Product Management | Saying No
December 6, 2018 DevOps

Product Management and the Magic of ‘No’

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Overview: When you’re an Agile product manager, you get a lot of feedback. That means saying no to a lot of requests. But here’s why it’s a valuable practice that benefits everyone.

 

Nobody likes to say no; nobody likes to hear no. Yet in the world of product management, it is the most important arrow in the quiver.

I get about three customer requests a week. Some weeks they come from around the globe and other weeks from one specific organization, sometimes one specific user. Some weeks they concern our forty-year-old products and other weeks they focus on our newer Topaz offerings. Without exception they are well-thought-out, sincere and come with a compelling argument.

We’re talking product enhancement requests. And it’s my job to say no to most of them.

You might think I go home every day feeling defeated, but it’s the exact opposite. Every enhancement request is an opportunity to speak to a customer, better understand their situation and better explain our strategy.

There are three reminders that assist me in this process.

1. A Slip of a Yes Can Sink an Initiative

The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss itbut that it is too low and we reach it.”

     – Attributed to Michelangelo

In the world of product management, one modest yes can actually turn into two massive no’s. Saying yes to a product enhancement request, even one that may appear from the onset to be trivial, might affect your project timeline in such a way that not only will you not deliver this enhancement in a timely enough fashion (pro tip: people are busy and if you don’t deliver, they’ll figure out an alternative approach) but it might very well affect the delivery of your roadmap items.

So you might get the endorphin kick of saying yes to an enhancement request, but it comes with the hangover of two undelivered promises.

That’s why every enhancement request is a great opportunity to talk with customers, end users of your product, and explain your overall strategy and where the product is headed. And if that discussion doesn’t dissuade them on the importance of their enhancement? That might be an indicator that your roadmap pitch needs some work or, worse yet, your roadmap needs some rethinking!

2. Validate Constantly

It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

     – Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist

So how can you be confident that your roadmap initiatives are the right ones? Constant feedback from everyone willing to share their opinion.

First and foremost, from customers—but also solicit from your programmers, programmers from other groups, support and operations people, potential customers, the mail clerk. Everyone can present you with a learning opportunity and a chance to validate the hypothesis that led to the initiative.

And at each feedback loop, ask yourself if you totally understood the problem to be solved. If so, does your solution meet the criteria with as much simplicity/complexity as necessary but no less or no more? As intuitively as possible without overlooking obvious requirements?

When pressed for time due to too much work in progress, it’s often easy to skip this or to make it a perfunctory step at the beginning of an initiative. Eventually that can lead to a feature factory—where your roadmap is a list of new features rather than a concerted effort to provide a better way. So you want enough time to continually elicit feedback and revisit your initiative.

3. Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

“The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization’s ability to learn faster than the competition.”

– Peter Senge, American systems scientist

Once you know the advantages of this “eye of the needle” approach to accepting enhancement requests, how best to determine when to move forward?

At Compuware we have a mantra that shows up in our corporate town halls, in our sprint refinements, in our sprint reviews and even in hallway conversations: “Keep the main thing the main thing.”

And what is the main thing? It is our customers. And while we love our future customers, and we’re in rapture when we reclaim a return customer, this refers to our existing customers. They’ve signed up for this journey with us, and loyalty is a two-way street.

We’re constantly working on their behalf, reaching out to them when we’re not sure and moving forward only if we get their buy in. And we try to think in terms of what’s best for our customers as a whole instead of what’s best for a given customer. If you keep that in mind, it simplifies the enhancement request decision process.

Remain obsessed around your customers, confident in your direction and ruthless in reducing noise that gets in the way!

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Jim Liebert

Jim Liebert is a product manager at Compuware. He lives in Seattle, just up the block from a coffee shop.
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