Should product managers be in the business of saying yes or saying no?

- November 25, 2015 4 MIN READ

The question of whether you’re in the business of saying yes or saying no is an interesting one, but it’s one you may have never asked. I’d argue it’s one worth pondering.

To give an example of what I mean, Marc Andreessen, co-author of Mosaic, and founder of Netscape and VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, has explicitly stated that he’s in the business of “crushing the hope and dreams of entrepreneurs.” This is due to a16z’s thousands of potential inbound investment deals per year, and the firm only funding between 10 and 20 of them.

When most people think about venture capital, they probably think about funding the hopes and dreams of entrepreneurs, or saying yes, so it’s interesting that Andreessen articulated his job in this way.

Switching the context over to product, or to those designing and ultimately taking a product to market, ask yourself what business you are in – the business of saying yes or the business of saying no?

I recently read a great eBook on Product Management from Intercom, where they go into detail about product evaluation, saying no to new features, what features you should say yes to, and ultimately, how to get those features used regularly by your users.

It was a compelling read, with some great insights and tools or frameworks that can be used regularly by product managers, product owners, founders, or anyone else deeply engrained in managing product.

For me, the value of a product is measured by its efficacy, or rather, how effectively it fulfils the customer’s job-to-be-done (JTBD). By that, I simply mean the degree of satisfaction your customers experience each and every time your product enables them to achieve their specific objective (their JTBD).

For context, let’s look at a strange yet highly relevant example – milkshakes. Yes, milkshakes. You may have already seen the video below, but it’s probably worth watching again.


In this video, Christensen perfectly captures the essence of the customer job with his milkshake example, and offers some great insights into the ways in which the people designing products and services might need to think about fulfilling that job effectively.

People hire products to fulfil a functional or emotional job. They then fire products that aren’t effectively fulfilling that job, particularly when there’s an alternative solution delivering a more valuable experience.

With this in mind, I wanted to look specifically at the role of a product manager. In an early-stage startup, this might be one of the founders, however in certain environments, particularly larger organisations, this will be a specific function and role title.

The primary objective of a product manager is to solve the right problem for the right group of people at the right time. Therefore the product manager is directly responsible for the efficacy of the product. This is also what they should be measured on.

To look at the role in more depth, Josh Elman’s SlideShare presentation is worth referencing.


Image credit: Greylock VC

From this visual representation of a product manager’s roles and responsibilities, it’s clear that there’s some serious breadth to the role. The synthesis of this breadth, in combination with the input of your team, is likely how decisions will be reached.

For those of us in product management or similar roles, you’re probably used to an onslaught of ideas. These may be your ideas or the ideas of others. But, it’s important to note that ideas are not a finite resource. However, while ideas are not finite, many of the ideas in circulation may be excellent in some way, shape or form.

So how do you say no to an excellent idea? How do you say no when there’s a compelling argument that can be made to say yes? Perhaps the data supports it, the budget owner is requesting it, or perhaps it’s been determined that this will provide competitive differentiation.

“Building a great product isn’t about creating tons of tactically useful features which are tangentially related. It’s about delivering a cohesive product within well defined parameters.” – Intercom on Product Management, eBook 2015.

I absolutely love this paragraph as it succinctly sums up the collective reasoning as to why product managers will likely find themselves saying no, over and over.

The success of your product is directly related to how effectively you fulfill the specific jobs of your customers. The role of a product manager is to make this a reality.

Everything that doesn’t help the customer achieve their objective is waste. This intense focus on product efficacy is why a product manager is in the business of saying no.

This isn’t to say you default at no, but it does mean that your well defined parameters, your vision, or the specific job you’re trying to fulfil for your customers, needs to remain the sole focus.

So how do you know when to say yes?

An example you might be familiar with, and something Intercom referenced in their eBook, is Anthony Ulwick’s opportunity algorithm.


Image credit: Intercom on Product Management – a worked opportunity example using Ulwick’s opportunity algorithm

By having clearly defined the importance of a customer JTBD, as well as their satisfaction with their existing experience, high-value, under-exploited opportunities may present themselves.

This is one of the ways in which a product manager might work towards yes.

But there’s a lot more to think about.

Image credit: Intercom on Product Management

Image credit: Intercom on Product Management

How about the cost in time, effort, and capital? Does the increment of value the proposed feature delivers to customers deliver an equal or greater increment of value to the business?

There are many questions to ask and honestly answer here, but at this stage, I’m going to divert you back to Intercom’s eBook for reading.

Product management is multi-faceted and ubiquitous. It’s about synthesising a plethora of often imperfect information from the market, from users, from the business and from your team, all in an attempt to intimately understand, and eventually deliver a product that effectively enables your customers to achieve their specific objectives.

The primary objective of a product manager is to solve the right problem for the right group of people at the right time. Often this involves saying no.

So, what business are you in?