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Saying “No” is a Critical Product Management Skill

By Clifton Gilley | June 10, 2020 | 0 Comments

Product PlanningProduct Development

I’ve been working with a lot of clients recently who are trying desperately to make the transition from project-driven efforts to product-driven efforts. One of the most consistent struggles that these companies encounter is the difficulty of splitting their effort between customization needs of a few large customers and the standardization effort needed to create generalized solutions that meet the definition of a “product”. This issue is of key importance to service organizations looking to make the jump to product-driven work, as their culture is very often based on a reactive, client-first perspective that bleeds into everything that they do.

There is no silver bullet for organizations facing this challenge, unfortunately. There is no “perfect” mix of custom work and standard work that can be applied as a blanket statement.  Obviously, one wants to do more than zero standard work, and less than 100% custom work, but figuring out what those numbers should be is an individual task that each product team must engage with themselves, determining the best balance for their market, product, and customers.

But deciding what that number is actually isn’t the hardest part of this entire equation — enforcing that balance becomes the hardest part, once some number is chosen. Particularly in organizations where there is a “client-first” perspective, and where large clients are (1) funding a large portion of the company and (2) used to bespoke services, this is less of a nudge in culture and more of a tectonic shift in the very fabric of the organization. This change requires alignment from the top to the bottom, and from every team delivering value to the client.

Ultimately, the organization has to be willing to say “no” to some requests from these key clients, so that they can deploy their resources effectively on standardization efforts.  Prioritization becomes a core competency of the product team, and needs to influence every other stakeholder in the organization.  From the CEO down to the individual sales rep, the organization must adopt a perspective of balance — while keeping one customer happy remains important, identifying and executing on standardization work is more important to the long term strategy of the company.

There are a few things that organizations facing these challenges can do to help in this transition:

  • Dedicate a subset of engineering or service teams to creating standardized solutions — and stick with this disciplined separation.  “Borrowing” from this resource pool to meet a customization request undercuts the entire point of becoming a product-led organization.
  • Establish and reinforce a culture of prioritized decision-making by creating a clear list of priorities that every team in the organization can align to. If teams know how much work they can put in the queue for custom v. standard work — and this split is adhered to — then they can prioritize their own requests to put the most impactful at the top of the stack.
  • Make decisions about prioritization and delivery as transparent and open as possible by ensuring that there are regular reviews and touch-points regarding requests from stakeholders. When people within the organization can see the volume and importance of others’ requests which remain in the queue, they are less likely to try to insert ideas that are urgent to them but not important to the organization as a whole.

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