The skill to say “No” — Agile product ownership

Today, I watched a short, concise and informative video about agile product ownership.

I especially liked the part that highlights the importance of the ability to say “No”. From experience, I can absolutely relate to the problem that once we start building upon an idea, the user stories and desired features can grow out of hand, in particular if the stakeholders actually like the idea and the project is going well. This part is tricky, because a lack of clear communication and expectation management can quickly lead to unsatisfied stakeholders that perceive the project as moving too slow and feel that their desired user stories are not prioritized high enough. In addition, the development team starts to be overwhelmed, overworked and their motivation drops as they are always feeling behind — independent of how hard they work.

For me, the beauty of the first video lies in the fact that it only takes 15 minutes. So, obviously not enough time to deep dive into some of the details. It’s a teaser video and I like it for this aspect. Still, saying “no” is hard for most people — me included. It’s hard to say no to friends and family, but also to stakeholders and colleagues. Nevertheless it is inevitable a crucial skill. As Steve Jobs put it: “Saying No is about Focus”.

But saying no is not enough, as it also becomes clear from this video. Learning to say no, and knowing when to say no is the beginning.

Actually saying no with grace, authority while minimizing negative reactions is an additional skill. It has to be done in the right way. Be it the development colleague or the stakeholder — if we are lucky enough to work with passionate people — the kind of people that care deeply about the idea or product — then just knowing what you want and saying “no” is not enough. We have to understand how to communicate the decision in the right way. You will notice that there are more resources on when to say no and on the importance on saying no than on showing how to actually say no. The resources that address the latter focus on making the process painless for you. The reason for the lack of resources on how to say no with minimizing the impact on your colleagues, stakeholders or others lies in the complexity surrounding this tasks. It takes a good portion of soft skills — empathy, intuition, sensitivity — but also authority and a clear vision. How to approach the task really depends on the situation, the reason for saying no and the personality of the person you are communicating with. Often, it’s just a matter of sharing underlying  reasons for the decision that will help others understand, but in a few cases it requires more skills, and knowing how to tackle difficult conversations and to avoid common mistakes becomes important.

Did you encounter difficult situations when saying no? How did you handle them?

Dr. Michaela Greiler

I make code reviews your superpower.

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