How to say “No” as a Product Manager

Actually, it’s not about saying “No”, it’s about defining and educating on the Why and What?

Saeed Khan
6 min readApr 12, 2022

There’s a quote from Steve Jobs that goes something like this:

“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 hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully…Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
― Steve Jobs

Like many other quotes by Jobs and other innovators, this one has made it’s way into Product Management and you can find blog posts, talks and tweets about Product Managers and the word “No”.

Recently this tweet was posted

From:@PMDiegoGranados — What is your best piece of advice for saying “no” as a Product Manager

And I responded with:

@saeedwkhan — Don’t say no. Create a structure where the answers aren’t yes/no but why or why not and you’ve created a strategic context in which to answer THAT question.

Diego asked for more info on how to create that context. While I did tweet back a short response, I thought it made sense to write a bit more of a detailed post as I’m sure Diego is not the only one with this question.

The Purpose of Product Management

Let’s take a step back and discuss the purpose of Product Management. First of all, the job of Product Management is NOT to say “No” to things.

The job of Product Management is cross-functional leadership focused on driving product success.

Now, this is easier said than done, of course. But Product Managers who end up in situations where they’re constantly asked for “features” and have to say “No” are likely working in a feature factory and primarily focused on delivery.

The way to avoid being in a feature factory, and the way to avoid having to say “No” all the time is to define a clear vision, purpose and context for your product which is understood by the company, and in particular, the executives.

I use this diagram all the time with my clients to help explain this. We’ll dig into it below, but look at it and see how there is a connection between the layers.

i.e. the Vision is what you’re working towards. The Objectives are the measurable means to achieve that vision. The Strategy (or strategies) are the bets you’ll make (above and beyond standard operations) to achieve those objectives. The Roadmap shows the product specific components of those strategies, and the Plans are the detailed list and sequence of what you’ll build.

Now, what often happens is that there isn’t a clear Product Vision — i.e. the aspirational product goal, the agreed upon direction that you and your company want the product to head in. There may be a vague product vision, often never specifically defined or commonly understood within the company.

There might be objectives, but they’re often just annual revenue targets.

And then comes strategies. Often there are none. Strategy are the specific bets you make (above and beyond what you’d normally do) or rules you’ll use to decide how to reach your objectives. e.g. An upsell (or cross-sell) strategy into targeted accounts, or an expansion strategy into a new geo, or targeting a new market segment with a different positioning or set of use cases, etc.

Sometimes companies talk about strategies but don’t define them well or commit and follow through on them to drive success.

It’s hard work to define strategies and then execute the tactics against them. And yet, that’s what it takes to consistently compete and win

With a revenue target set, no real strategies, Marketing and Sales step up and do their job. But they are hampered because those strategies would provide them with focus and support. So what does the picture look like?

And what happens to the Product Roadmap? It’s not being driven by any strategies. Marketing and Sales are working hard generating interest and closing deals, working towards the revenue objective.

Often these deals have some custom product work (and services) attached to them. The bigger the total on the deal, the better right? Wrong.

Without a clear vision and strategies to help make decisions, a deal that generates revenue is as good as any other deal that generates revenue, but only if you ignore the opportunity cost.

Development work that addresses the needs of a single customer (or a very small set customers) is development time taken AWAY from addressing broader market needs to drive towards the vision.

So what you get is a Feature Factory. The roadmap and plans blend into one, and instead of strategy driving your roadmap, you get a smorgasbord of internal inputs, all in pursuit of their own goals.

THIS is the situation where a lot of feature requests come in and a lot of “No” decisions are needed. But what is the basis for saying “No”? There usually isn’t one, and so it’s almost always the dollars from the deals that are the deciding factor. How is this helpful in moving the product forward in a coherent way?

The Vision, Objectives (other than revenue) Strategies and Roadmap provide the context to make informed decisions, stay aligned and accelerate success.

Without them, companies can generate revenue and they can be seen as successful — in fact some sales driven companies have been quite successful — but the odds are against you.

With them, when a deal comes in that requires a Yes or No decision, the first question to ask is Why?

Why is this deal, and in particular the associated engineering work, more important than the commitments we’ve agreed to on our strategies?

Why will this help us achieve our vision more effectively than what is already planned?

If the deal and custom work looks like it is aligned with the roadmap, then ask:

What impact will doing this work have and how do we mitigate for that?

What will we disrupt in our strategies to address this new request?

Do we agree that that disruption (and inevitable delay) is worth this one deal?

If there is agreement — between Product Management, Sales, Engineering and other decision makers — then proceed. If there is not, then the deal and the required work gets a “No”. But it is an informed “No” with clear context and implications.

A product company needs to maximize their investment in the product.

The difference between a company with a clear vision & strategies and one without, is like the difference between earning compound interest vs. simple interest on an investment. Both will grow, but one will quickly outpace the other.

Having that clarity of vision and clear strategies brings focus and alignment to a company and avoids distractions, opinions and short-term thinking.


A little feedback please

If you’ve read this far, thank you. I’d like some feedback on the article to make it better. Just 3 questions. Should take 1 minute, but will really be valuable to me. Thanks in advance.

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Saeed Khan

Product Consultant. Contact me for help in building great products, processes and people.