Learning to Say “No”

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The great thing about working with software development teams is that on the whole they’re a nice bunch of people who just want to get on and do the right thing.

The tricky thing in large-scale enterprise product development is that there’s often aggressive targets pushed through sales & marketing onto product managers.

A common response is to take a shotgun to the enhancement request backlog and ask for everything from the development teams and negotiate down from that point.

Craig Larman & Bas Vodde summarized this brilliantly using game theory in the second of their scaling agility books as the “your fault” game.

Assuming like many large companies you’re faced with the challenge of an annual commitment-based project/backlog and you’ve whittled that down to the best you can do; chances are your product manager will come back at some point through the year having visited a customer or partner and, like Columbo, ask for “just one more thing”.

Agile development is meant to give us the flexibility to do this right?

The typical nice guy response is “well… it’s going to hurt … but we’ll try”…

Great! When your team gets kicked around the room at the end of the year for failing to meet their release commitments, I’m pretty sure I know whose “fault” it’ll be.

FrAgile

So… Time to dig yourselves out of that abusive relationship, get a backbone and learn to say “No”.

OK. Maybe that’s a bit harsh. How about…

“Sure we’d absolutely love to do that but here’s everything we’ve already committed to for you. What would you like us to drop first?”

That still sounds pretty collaborative – but now it’s on your terms.

You’ve also just highlighted that being Agile doesn’t mean not making commitments if that’s what your business needs, it means managing your customers better.

If the previous “we’ll try” conversation is the norm for your teams, chances are this is the first time your product manager has ever been put in this situation. Don’t expect it to be pretty or easy. You’ll need to stand your ground and limit the options available.

I’m a fan of visual management so here’s my take.

  1. Take all the features you’ve committed to already and put them on cards or stickies.
  2. Draw a box around them so that there’s no room for anything else.
  3. Bring your product manager to the table, hand them the new feature or item they want on a card of similar size to an equivalent feature.
  4. Ask them to trade out something so that the card fits.
  5. Once the trade-out decision is made. Confirm any timing impact on the other features.
  6. Optional… (but recommended If you’re in a low-trust environment) Get the decision in writing recorded in whatever your system of record is.

If you can’t get your product manager in the room, do the same thing with excel and coloured blocks representing each feature in a pipeline. Adding a new feature in anywhere in that pipeline extends the end date. If you’re on a fixed-date commitment that means something falls off the end.

Simple?

Give this a try or adapt something similar for your own needs.

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