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I was recently in a meeting with our analyst, and they were giving me the play-by-play on an implementation call from the previous day. Apparently, on a call with a customer for their roll out this Fall the project manager and executive were handing out “Yes-we-cans” like it was their job. Today it was not. The main problem is that we are running out of “yeses” before their “go-live” with the product this month–the train has left the station and we can’t miss our date for going live.

Has this ever happened to you?

King of Yeses
In my experience, there is only one King in the land of “Yes” and that is the Sales rep–or a well-meaning executive if you are a small startup. It is hard to say “No” when you have a fish on the hook, and your livelihood depends on those prospects becoming paid customers.

King of No
If Sales is the King of Yes-land, then engineering has to be the one guarding the castle in No-land. Have you asked an Engineering for anything recently? I sometimes get the “No” before I even ask something or try to explain the reason for my visit, call, or email.

Not a Fairytale for Product Leaders
Product Managers like to think we are the sensible ones in this relationship. Or at least we try to be. As a product leader, we have to know when we must stop saying “Yes” or “Maybe” and start saying “No, it is not going to happen.”

No is not for forever. It is no right now because it has to go to the backlog–the dreaded backlog where some items never make it into the castle. It is better to have something trapped in the backlog moat guarding the castle than to say yes to something you actually can’t deliver.

On the Roadmap

When building software products, it comes down to knowing what is on the roadmap at all times, where we are at with the “go-live”, and any external forces that could make a “yes” really a “no.” I was happy that the analyst brought this to my attention because it will be me as the product manager that will need to address this with the customer if or when we can’t deliver something that someone else promised.

I want to say “Yes!” It feels good to say yes. The great product leader knows when to say “No.”

When my kids were younger, they watched a show called “Bob the Builder.” I enjoyed it, so I would watch it with the kids too. Bob and his team would say, “Can we fix it?” then respond, “Yes, we can!” We all want to be Bob and his crew when we are having conversations with customers, evaluators, and potential customers. That kid’s show would probably not be that entertaining to kids (and some adults) if they were pragmatic and said they had other jobs to get done, and their request would need to wait until they could work on it. That is the reality of our lives as product managers and marketers. Unfortunately, that is part of the job as a software product leader that many forget–knowing when to pump the brakes.

It is a No for Now
I get the impression that people are worried that if they say know today that they will lose the business. While that is possible, it is unlikely that if you are listening to the market and understand the needs of your customers, then you already have a backlog of what is most important to your clients, evaluators, and potentials.

I have been told no before when I was expecting a yes. At the time I was not sure why I got the no, but in hindsight, I was not ready for the responsibility. If you are concerned that the individual that you are talking to could “walk” because you don’t have that feature in the product, then ask some questions about timelines and readiness. It is entirely possible that they have a┬álonger horizon than you might expect because you have not adequately discussed it in detail with them.

Setting the expectations with the potential customer also lets them know that you understand your business and product. This brings confidence to the customer and prospect that you know what you are doing because you are able to articulate what is the priority in your business today. That is a good thing to grasp if you want to be successful in your role.

So, if you get word that someone is out there throwing around some unwarranted yeses to customers and prospects it is time to pull that train back in the station. Contact the customer or prospect and set them straight. Yes, they may be disappointed, but it is always better than missing a deadline without any forewarning. Also, huddle the team together and use this as a coaching opportunity. It will show that you are leading the product and you have control of the roadmap to success.

Have you run empty on yeses? What did you do?

Please share your experiences in the comments below with your fellow product leaders.