Product Management: A Field Where There is Great Power in Saying ‘No’

Success in product management - the power of noI sat in a meeting about business strategy recently and one of the pieces of advice I gave the leadership team was that strategy was a lot about deciding what we were not going to do – what we were going to say ‘no’ to. It was actually funny because I said it almost without thinking about it. For me, after nearly three decades of helping employers and as a consultant helping companies on product strategy and strategic issues of all kinds, the ability to focus – and decide what not to do – is essential to success in product management.

Later I was reminded of a different but an equally effective use of the word ‘no.’ I sat with my boss who reminded me that we could all afford to say ‘no’ more often in negotiations.

‘No’ often has a negative meaning, as if we are not pleasing someone or reaching a goal. The opposite is true. ‘No’ can be a positive. And we need to start looking at it that way. As a long-time product manager, I found the positive effects of saying no in a few situations.

In 1999 I directed a marketing/product management group at a major cybersecurity company that was later acquired by Symantec. Our largest customer wanted to purchase a product that we had decided was at ‘end of life.’ Not only was this our largest customer, but that customer also owned two percent of our company. Even worse, the security executive who was the buyer headed our customer advisory board. And did I mention one of our top sales reps was counting on this deal to make her numbers? In situations like this, it takes a lot to stay firm and say ‘no.’

I remember reaffirming with the leadership team that we had decided to stop selling the product because it didn’t make financial sense for us. We had acquired it several years earlier, and the product never achieved its sales goals. We continued to pour development, services, product management and marketing resources into the product, and we simply weren’t competitive. And the product never made it into the sales forces’ bag for a variety of reasons. To add one more customer, even an important one willing to pay us a lot of money, still didn’t change where we were as a business. We needed to get out of the space and tell the customer ‘no.’

So I did. The customer was upset. It wasn’t pretty. But we were able to use the resources – people and cash – in other areas of the business that paid off handsomely.

Another example:  one of my favorite product management leaders, with whom I have had the pleasure of working several times, was an expert at the use of ‘no.’ He used to say ‘if you want friends, buy a dog or join a country club.’ His push back on customers in saying ‘no’ was artistic. When prospects would ask for several features before they’d sign a contract, inevitably salespeople would bring the issue to him to say yes so that the deal could close. One of his standard responses for such features that he didn’t want to contractually commit to was to artfully tell the prospect how much it would cost to build the feature – a cost that would be passed along in addition to the value of the contract – or that they could wait and have a supportable, maintainable feature not only for that customer but for the entire customer base, for free as a part of their maintenance payment. It worked every time. When faced with the issue, the prospect somehow didn’t need the feature right away. All they had to hear was the price – and the magic word ‘no.’ As a result, that prospect became a customer; the sales rep got the deal; and the product manager and development team were able to work on their current development plan and not add new functionality requests into their existing roadmap.

Again, the power of ‘no’

Negotiators have known the power of ‘no’ for a long time. It’s not just to establish a firm position of what they are not going to do. It’s also a powerful tool in communicating and establishing boundaries, and it often begins a healthy dialog.

So remember ‘no.’ In whatever circumstance you may find you need it – ‘no’ can be quite useful.