How Do Product Managers Reject Bad Ideas?


They’re coming to you with an idea. Ungallant to reject it, right?

As Product Managers, we’re the Grand Central stations of ideas: We don’t necessarily originate all the ideas for the product, but all ideas should route through us on the way to their final destination. Some ideas go to production, some to the backlog, some back to the drawing board, and others to shallow graves.

Unfortunately, killing off bad ideas isn’t always an easy thing…

Are You A Natural Born Bad Idea Killer?

Are you one of the rare breed who can spot a bad idea from 100 yards away and shoot it dead without nicking the person waving its banner? Then–please–share your insights below! For most people, rejecting ideas isn’t so easy.

People feel protective of their ideas, and often invest some of their own self-worth into those ideas. If you’re not careful, you may end up accepting a bad idea because you’re afraid of hurting their feelings–or, on the flip side, bruising their egos by too callously discarding their ideas. Neither is a good option if you want to go far as a PM.

The Tightrope

As a Product Manager, I often find myself walking the tightrope of encouraging idea generation while simultaneously evaluating, prioritizing, and eliminating ideas.

Whirlpool’s process for evaluating and testing product ideas is sensible. Key criteria? The product must meet a consumer need in a fresh way; have the breadth to become a platform for related products; and lift earnings. If the idea doesn’t fit, it logically should be rejected.

Purist Product Management offers a three-gate process for idea review and elimination. A key element to their process is quick feedback to the idea originator on why the idea is being rejected or pushed forward for further evaluation.

Stick to the facts, explain the rejection, and move on. Sounds simple.

But What If The Bad Idea Belongs To The CEO?

Then you’re screwed! Ha ha! Just kidding.

William Ury, author of The Power of a Positive No offers this insight for delivering an effective “no”:

Yes without No destroys one’s own satisfaction, whereas No without Yes destroys one’s relationship with others. We need both Yes and No together. For Yes is the key word of community, No the key word of individuality. […] The great art is to learn to integrate the two–to marry Yes and No. That is the secret to standing up for yourself and what you need without destroying valuable agreements and precious relationships.

Will this tactic work with your CEO? Depends on the CEO, your relationship with them, and how well you can construct your argument.

Bottom Line

It’s not always easy to say “no”. That said, we are paid to think strategically and to make the right things happen at the right times for the right audience.

Every time you say “yes” to something middling or routine, you’re saying “no” to something strategic. Find the right way to strike that balance or someone will be answering “no” to the question, “Should we keep that PM on our payroll?”

Yikes

That ended in a dark place… Let’s try to brighten things up: What have your experiences been like saying “no” to bad ideas, or to good ideas that don’t fit for X, Y, or Z criteria? How do you handle having your own ideas rejected?

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9 thoughts on “How Do Product Managers Reject Bad Ideas?”

  1. I think the right answer has something to do with having a clear set of principles that you apply so consistently, others can predict your reaction and act accordingly.

    For instance, if I brought some crazy wild scheme to Qui-Gon Jinn, he would tell me to be patient. I slowly learn that he always is telling me to be patient, so I start doing my own pre-filtering of his criteria set for an idea. Over time, I don’t come to him with my ideas if I haven’t demonstrated patience first.

    I’ve started to see this work in reality. For about 3 years now I’ve been consistently reminding our professional services team that any good idea has to be phrased in terms of customer value or we just won’t be able to make it happen. They have figured out how to get by that first gate of the idea process by slowing down and making it fit into the correct customer value-based structure.

    Result: the ideas that can’t be rephrased are “good” ideas that get shot down without me having to be the bad guy 🙂

  2. Heh — thanks, Patrick — but your reference works just fine 😉 And I think you’re right about the need for criteria to weigh ideas against. An idea, in and of itself, might sound (and be) fantastic. But if it doesn’t fit with the company strategy, or deliver real value to your customers, someone’s got to call that out. It sounds so obvious, but, too often, doesn’t seem to actually happen.

  3. I generally recommend to people that rejecting is bad. The last thing you want to do is discourage the submitter from submitting future ideas.

    That being said, I think it is important to communicate with people where their ideas sits in relation to other ideas and what is ahead of their idea in the queue.

    Managing ideas/enhancements/feature requests could be a full-time job if you have a large number of users. In this case, start to think of technology to help with this. Otherwise, use it as a excuse to talk to your users.

    Stewart

  4. I find that the problem with many “ideas” that come to product management and often come from product managers is that they are a description of a solution.

    Great product ideas need to be described in terms of the problem that they solve. There is nothing wrong with sharing the solution as well, but the problem needs to worth it to the user.

    By asking the following questions I can either discover the gem of an idea or expose it as a waste of time :
    1) Who is it for? (ie who is the target user)
    2) What is the scenario that the user is in?
    3) What is the problem that the user needs resolved that they would be willing to exchange some value for?

    Answering and then communicating the results of these questions will actually open up the innovation process to new and exciting solutions as well as the original one.

    If questions can’t be satisfactorily answered then the “no” often takes care of itself.

    –nick coster

  5. Rejecting a bad idea should always be done with a good argumentation. First of all it is best to figure out the “Core of Badness” of the idea: Does it fit with the business strategy? Is it really relevant four our target users? What´s the monetization potential? How many resources will the development take and is it in a healthy relation with the expected profits?

    => If it´s really a bad idea, then it should be easy to find the Killer-Arguments after you checked these questions! And your simple “No” will be accompanied by some bitter-sweet arguments…

    cheers,
    Thomas

  6. This is an old thread but still very valid. I think the problem is compounded when you have to reject good and very valid ideas in addition to the bad ones. We are all swimming in great ideas for our products and for reasons of capacity, alignment, demand or other we cannot possibly act on all of them. We do have an obligation though to properly set the expectations of our customers as to what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and when it will come out…

    So, how do you say no to the good ideas?

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