Telling Stakeholders “No”

The sexiest part of any company is the product. Because that’s what customers are buying and using.

And everybody in the company has an opinion on the product.

And everybody thinks their opinion is right.

And if they think their opinion is right, then everybody else’s competing opinion MUST be wrong, including the customer’s.

So how do you manage those opinions, especially if they’re from your boss or the CEO?

As Product Managers we work with so many different departments; engineering, quality assurance, design, marketing, support, sales and of course our stakeholders (executives). And most people, including the Product Directors, VP’s of Product, VP’s of UX, and CEO’s have a very strong opinion of what the product should do, and they are all above you in the hierarchy.

The problem with their opinions is that in most cases it’s simply the way they would interact with the product. Most of the time these individuals are not the target customer, yet they feel in their hearts that there is no way anybody could like the product or a feature if they don’t like it.

This is not solely the issue with others, it’s also our problem. As the Product Manager we often have our own ideas of what we like and don’t like. And we also fall into the trap of thinking others must think like us, even if we know the competitors and customers.

As the Product Manager there are many times you need to take yourself out of the equation when it comes to the final decision.

I recently had a feature with two mockups that stirred up quite a debate. We had some target users in the office, and I showed 15 people both mockups…and 80% of the users liked mockup A. The designers felt these users were wrong and that mockup B was better, and spent a day creating an InVision mockup that gave each new design a more of a prototype feel. I showed 5 more users the two options, and this time 100% of the users liked mockup A. At this point you would assume that mockup A, with nearly 90% of the votes, would be a “no brainer” to begin building. The problem was two of my executives felt mockup B was better. It’s hard for us to realize that the experience we want isn’t the exact same experience everybody else wants.

In the end my executives empowered me to make the final decision (I work for an awesome company) and we went with mockup A. Even if we were wrong, no clients were going to stop using our product because of this decision, and it would be fairly easy to change if we received negative feedback. Sometimes speed is more important than getting it perfect (by the way, there’s no such thing as perfect), especially if it’s a small feature.

But what I had done before getting their opinions was to validate my assumptions. When we had the first two mockups I had my assumptions, and at that moment they were only assumptions. Our job as product managers is to validate assumptions whenever possible. Sometimes we know our customers and our competitors so well that we don’t need to validate assumptions, and sometimes our competitors have done that for us. But it’s best to validate as many assumptions as you can as quickly as possible.

So, how do you manage your executives when they give you their opinions, which in most cases are their assumptions? It’s very easy, just say:

Great observation, let me validate that assumption.

I’ve used this numerous times with my executives, and they totally get it. I then run some quick tests, sometimes with just people in the office or pulling data or whatever it takes to get some quick data points to help make an educated decision. The key is to do it quickly. In the previous example, I got 15 pieces of feedback in just 15 minutes. The product I was working on was about job seeker experiences, and we just happen to have 15 new hires in the building waiting to get their pictures taken. I ran over and asked if I could get their feedback on a new feature. That is all it takes sometimes.

Any time somebody higher up shares with you how a feature should be changed, just say ‘let me validate that assumption.’ Works most every time. Then you need to quickly get some data points, with one caveat — don’t be afraid to be wrong. It’s all about the customers unmet needs, not your ego or about being right.