December 1, 2021

Lesson 13: Just Say No

Lesson 13: Just Say No

Dare I admit I’m old enough to remember the D.A.R.E. program. For those on the cusp between Millennial and Generation X, you will remember this as an elementary education rite of passage which attempted to teach us about the dangers of the D word…

…no, not dragons…

…I’m talking about drugs…

…although I think we can all agree that a presentation on the dangers of dragons would have been infinitely more practical.

D.A.R.E. = Dragons Are Really Evil

D.A.R.E. was the first acronym I became closely acquainted with. And since that moment, I knew I was destined for product management greatness. I turned everything into a special language built around catchy acronyms.

KRTD = Kids Rule Teachers Drool. This would always get some laughs.
CMA = Caution Meatloaf Ahead. Often used leading up to lunch break.
ESTA = Everyone Skip the Assembly. No wonder I didn’t learn much on D.A.R.E. day.

Needless to say, when I first became a Product Manager and saw all the random and meaningless acronyms in our industry, I felt right at home.

As for D.A.R.E., it officially stood for Drug Abuse Resistance Education…

…remember, this was the early 90s, a wonderful and glorious time when marijuana was society’s biggest and only threat…

…that is, if you were willing to ignore MC Hammer’s parachute pants.

You see, the federal government simply couldn’t have an entire generation grow up to be pot smoking hippies.

Now, 30 years later, it’s pretty clear that the program failed miserably. Imagine. Without an army of software programmers fueled by weed and Redbull, there would be no technological advancements.

“Dude, I totally know what we should do,” a young programmer once said to his friend as he took a hit from the bong. “We should like make it easier to hook up with chicks without having to talk to them.”

A few weeks later, Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook.

The D.A.R.E. program made its own attempt at innovation by creating a famous slogan: Just Say No.

“Just say no?” we all questioned.

Obviously we were confused. As a kid in the early 90s, if you idolized Michael Jordan, which we all did, you were also exposed to a very expensive marketing campaign by Nike. They were advertising everywhere to “Just Do It”.

I remember at the D.A.R.E assembly we were all handed “Just Say No” t-shirts. I promptly took my “Just Say No” shirt and put it on over the top of my “Just Do It” shirt.

No wonder my generation is so screwed up and mentally incapacitated.

This brings us to Product Management. When the Agile movement started infesting the technology landscape like a biblical plague of locusts, the developers were faced with a tough dilemma.

“We want to do as little as we possibly can,” the writers of the Agile Manifesto discussed. “How can we make that happen?”

This isn’t a knock on Agile. It’s actually common sense. We should all try to do as little as we possibly can while still providing value. Software is always better when you eliminate all the clunky waste. We all know it’s true that most of our development effort is spent trying to satisfy a tiny portion of our audience.

“But this one customer hinted that they perhaps might be less than 100% satisfied with our software,” the customer support team will say every day of your career. Comments like this will launch quarter-long initiatives to increase the satisfaction of that one customer from you-guys-suck to you-guys-still-suck.

This is why one of the principles of Agile became “Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.”

I’m really surprised this principle hasn’t turned into another more realistic acronym like W.E.A.S.L.E….

…We … Ehh … Are Slow Lazy Engineers.

…#TBH

The point is that while maximizing the amount of work not done is an important software development principle, the developers never had any intention of being part of it.

“This part of the job blows,” every developer colluded. “Let’s give this responsibility to a lesser form of life that doesn’t know how to write code.”

And that’s how the Product Manager job came to be…

…well, not exactly…

…but that’s how the Agile development community views it.

…it ain’t easy.

All of this adds up to a role being invented (the Product Owner) to take on the responsibility of just saying no…

…and like D.A.R.E…

…no one listens to that crappy slogan.

Yet, trust me, if a know-it-all PM ever offers advice on how to be a Product Manager, “Just Say No” is always in the top 3 of “things I wish I’d known when I started as a PM”…

…which literally for them was probably about 3 months ago…

…it goes right along with other useless generic tips like “Know Your Market” and “Have A Vision”…

…Aside: The acronym for Have A Vision would be HAV, as in HAV a vision. Worse acronyms than this have become extremely famous…

...I’m talking to you WWW.

Here’s the problem with saying no: you suck at it and nobody wants to hear it…

“Ouch,” you say as you try to console your injured pride. Well as blunt as this sounds, it’s actually supported by data. It’s no wonder product managers get such terrible survey results from business leaders.

“So how would you rate your product manager?” the survey asks. “On a scale of 10 to Just-Says-No-All-the-Time.”

Seriously. Would you want to be around your sorry-sniveling-say-no self?

Let me guess your answer…

…No!

“But I’m just doing what all the popular product management articles tell me to do,” you argue.

Well, those articles were written by a bunch of idiots.

Here’s the lesson.

Don’t say no.

[I’m going to give you some time to let your heart rate and blood pressure return to a healthy level.]

“But… but… but… but…” I can hear you stammering.

I know what you’re thinking. “But… but… but… but… this is my job, right?”

Well, I completely agree with the principle of maximizing the amount of work not done. I will always say that a badass half is better than a halfass whole.

But who are you to decide what is badass? Who are you to say “No”? Have you really earned that much trust and clout in the organization where everyone trusts you to be the sole arbiter of product truth.

I like to picture this type of product manager up on the golden throne of the product kingdom. Weak little peasants like the CEO and the COO crawl up to the footstool, trembling and begging for the product manager to have mercy upon them and to accept just one tiny 3 point story into the backlog. Of course, King KON (King Of No) dismisses them without even hearing the use case.

“My job is to say No!” you yell. “Off with their heads!” you order their execution…

…King KON may be my best acronym invention so far. And, yes, I know if you were to actually write it out, it would be King King Of No. But doesn’t this make it even that much better. This type of kingly product manager is so arrogant they put the word King in their job title not once…

…but twice.

“My job is to say no!!!!”, they stomp around, beating their chest and roaring with the might of King KON!!!!!

Whenever I hear product managers talk about the principle of saying no, they usually say something silly like, “They just won’t take no for an answer.” Or, yes, the cringeworthy, “Its my job to say no.”

Let’s be clear. Despite what the Agile overlords tell you, your job is not to say no. Your job is to build and deliver badass shit.

If you’re just coming to work firing off the word “No” like a reckless outlaw in a western movie, then expect the sheriff to run you out of town or at least reduce your authority by putting you in some kind of socially inept jail for losers with no tact.

Ok.

I know you are struggling with this lesson. Your entire sandy foundation of Product Management has been washed away. So let me give you the criteria for when you can say “No”, both of which must be met.

  1. The organization trusts you.
  2. You are really, really, really confident in the things you are doing and can persuasively articulate your product vision so that when people hear the word “no”, it makes sense to them… ... yes, that’s 3 "really" superlatives to underscore the importance of where your confidence level needs to be.

So if the organization trusts you and you’re really, really, really confident, then by all means say “No.”

For example, when people had good ideas at Apple in the early 2000s, Steve Jobs could say, “No, we are going to focus on the iPod.”

For the rest of us, we just have to be better at listening to all the ideas, giving people the attention they deserve, and then communicating reality in an enthusiastic, charismatic, and charming way…

…sigh…

…it ain’t easy.

I’m not saying you have to actually commit to do everything. I know the facts. It’s impossible to do everything. No Product Manager wants to be associated with that other overused cliché “overpromise and underdeliver”. And unfortunately you’re not Doctor Strange who can bend the universal laws of time, space and thermodynamics.

That being said, just because you face tough limitations and have the role of product owner on a scrum team, this doesn’t give you a non-expiring license to be an a-hole.

Just try this instead.

When you wake up in the morning, rather than putting on your D.A.R.E. “Just Say No” shirt, put on your Nike “Just Do It” shirt. Having a positive attitude, enthusiastic passion, and uplifting energy will always go further than being a negative sourpuss.

You want people to feel like you are on their side.

And then when you build awesome stuff, you’ll earn people’s trust. When you earn people’s trust, then you’ll become more confident in your vision. And when you have trust, confidence and vision, you’ll finally be in a position of respected leadership to articulate the future of your product and say No to crappy stuff that doesn’t align.

Until then, stop complaining that nobody listens to you and DARE to be the kind of product manager people want to work with...

...and, as always, watch out for dragons...

...they really are evil.