Product managers wear many hats, but one of the most uncomfortable ones they’re forced to occasionally don is that of the product vision “Gatekeeper.” This particular aspect of product management requires PMs to do what most people find uncomfortable… say “no.”

Of course, product managers say ‘no” all the time, but it’s usually to bad ideas or things requiring resources that are simply unavailable. The harder part is shooting things down that aren’t bad at face value but don’t match up with the strategy, vision, and timeline of the overall product.

“Every product team has a finite level of resources and focused delivery separates the great products from the rest,” says Ian Truscott of Apropingo. “Having these principles established across the business gives them a framework for this, aligning not just the development team, but aligning product development with marketing, sales, and support.”

The importance of sticking to your product vision

It’s important not to confuse product vision with product strategy. Your product vision should seldom change, while your strategy on how to achieve that vision might shift quite a bit with new learnings, technological developments, shifting market dynamics, and competitor activity.

A well-defined product vision makes everything easier, such as grooming and prioritizing your backlog. If something doesn’t advance the product toward the vision, it can be eliminated, and whatever gets you there fastest can jump to the front of the queue.

“Once you have established your company’s vision, that vision becomes greater than you. It is now your enterprise’s “North Star,” and it should guide each and every decision your company makes,” says Adeo Ressi of the Founder Institute. “Your vision is the embodiment of your brand, and the reason your company exists.”

Abandoning the product vision—or even significantly changing it—signals to colleagues, investors, and the marketplace that the company has given up, its assumptions were wrong, or the business model was inherently flawed; these are not things to be taken lightly until all other options have been exhausted. And while allowing a superfluous feature to sneak into the roadmap to appease a cranky client or executive’s whim might not seem quite so dramatic, any deviation from the vision incites cracks in the foundation of the entire company.

Sticking to your product vision means saying “no”

Effective product management in many ways comes down to resource allocation—there are only so many hours in a day, so many developers on a team, so much real estate on a screen, so many things a customer will actually use, and so much a marketer can cram into a sales pitch. Prioritizing what makes the cut (and what gets done first) is core to the role. Many ideas possess merits worthy of consideration, but only a fraction can actually get done.

There are plenty of reasons to nix a potential addition to your product, but they tend to fall into one of a few categories:

Resource constraints

Whether you’re a scrappy startup or an industry titan, there are no unlimited budgets and endless minions at your beck and call. Every addition is a delay or exclusion of something else (no matter how small it may seem), so determining if the trade-off is worth it all comes back to the product vision.

Initiatives aligned with, supporting, or augmenting the vision are obviously far more worthy of consideration than completely tangential ones; but even seemingly relevant projects should be scrutinized. Will they truly make a difference in the metrics that matter?

Iffy returns

Product managers aren’t psychic (at least most of them aren’t), so there’s no way to predict with 100% confidence what the net effect of a given feature or enhancement may be. However, there are some indicators that it’s likely not worth it to pursue something.

Trying to hang onto a flight-risk customer or capture a fence-straddling prospect can often jostle the vision-based priorities established by the product team. Executives are generally in favor of revenue. But when account teams or sales people swear that if the product only did Thing X, then Company Y would sign or Company Z would renew and expand, it can be tempting to give in.

But if Thing X doesn’t mesh with the product vision, then it’s a much tougher call. How real are the commitments from those companies, and if they’re desperate for functionality that doesn’t align with the vision, maybe they’re not your target market after all.

Doing something new versus doing something better

It’s very tempting to add more things to a product. It makes the product seem much more functional and gives sales and marketing additional things to talk about. But continually adding new features and enhancements will result in a sprawling feature set that becomes a nightmare to support, with each new widget likely providing diminishing returns.

Taking the focus off the core functionality most closely aligned with the product vision can result in an accumulation of technical debt, and missing out on opportunities to refine and improve the main reason customers showed up in the first place. Remaining locked in on what got you there is a tough line to hold, but usually well worth it.

Turning down business for the sake of integrity

If the vision includes more than raw, capitalistic domination, companies must sometimes decline opportunities and make decisions based on their key principles. One recent headline-grabbing example is Patagonia, the outdoor gear company that decided to limit its custom corporate apparel to companies sharing its commitment to the environment.

Patagonia is literally putting its money where its mouth is by turning away new business unaligned with its vision: “We’re in business to save our home planet.” This shows its employees and customers just how important its values are, as they’re sacrificing additional revenue in the process.

Ben & Jerry’s is another company that stuck with its values over the years, even though they might have chipped away at profit margins. Even after being acquired by Unilever they’ve managed to maintain much of their independence and have been a vocal presence in many social, political, and environmental movements.

Despite quieting down the activist rhetoric and using non-cage-free eggs and milk produced with artificial growth hormones to improve the dollars and cents side of the business, they have managed to remain an iconic brand, and grow exponentially while sticking with their vision of making the world a better place.

Although these examples are more about social responsibility and brand equity than many technology companies typically face, the challenges and rewards of maintaining a vision’s integrity is universal.

Saying “no” effectively—it’s all about the “why”

Remembering that the product vision IS the “why” that drives everything the company does, it’s useful to circle back to the vision when explaining any product decision. It’s particularly handy when you need to tell someone they’re not going to get what they want.

This all begins with making sure everyone in the organization is aware of and fully comprehends the product vision, as it’s hard to use it as your justification if they don’t know what it is. By socializing it and reinforcing it, your product vision can permeate the entire workforce and hopefully lead to plenty of self-editing so you’re not saying “no” nearly as often.

With a common and universal understanding of the vision, you can circle back to it to elaborate, qualify and justify your “nope” response to a request. Sometimes it’s as easy as providing a gentle reminder… “does that really fit in the with product vision?” But other times it requires a little more exploration and tactfulness.

Validating assumptions

Before committing resources to something, as much advance work should be done as possible to ensure it’s worthwhile. In this context, it’s not only making sure there is demand for the feature, but also validating that it will contribute to the overall goals and the product vision.

While a new feature might be used or even attract new customers, will its usage advance the product toward its primary goals? Will those new customers be interested in the core value proposition or just the latest, ancillary widget?

If there’s no evidence that the product vision benefits from an initiative—despite the demand and potential usage—it shouldn’t be bumping vision-aligned projects from the prioritized queue.

Read the product manager's guide to prioritization  ➜

Keeping up with the Joneses is not a product vision

One of the trickiest situations product managers can find themselves in is having to reject a request for a feature that a competitor already offers. In the eyes of potential customers, your product, and those of your rivals, might just be a bunch of checkboxes on a feature matrix; and when you’ve got fewer than the other products on the market, it’s easy to feel the pressure to catch up.

But most products are not interchangeable clones, and few successful product visions are centered around “doing what the other guys do.” Instead, a unique product vision means a distinct set of product priorities that may not match up one-to-one with others in the same market.

Articulating why your product and its vision is about more than playing catch-up is essential for keeping these line-item comparisons at bay and not simply building a backlog by looking at the marketing materials of your competitors. It’s what makes your product unique and what sets you apart to drive sales and adoption, not parity.

Good idea, bad timing

Sometimes “no” just means “not now.” You can’t do everything at once, and the product vision can guide the decision-making process for what should get done right away versus what can wait.

This isn’t the answer people are looking for, but it’s preferable to a straight-up rejection. However, you need to manage expectations so internal stakeholders and clients don’t confuse “someday” with a specific day and get frustrated and disappointed when their request doesn’t end up on the short list any time soon.

Unintended consequences

Those “small” little feature requests that will satisfy customer demand or keep up with the competitors might seem like a trivial exercise to keep people happy or check a box on the product comparison matrix. But every new thing is now baggage for every subsequent release until it’s deprecated.

The smallest optional setting must be tested before every release. The “easy” integration with a social media platform needs to be maintained and updated every time the API changes. These all add up until the test script balloons and the product’s propensity for bugs grows exponentially, which diverts resources from developing the core functionality supporting the product vision.

Don’t forget the delivery when sticking to your product vision

It’s clear there are many reasons and opportunities to say “no,” but don’t overlook the importance of delivering that message with tactfulness and understanding. Luckily there are plenty of ways to turn down a request without burning bridges or rubbing the requestor the wrong way.

A strong product vision gives product teams the confidence and rationale to say “no” when they need to, even if it doesn’t make them the most popular person in the company. Despite the drawbacks of being the gatekeeper, there’s few things more important than ensuring the company’s time and resources are spent on efforts that will yield the biggest rewards.