5 reasons a PO must learn to say NO


My wardrobe is filled with graphic print T-shirts. Out of 22 decent T-shirts I own, around 10 have graphic prints on the front. And yet, when I went on my routine weekend-window-shopping, I brought one more graphic print T shirt. Only when I got to re-organizing, I realized that not only I did not really need a new T shirt (My last 5 purchases are yet-to-be-wore) I definitely did not need one more with a graphic print on it. Why did I do that? Obviously because I liked it and I could afford it and all the psychology behind instant gratification and retail-therapy coming true so I did not pay attention to the fact that I am simply adding more redundancy to my already overflowing closet.

I sat down analyzing and came upon the conclusion that I suck at saying NO. Whether it is to others or to myself. Now I am not defending myself but I believe as humans we always find it difficult to say NO. Saying NO to the temptation of that luscious cheesecake, or to that annoying neighbor who keeps asking for your wi-fi password cuz yours is jsut faster or (the most difficult in line) to your customers or managers or supervisors. We dont like saying NO because it makes us feel bad, often time inefficient about ourselves. Saying NO is mean and hard and could put you to confrontations that you would rather avoid. Saying NO is just so much trouble that you just end up saying Yes to avoid all the bad stuff and get out of the sticky situation, thinking you will just deal with it somehow.

But is it really worth it in long run?

When you are a Product Owner/Manager in a thick-in-action project, you obviously get many requests during a day. Various stakeholders calling for re prioritization or discussing ideas for that cool new feature, requests from other project teams, your supervisor asking for a meeting, your team members needing your help with a story, your mom calling you to ask how to search for that video on YouTube, your husband messaging you to tell he will be late tonight and can’t pick the grocery so you have to do it etc etc. The list is endless and often overwhelming. Now if you re-look at these examples and try to evaluate each request, they all would seem important – You can never say NO to your stakeholders, can’t risk saying NO to your supervisor as it may hurt your career, your team can’t make progress without your input, and family is Family so saying NO to Mom or dear husband is out of question.

So what do you do? You run your day jumping from one task to another, letting other people’s priorities take precedence over yours and miss every single thing you had set out to do – You had no time to prepare the release plan that had to be circulated by EoD, could not prepare questions for tomorrow’s user interview and could not book tickets for the surprise weekend gateway with your husband because you missed the 2 hour sale window on Spicejet

I am beginning to realize that NO as a word has been a subject of much unnecessary criticism in human history. Nobody likes NO, nobody wants to hear NO and evidently no one wants to say NO. But look above and you can’t help but agree that it would have actually helped to say NO to some of these things. In today’s age, NO is probably the most important thing you can say. There are many reasons that everyone should learn to say NO. However I want to focus on reasons you should learn to say NO as a PO. So here they are:

1. It helps maintain focus – As a PO you spend a lot of time working with stakeholder needs, analyzing what will add most value to the product and the customers. You have a product vision and are striving to achieve it. When you say Yes to every single request coming you way, you loose that focus and drive to concentrate upon things that really matter for your product. Things that if done, would have added real value. In my T-shirt experience above, I actually wanted to buy a midi skirt, something that I dont have but, I ended up buying what I did not need and it stopped me from having something I really wanted. If your work day is brimming with things to do and not enough time to do them, saying NO is your only rescue to do what really matters.

2. Helps you become proactive – Now how does this happen? Its simple actually. One of the reasons we say yes to every customer request is because we do not want to miss out. What if this is the feature that will put our product on top? What if this is the opportunity that will change my life? But, when you say Yes to everything because of fear, you inherently become reactive. You spend your work day putting out fires, yielding to pressure situations and deprive yourself of the opportunity to explore new ideas and think hard. When you reduce this chasing after every single request coming your way, you give yourself opportunity to meet your long-term goals. You become the master of your own time, rather than a monkey dancing to everyone’s requests.

3. Puts your resources to better use – When you work for an organization, your work hours belong to them. Now you can still use that time as per your preference but the resources always need to be used carefully. When you yield into saying Yes for one more feature in your release backlog, that commitment extends to your team. Not only would they have to put extra hours to build that feature, they will also need to leverage other technical resources to finish it. There could be many scenarios where this can turn into chaos. So think before you say Yes.

4. Makes you better at your job – If you are a real product owner/manager, you must be inspired by Steve Jobs at some level. And what did Jobs do that made Apple produce a lineage of great products? Right! He said NO, constantly and consistently. It is no secret that on average Jobs used to say NO much more often then Yes. He said NO to numerous iPhone prototypes before giving the nod of approval to the final design. Do remember that every time you say NO to someone, it gives them an opportunity to do more research, think harder and come up with a better reasoning as to why they want you to do something for them. So not just you but other party has a chance to improve as well.

5. Improves your decision making – There are many resources on Internet telling you why it is important to say NO. This blog in in fact inspired from one of them. However, there aren’t many that tell you how you can do it. For a PO, saying NO could be scary and risky and often times dangerous. It doesn’t come naturally and yet you have to achieve this personality trait. I think there are 3 things one could do –

  • Take your time. When someone asks for something, allow yourself to take some time and evaluate it. If you already have your plate full, don’t say Yes immediately. Say you need some time to think about it and get back to them soon as possible. This way you can take a step back, think about the issue at hand and frame appropriate response.
  • Be respectful  and genuine with your negation. Focus on the unwanted that may happen –  ‘Hey John, the idea is good but if we try to put it in current release, we would risk running over our timeline’
  • Trust your judgement and learn from your mistakes. My most important takeaway is to learn when to say NO. Deciding what to say NO and which to say Yes to isn’t easy. It would take time and experience. But I would bet on my clear vision, professional judgement and soft skills to get there 🙂

This blog is inspired by a post on PrimerMagazine

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