PM, Pope of Nope

Ian Hellström | 8 February 2023 | 3 min read

A good product manager is the Pope of Nope.

Design and engineering resources are finite, which is why the essence of product management is to figure out the best problems to tackle, and together with engineering and design come up with the best solutions to those problems. Product management is therefore about saying no by default and only saying yes when you are reasonably confident it is worth spending resources on a solution. That solution must be valuable to and usable by the customer, viable for the business, and feasible to build and maintain.

The problem with problems

The problem with problems is that everyone considers theirs to be the most urgent and important. Why wouldn’t they?

The focal point of good product management is relieving acute pains, not alleviating dull discomforts. Acute problems are rarely unique. And if they are, they rarely lead to growth. Bespoke solutions can be profitable, but they are generally projects, not products. One-offs rarely translate into great products without a significant effort and a shift in mindset and organizational structure. After all, a software project is considered a success if it finishes on time, within budget, and with the resources available. Whether the customer benefits from that output is mostly irrelevant: it is delivered and paid for.

Worthless until proven valuable

Products and product features are considered to be useless unless proven otherwise. The burden of proof falls on the product manager.

Saying no may feel like a courageous and perhaps even dangerous thing to say, but yes comes with dire consequences if you have not done your homework properly. Not being able to say no can easily lead to 80% of features in SaaS products being never or rarely used. The time and money wasted building frivolous features could have been spent more wisely.

A moment’s courage or a lifetime of regret. That’s always the choice. Endeavour: “Degüello” (2019)

Desire paths

Product/market fit is about letting desire paths form before you pave the road. A lack of product/market fit is what kills more than a third of all startups. That figure is probably a lot higher because the top reason for startup failure is running out of cash. This is often a consequence of founders underestimating the time to achieve product/market fit and the fact that a pre-Series A runway is on average only 3–9 months. By comparison, it often takes almost two years to raise Series A.

That does not mean a product manager must ignore new ideas. It means: not committing resources unless doing so makes sense. Get the facts straight, list assumptions, phrase hypotheses, check hypotheses, build incrementally, check analytics, collect feedback, analyse data, refine hypotheses, and so on.

In this job, even when it’s finished, there is always one more thing to do. The Bridge of the River Kwai (1957)

How to say no

Of course it is not only awkward to be the bearer of bad news, it is also off-putting for the other side to hear ‘No!’ all the time. Many fear conflict and confrontation. And no is a pretty short step away from, “What do you mean ‘No’?”

It is why “I’ll put it in the backlog” is just PM-speak for no. Likewise, “I will get back to you on that” is a standard way of temporarily deflecting before the inevitability of forgetfulness sets in. The problem with this approach is that requests become zombies.

If an idea is worthwhile but not prioritized, explain that. ‘Not now, maybe later’ is an acceptable answer if true and not a roundabout way of saying no. Be prepared to explain why other functionality is more important now though.

And if an idea is truly not worth pursuing or a better solution exists, it falls on the product manager to explain that clearly and concisely to the customer(s). That does not have to be confrontational, merely professional. Otherwise, these zombie requests will come back to haunt the backlog. Not to mention every prioritization and planning session.

No means no.