added dynamism, or the military leader, for increased gravitas. The selection came after filming the best persona and playing back.

We have many diverse characters within us but usually it’s the couple with the most persistent voices that we hear most of the time. You know, the one that loves to criticise, for example, or the joker. The trick is locating the right character for the right job and giving them the airtime they deserve.

It’s a Wrap

So, whether it’s verbal or non-verbal language or even something as seemingly intangible as the degree of authority you have, acting techniques are integral to embedding these outcomes.  Packed into a relevant business context that’s instantly applicable to your role, you’ll ramp up your impact.

The post Oh the Drama! What Product Managers can Learn From Actors appeared first on Mind the Product.