My product management toolkit (20): the art of saying “no”

Saying “no” is possibly one of the most challenging parts of being a product manager. There are so many great business and product ideas out there and ideally we’d like to do all of them. I can, however, only refer to one of the greatest product people and his views on the importance of saying no:

Fig. 1 – Taken from:

These are the main reasons why I believe in the importance of saying no:

Focus – We can’t do it all! What’s truly important, why? Will it move the needle? If so, how?

Constraints – Every business has constraints, e.g. people, time, money, opportunities, etc. As a result, saying no sometimes acts as an absolute necessity. 

Cost and risks – We need to say no from time to time to manage (opportunity) cost and risks.

As a consequence, every product person benefits from having a few ways of saying no in his or her toolkit. I’ll highlight five different options for when you want to say no:

Option 1 – Open the kimono

“Opening the kimono” is quite a popular phrase, but is effectively just stressing the importance of being fully transparent with others. As a product manager, you’re typically in a great position to provide full transparency on:

  • Vision
  • Strategy
  • Roadmap
  • Backlog
  • Tradeoffs
  • Cost (incl. delay)
  • Value (incl. ROI)

Open the kimono helps you to start an open conversation about the potential impact of certain decisions. For example, what will be the likely cost of delay if we decide to deprioritise feature A in favour of feature B.


Fig. 2 – Taken from:

Option 2 – Scope small and test assumptions

I absolutely love Peter Merholz‘ wedding cake analogy: there are two ways to bake a wedding cake (see Fig. 3 below). One way is to create a big wedding cake; starting with a cake base, adding the filling and icing. Alternatively, you can start with a small cupcake and see what the soon to be married couple think about it, after which you can decide to make a cake or a proper wedding cake.

The key here is that you’re not saying no and shutting the door on an idea or project. In contrast, you’re proposing to start small and get real user feedback ‘often and early’:

Scope small – “I suggest we don’t commit to the entire product or project upfront. Instead, I suggest we focus on a single feature or value component first and measure its impact. We can then always decide to do more and iterate.”

Test assumptions – “We assume that our users need a tomato juice to quench their thirst. How can we best validate this quickly before we commit to making tomato juice?”

Fig. 3 – Peter Merholz’ two ways of baking a wedding cake – Taken from:

Option 3 – Consider side effects

We all know how easy it can be to say “yes” to an idea or an improvement that sounds ‘small’. However, in doing so we often forget that even the smallest of features or changes can have a big impact. There are a number of potential side effects to consider before saying yes or no:

Development cost – What are the cost of creating this? What is does the expected ROI look like and why?

Maintenance cost – Can we maintain it? What are the cost involved in doing so?

Business model – How does this fit with our business model?

System impact – Are there any ramifications on the wider system?

Technical debt – Will we incur technical debt as a result of this feature or change?

Unhappy customers – By doing this, will we alienate clients?

Fig. 4 – Estimated vs actual cost of a small feature – Taken from:

Option 4 – Not now

It’s not a straight no, it’s something we could or should be doing later. For example, “let’s do this once we’ve implemented our new shopping cart feature, as it will be easier to add this feature on then. We will add this to the “next” section on our roadmap.”

One word of warning: I’ve seen many people using this approach to kick things into the long grass, burying things into the roadmap or backlog in the hope that it gets forgotten about. I believe this counterproductive and dishonest. If you already know that something isn’t going to get done, then it’s better to be transparent about this upfront.

Fig. 5 – Taken from:

Option 5 – Provide options

Instead of offering a downright no, provide options and explore the pros and cons of each option. I’ve found that this approach really helps in having a constructive conversation with business stakeholders about business goals and tradeoffs.

For example:

Option 1: build on top of existing APIs

Pros: speed to market, less costly, meet partner expectations

Cons: not scalable, opportunity cost

Option 2: create API framework first and then create new API endpoints

Pros: fully scalable, revenue and partnership opportunities

Cons: takes longer to develop, and will be more costly

Main learning point: Saying no and declining a request or an idea can be hard, but very necessary at the same time. Whilst it can feel a tad uncomfortable, there’s a lot of value in saying no in a more informed and constructive kind of way.

Related links for further learning:


Learning more about what’s coming under PSD2

The second instalment of Payment Services Directory, “PSD2”, will come into effect on 13th January ’17. By that date, EU member states are expected to have implemented the new payment rules as outlined in PSD2.

I recently listened to a radio programme where ex Barclays boss Antony Jenkins described PSD2 as “an opportunity for third parties to access a person’s bank data and to do something with that data.” He thus captured the core what PSD2 is all about: opening up banking data and using that data to create better, more integrated customer experiences.

Jenkins also talked about how in the new PSD2 world banks effectively provide the utility components that other services build on, acting as the frond end and being more customers experience focused. One can already see from the success of Fintech startups such as Monzo, Remitsy, Varo Money and Abra the distinction between financial service players that focus more on front-end customer experience and those concentrating on the underlying ‘plumbing’. Jenkins mentioned the concept “a browser for your financial life”. Viewed within the context of PSD2, the idea of a central browser for one’s financial life really resonated with me.

All of this made me have a first stab at understanding the essence and ramifications of PSD2. This is what I’ve learned sofar:

Develop new payment solutions – Account Information Service

Ultimately, PSD2 aims to stimulate new payment solutions, using digital tools and infrastructure to create a more seamless payment experience. As a result of PSD2, there will be two new types of service providers: “account information service” (‘AIS’) and “payment initiation service” (‘PIS’).

Under PSD2, an AIS is defined as an “an online service to provide consolidated information on one or more payment accounts held by the payment service user with either another payment service provider or with more than one payment service provider”. As customers, we can benefit from AIS through its ability to offer an aggregated view of a customer’s accounts. Having this consolidated view should make it easier for customers to analyse their transactions and spending patterns across a number of their payment service providers (‘PSPs’).

Develop new payment solutions – Payment Initiation Service

Whereas AIS covers the aggregation of account data, a payment initiation service (‘PIS’) enables the movement of money between accounts with different PSPs. Under PSD2, a PIS is “a service to initiate a payment order at the request of the payment service user with respect to a payment account held at another payment service provider.”

In essence, a PIS acts as an online service which accesses a customer’s payment account to initiate the transfer of funds on the customers’s behalf, provided the customer has consented and authentication has taken place (see Fig. 1 – 2 below). Payment initiation services thus provide an alternative to paying online using a credit card or debit card. PIS aren’t allowed to hold payer funds or store sensitive payment data but can initiate payment transactions on behalf of customers.

To me, the future payment initiation capability for “merchants” feels like the most exciting opportunity that PSD2 offers. It means that merchants such as ecommerce marketplaces can access the payment accounts on their customers’ behalf and initiate payments, without the need for credit or debit cards. PIS will be allowed to communicate securely with the customer’s bank and seek information required for payment initiation.The PIS will use APIs to link to the merchant’s website or app with the customer’s bank.

Fig. 1 – PIS workflow, merchant acting as a Payment Initiation Service Provider (‘PISP’)  – Taken from:

Fig. 2 – PIS workflow, merchant goes through a PISP to collect money from a customer’s bank account – Taken from:

Reinforced customer protection

As a direct consequence of the data sharing and integrations that PSD2 enables, customer protection will be increased. For example, all payment service providers will need to prove that they have put specific security measures in place to ensure safe and secure payments. PSD2 requires “Strong Customer Authentication” (‘SCA’), which is also known as two-factor authentication. Two-factor authentication is already a common feature of lots of digital products and services (see the Google example in Fig. 3 below). Typical components of two-factor authentication are (1) knowledge (something you know, such as a password) and (2) possession (something you have, such as a card or mobile device) or ‘inherence’ (something you are, such as a fingerprint or voice recognition). Each element must be independent from the others so that if one is breached this does not compromise the integrity of another.

Fig. 3 – Google 2-factor authentication example – Taken from:

Main learning point: My biggest, initial takeaway from learning about PSD2 is that digital payment services will become a lot more seamless and easy. APIs will act as key ‘enablers’ of new opportunities to integrate customer’s financial activities and online behaviours.

Related links for further learning:


My product management toolkit (19): Socratic questioning

One of the first things that I learned when I started out in product management was the importance of asking why, using the “5 Whys” to truly understand a problem or a situation:

  1. Why? — The battery is dead. (First why)
  2. Why? — The alternator is not functioning. (Second why)
  3. Why? — The alternator belt has broken. (Third why)
  4. Why? — The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (Fourth why)
  5. Why? — The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (Fifth why, a root cause)

Fig. 1 — A simple way of asking the 5 Whys to look closer at a problem or an idea — Taken from:

I felt, however, that the “5 Whys” technique only got me to a certain point, especially in situations where I wanted other people to get to the solution or the root of a problem by themselves.

I then learned about Socratic questioning, which is a disciplined approached to questioning and can be used to solve problems or explore complex ideas. Before I go into the specifics of Socratic questioning, I want to explain why I was so attracted by this systematic approach to questioning:

  • Supports learning — Whenever other people ask me Socratic type questions, I always feel that I’m learning loads — purely from going through the process of thinking. Also, I’ve noticed how my thoughts and decisions are more likely to stick if I’ve gone through a process of Socratic questioning.
  • True understanding — Even though it must drive some of my colleagues nuts at times, answering a question with a question does in my experience lead to a much more thorough understanding of the problem one is looking to solve.
  • Stay curious — Asking questions really helps keeping my mind sharp 🙂 It might sometimes be easier to answer a question straight away, but there’s a risk of ‘leaving questions or issues on the table’ when you’re not probing.

Fig. 2 — Taken from:

These are the types of Socratic questions to consider:

Questions for clarification:

  • Why do you say that?
  • How does this relate to our discussion or the problem that we’re trying to solve?

These types of questions are meant to make sure that people are talking about the same thing or are looking at the same problem to solve.

Questions that probe assumptions:

  • Why do you think that?
  • What could we assume instead and why?
  • How can you verify or disapprove that assumption?

My favourite questions … It’s all about unearthing underlying assumptions and getting people to think their assumptions through, or at least acknowledge that they are making assumptions.

Questions that probe reasons and evidence:

  • What would be an example?
  • What would success look like and why?
  • Why is this a better option than that one (and why)?
  • What is this similar to?
  • What do you think causes this to happen (and why)?

Questions like these are very useful when you’re trying to understand where the other person is coming from and why. From experience, questions that probe reasons and evidence can be very powerful when looking to validate an idea or solution; it’s almost liking take a step back before delving into a solution.

Questions about viewpoints and perspectives:

  • What would be an alternative (and why)?
  • If you were to play devil’s advocate, how and why would you challenge this view?
  • What is another way to look at it (and why)?
  • Could you explain why it’s necessary or beneficial, and who benefits (and why)?
  • What are the strengths and weakness of this idea?
  • How are this idea and that idea similar? Why (not)?

One of the things I’ve learned is to spend more time understanding another person’s viewpoint or fully grasp the ‘why’ behind someone’s idea. Similar to the types of questions in the previous section. Asking questions about the other person’s perspective can help smooth conversations and collaboration since you are likely to have a much better understanding of the other person’s thinking.

Questions that probe implications and consequences:

  • What generalisations can you make?
  • What are the consequences of that assumption (and why)?
  • What are you implying? What are you not taking into consideration (and why)?
  • How does this affect that?
  • How does this tie into what we learned before?

Having previously made the mistake of not thinking things through properly, I always ask questions to encourage people to work out the possible consequences of a particular solution or approach. I’ve found that doing this in a more Socratic fashion helps the other person to truly realise and consider the outcomes of their approach.

Questions about the question:

  • What was the point of this question?
  • Why do you think I asked this question?
  • What does this mean?
  • How does this question apply to the problem you’re trying to solve?

These types of questions help you to reflect on the process of Socratic questioning. What’s the point of the questioning!? Why did I ask these questions? What did we learn (and why)?

Main learning point: I did a quick count and saw that the word “why” appears 15 times in this piece, not including the “5 Whys” technique. For me, Socratic questioning — in its simplest form begins and ends with that one word. Why.

Related links for further learning:


Book review: Yes To The Mess

In May last year, I attended a great talk by Ken Norton – partner at Google Ventures – titled Product Managers: Make Yourself Uncomfortable. In his talk, Ken talked about the book Yes To The Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz by Frank J. Barrett, a management consultant and jazz pianist. Ken talked about feeling uncomfortable, his point being that uncertain and unstable times call for embracing uncertainty, improvising, learning and improving.

In “Yes To The Mess” Frank J. Barrett highlights the leadership lessons that can be learned from jazz music and jazz greats. These are the main lessons I learned from reading this fantastic book:

There’s no such thing as making mistakes


Fig. 1 – Coleman Hawkins “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying” – Taken from:

How often do people get chastised for he mistake(s) they’ve made!? Having to lower one’s tune because of having tried something that ultimately failed? Or trying to cover up a mistake or an error? In contrast, jazz music is all about ‘failing’. Like the great saxophonist Coleman Hawkins once said: “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying” (see Fig. 1 above). In jazz music and in business, Barrett argues, there’s no such thing as making a mistake.

Instead, the focus is on not missing opportunities and embracing errors as a source of learning. For me, Miles Davies is the ultimate embodiment of the courage to make mistakes; “If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake” is one of Davis’ famous quotes. “Do not fear mistakes. There are none” is another one (see Fig. 2 below). As Barrett points out, Davis was talking about the importance of continuing to take risks and to try new possibilities. Because when you do, something new and unexpected is likely to happen.


Fig. 2 – Miles Davis “Do not fear mistakes. There are none” – Taken from:

Informed risks and constructive learning

If mistakes don’t exist and we should all learn by trying, does this mean that we can just act recklessly and stop caring about what could happen!?

Absolutely not. Barrett explains how well conceived plans not always pan out as expected. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” as Mike Tyson once said (see Fig. 3 below). I came across an organisation once where project people probably spent a good 40% of their time drawing up great detailed project plans and 60% of their remaining time continuously adjusting timings on their project plans and “controlling the message” towards their stakeholders. Perhaps if they’d read “Yes To The Mess” they might have instead embraced unexpected factors or errors, and built on them. In jazz, the artists don’t correct mistakes as much, opting to recognise and ride with them instead.


Fig. 3 – Mike Tyson “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth” – Taken from:

What I like about this approach is that jazz players will learn by leaping in, learn from taking action and adjust accordingly. Barrett describes this approach as taking informed risks, taking action based on something that happen before and discover as you go. Jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus once famously said: “You can’t improvise on nothing. You gotta improvise on something.” Even improvisation needs rules and some kind of order. As a result, especially in jazz bands, improvisation will lead to collective discoveries.

In my experience, improvisation isn’t easy. It can be pretty daunting when something doesn’t go according to plan – or when there isn’t a plan to begin with. An understandable first reaction is to try and fix the error, make sure the plan can still be executed upon. However, the results of not following this instictive response can be amazing, and can lead to new insights and approaches.

Generous listening

A key point Barrett makes is how improvisation requires jazz musicians to do lots of listening. Jazz players need to be attentive not only to the music they’re playing, both individually and as a group, but also to what isn’t being played. When Miles Davis was asked how he went about improvisation, he explained that he listened to what everyone in the band was playing and would then play what was missing.

Although I’m not yet great at it, generous listening is all about listening more then talking, or asking questions even when you might already know the answer. As a product person, it means not trying to be a rockstar or to push through your opinion. In contrast, it’s about truly listening to what someone else is thinking or might have to offer. In jazz, there’s even a term for this: “comping” – the rhythms, chords, and countermelodies with which the other players accompany a solo improvisation.


Fig. 4 – Duke Ellington “The most important thing I look for in a musician is whether he knows how to listen” – Taken from:

Affirmative competence

Taking informed risks and listen generously leads to organisations developing “affirmative competence”, where the organisational system is no longer top down and deliberate, but much more emergent. As Barrett stresses, “an emergent system is smarter than the individual members.” Andy Grove applied this approach whilst at Intel when being faced with the challenge of Intel’s existing business drifting away. Since that experience, Grove’s advice is to “set aside everything you know.” Organisations and teams will thus learn while doing and by building up an underlying confidence in the competence of their group of people, taking the following steps in the process:

  • Take action
  • Revise assumptions
  • Value learning from failures
  • Try again
  • Discover as you go

Main learning point: I absolutely loved both Ken Norton’s talk and “Yes To The Mess” by Frank Barrett. The idea that well conceived plans are fallible and that that it’s ok to learn from one’s mistakes really resonates with me. Even if you’re not a jazz lover, it’s really worth reading “Yes To The Mess” and studying the lessons we can learn from jazz and its musicians.


Related links for further learning: