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  • Writer's pictureAbdi Bedel

The Art Of Saying "No" | The Loveable Product Manager Series

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

Welcome to 'The Loveable Product Manager Series'! Our mission is to help you create products that customers truly love and that generate business value. From customer research to product strategy, design thinking, and project management, we'll provide practical tips, advice, and insights to help 'product people' like you succeed in the world of product management.


 

The Art of Saying 'No' Product Manager

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where a stakeholder requests a feature or change that doesn't align with your product's vision or goals?

As a professional, it's common to feel like you should always say "yes" to every request that comes your way. After all, you want to be seen as a team player, and you don't want to miss out on any opportunities, right? One of the toughest skills to master is the art of saying "no" gracefully and effectively.


In this article, we'll explore some strategies and tips to help you push back against stakeholder requests that don't align with your product's goals and vision, without damaging your relationships or credibility.


We know it's a common challenge to balance stakeholder requests with the needs of the product and its users, but let's learn how to lead our teams by confidently and gracefully saying "no" when necessary.

 

Let's Understand the Challenge

As a professional, you're expected to deliver results that align with stakeholder needs and business objectives. The challenge is balancing the two without overcommitting and underdelivering. The pressure to please everyone can be overwhelming, but learning to say "no" is a critical skill for success.


According to a study by PwC, 30% of projects fail because of poor communication, which can often stem from overcommitting to stakeholder requests.


Imagine you're a software engineer working on a new feature that you know is going to be a game-changer for your company. You've estimated that it will take three months to complete, but your boss comes to you and says that a major client is pushing for the feature to be delivered in just one month.Your boss insists that it's a critical request and that the company's relationship with the client is at stake.


In this scenario, it's important to remember that as a software engineer, you have a responsibility to deliver high-quality work that meets your company's standards. Rushing the development process could result in bugs, glitches, or subpar performance, which would ultimately harm the company's reputation and bottom line.


Tips for handling this situation:

  1. Understand the impact of your decision: Consider the long-term consequences of saying "yes" to the request versus pushing back. Will rushing the development process result in a lower quality product?

  2. Communicate clearly: Explain to your boss the potential risks and consequences of rushing the project, and be clear about the amount of time and resources required to deliver a quality product.

  3. Offer alternative solutions: Brainstorm potential solutions with your team, such as prioritising certain features or delaying the release date.

  4. Stick to your principles: Remember that as a professional, it's important to maintain your integrity and deliver high-quality work, even if it means saying "no" to a stakeholder request.

"It's only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important." ~ Steve Jobs

A survey conducted by ProductPlan found that 64% of product managers say they've struggled to prioritise features due to stakeholder pressure. So, learn to say "no" strategically and prioritise what's truly essential for your business and stakeholders.


Overcoming Challenges When Saying "No"

Firstly, let us explore why saying "no" can be difficult. This can be due to various reasons, including fear of disappointing others or damaging relationships. However, with practice, it is possible to overcome these challenges and say "no" in a way that maintains positive relationships and achieves your goals.


Here are some tips for navigating common challenges when saying "no."

Fear of Disappointing Others One of the most common challenges when saying "no" is the fear of disappointing others. We may worry that saying "no" will make us appear uncooperative or uncommitted. However, it's important to remember that saying "yes" to everything can actually hurt our productivity and hinder our ability to achieve our goals.


Fear of damaging relationships

Be open to feedback and discussion, but also be clear about your boundaries and limitations. If a stakeholder suggests a compromise that still feels overwhelming or unrealistic, be honest about your concerns and try to work together to find a more workable solution. By approaching the situation with a collaborative mindset, you can demonstrate your commitment to finding a solution that meets both your needs and the stakeholder's needs, and foster a sense of mutual respect and understanding.


Guilt or obligation to help

Set clear boundaries and guidelines for what you can and cannot take on. This can help you avoid feeling guilty or overwhelmed when faced with requests that fall outside of your scope. By establishing these guidelines, you can communicate your limitations to stakeholders in a clear and proactive way, and avoid taking on more than you can handle out of a sense of obligation. Additionally, consider offering alternative resources or suggestions for stakeholders who need assistance beyond your capacity, such as referrals to other colleagues or external resources. This can help you maintain a supportive and helpful relationship with stakeholders while also protecting your own time and resources.


Feeling guilty or selfish

Shift your mindset from "saying no is selfish" to "saying no is necessary for me to be able to deliver quality work." Remember that you have a responsibility to yourself and to your team to manage your workload effectively, and that saying "yes" to every request can actually undermine your ability to deliver quality work in the long term. By reframing your perspective on saying "no," you can approach the situation with greater confidence and clarity, and reduce feelings of guilt or selfishness.


Top Tips:

  • Remember that saying "no" is not a negative thing. It is a way of prioritising your time and energy towards the most important tasks.

  • Focus on the benefits of saying "no," such as the ability to deliver high-quality work and meet your goals more efficiently.

  • Be honest and transparent about your limitations and communicate them clearly.

  • Offer alternative solutions or compromises that may meet the stakeholder's needs while still honouring your own boundaries.

  • Practice self-compassion and recognise that it is okay to say "no" when needed.

By acknowledging and addressing common challenges when saying "no", we can develop a more confident and effective approach to setting boundaries and achieving our goals. Remember that saying "no" can actually improve your relationships with stakeholders by establishing clear expectations and boundaries. B

"It's better to say no than to commit to something you can't deliver. Honesty and transparency build trust." - Simon Sinek

By reframing "no" as a positive step towards a larger goal and communicating our limitations clearly and respectfully, we can build stronger relationships with stakeholders and deliver high-quality work. Saying "no" can be difficult, but it is an important skill for navigating the complex and demanding world of business.


Strategies for Saying "No"

Now that we have overcome the challenge of saying "no", lets look at different ways to say "no". It can be a challenging task, especially when it involves pushing back against stakeholders in a professional setting. However, learning how to say "no" effectively is an essential skill for maintaining boundaries, setting priorities, and improving productivity.


Let's explore some strategies for saying "no" in a constructive and productive manner:


Acknowledge the request

Start by thanking the stakeholder for their interest or proposal. This shows that you appreciate their input and are taking their request seriously. As the author notes, "Saying 'no' doesn't have to be confrontational. Acknowledging the request can help maintain a positive relationship with the stakeholder.


Explain the reason for saying "no"

Be honest and transparent about why the request cannot be fulfilled. This helps the stakeholder understand your perspective and can prevent miscommunication or misunderstandings down the line. According to a study by the Project Management Institute, 56% of project managers reported that miscommunication was a major contributor to project failure. By being transparent about your reasons for saying "no," you can help avoid miscommunication and keep your projects on track.


Offer alternatives

Suggest alternative solutions or compromises that may meet the stakeholder's needs. This shows that you are not simply shutting down their proposal, but are willing to work with them to find a mutually beneficial solution. As the author notes, "Offering alternatives can help the stakeholder see that you are invested in finding a solution that works for everyone."


Stick to your decision

Be firm and confident in your decision to say "no." This shows that you are committed to your priorities and are not easily swayed by outside pressure. According to a study by the American Psychological Association, setting and maintaining boundaries is an important aspect of maintaining good mental health. By saying "no" when necessary, you can avoid overcommitment and maintain a healthy work-life balance.


Alright let, know Imagine you are a project manager and a stakeholder has requested that you add a new feature to a project that is already in progress. You know that adding this feature would delay the project's completion and cause it to go over budget. Here's an example of how you could use the four strategies to say "no" in a constructive and productive manner:

"Thank you for your interest in this project and for your proposal to add a new feature. Unfortunately, we are unable to accommodate this request at this time.Adding the feature would require significant additional time and resources, which would cause delays and cost overruns. However, I understand that this feature is important to you, and I would be happy to discuss alternative solutions or compromises that could meet your needs. Ultimately, we need to prioritise the project's completion date and budget, and we are committed to delivering a quality product on time and within budget."

Top Tips:

  • Practice active listening to understand the stakeholder's perspective and needs.

  • Use "I" statements to take ownership of your decision and explain your perspective.

  • Be respectful and professional in your tone and language.

  • Avoid making promises that you cannot keep.

  • Be open to feedback and alternative solutions, but also be willing to stick to your decision when necessary.

Saying "no" is never easy, but it is an important skill for navigating the complex and demanding world of business. By acknowledging the request, explaining the reason for saying "no," offering alternatives, and sticking to your decision, you can say "no" in a way that maintains positive relationships and achieves your goals. By practicing these strategies, you can build your confidence and assertiveness, and establish yourself as a professional who is committed to delivering quality work.

 

Saying "no" is an important skill for product managers to master in order to balance stakeholder requests with product goals and timelines. By acknowledging requests, being transparent about reasons for saying "no," and offering alternatives, you can manage stakeholder expectations and build trust and credibility. However, it's also important to navigate common challenges when saying "no," such as fear of disappointing others or feeling guilty about declining requests.


According to a survey of over 2,000 product managers conducted by product management software company Aha!, one of the top challenges facing product managers is managing stakeholder requests and priorities. In fact, 63% of respondents listed this as one of their top challenges. This highlights the importance of being able to say "no" to certain stakeholder requests in order to stay focused on product goals and priorities.

"The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say 'no' to almost everything." ~ Harvard Business Review author Joseph Grenny

By being strategic and intentional about when and how to say "no," product managers can focus on what really matters and drive success for their products and their businesses.

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Abdi Bedel

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