Reflecting back on a few years as a product manager, I realized that the essence of the job is not about deciding what to build -- it’s about deciding what not to build.  Saying no to requests and ideas that are valuable, exciting, and have good ROI is critical to actually delivering things that are more valuable, more exciting, and have better ROI.  

The challenge is that saying ‘no’ all the time is hard to do, especially if you’re someone who wants to be helpful.  I realized that many of my mistakes were times when I failed to say ‘no’ effectively.

So during the Open Space part of the RallyOn customer conference, I convened a session I called ‘should nice people be product managers?’.  About 10 people showed up, and we had a lively conversation.  Here are some of the things we decided:

Being a product manager is a tough job.

According to Steve Denning, product management is one of the ten worst jobs for personal happiness.  In order to be effective, you’re constantly making difficult tradeoffs and wrestling with zero-sum challenges.  You’re also an information conduit, which means you spend a lot of time in meetings.  If you thrive on helping others, it might not be the right role for you.  One person was told by her company that the Product Owner role needed to be filled by someone ‘less nice’ and was moved into a ScrumMaster role, which turned out to be more rewarding but less prestigious at that company.

Being nice doesn’t preclude saying no.

It is possible to say ‘no’ respectfully.  Listening carefully to requests is important, even if you already know what you’re going to say.  Being clear about your plans is important because it provides the context for your decision.  Saying ‘That’s an interesting idea.  Here are the things that we’re planning to do first’ can be much better than, ‘That’s not on our roadmap’ or ‘yeah, that’s on the backlog.’

Misinterpretations of ‘no’.

Users often have significant needs that you can’t address.  At Rally, we have thousands of ideas for enhancements from our customers, and we can only address a small number each year.  But if you listen and say ‘no’, there are often two possible interpretations:

  1. You weren’t listening carefully, or you just didn’t get how important or painful the request is, or
  2. You’re a jerk who lacks empathy.

Again, taking the time to show how the request fits in the context of your other options is often helpful, but sometimes your user or stakeholder will think, “If I were the product manager, I’d put this at the top of the list.”  There is a point at which some trust is required; the company is trusting the product manager to prioritize investments for a product.

Sometimes, that trust has deeply broken down because the strategic focus is not aligned with the needs of the user or stakeholder you’re talking to.  It’s best to be frank in this case and highlight that your strategic focus is different at the moment.

Sometimes, it takes a round of drinks.

One participant told the story of a particularly painful prioritization decision he made.  He knew that it was the right thing to do, but that it was going to deeply disappoint many stakeholders.  He told us that he spent the next 48 hours going around, having lots of 1-on-1 conversations about it with the people who would be negatively impacted, and buying lots of drinks while he talked through the consequences with them.  The result was ultimately acceptance of the decision.  

As the session ended, I realized I probably could have done more of this smoothing over in the product management role.  It’s tough to do when you’re as busy as most product managers are.  But we can all probably use some practice saying ‘no’ in a more effective, firm, and gentle way.


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I appreciated this article because all too often I encounter people who think being nice means always saying 'yes'. I think being nice means being respectful and having a level of empathy within that respect. That said, I've known people with the charisma and skill to tell someone to go to Hell and have them leave looking forward to the journey. I wish I had that level of that skill. Well sometimes anyway. :-)
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