Steven Kury: Digital Product Management, User Interface Construction

How I Said "No" and Didn’t Lose My Job

It is a common situation that nobody wants to say “no” to their boss. This is for reasons that usually need no explanation. However, circumstances do arise when doing exactly that is what is needed to both be constructively honest and produce the most desirable results in less than ideal situations. The following is a recounting of how I did this in a high-pressure situation.

I was working as a Product Owner for a large corporation that does software contracting for different branches of the Federal Government. I came into the engagement in the last year of a four year contract of a modernization project, integrating a collection of separate legacy applications to a full modern Internet based system. We were down to the last 12-week Program Increment (PI) in the SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) process of it before deployment, and tensions were high on the Fed Gov agency side now that the end was in sight. (It was a tumultuous four years.)

We anticipated that they would press us to deliver more functionality in that PI than we knew we could. We further anticipated that they would “ask” us if it would be helpful if they authorized us to add additional resources to the project at that late stage. Within my workstream, we were all in agreement that doing so would only slow down the veteran resources on the project who knew the application and codebase. Distracting the veterans to have them spin up newbies, as well as increase the lines of communication on our teams, would only slow it down and produce fewer end results. (By spending time teaching the new resources the “ropes” of the project, and conferring when they solved problems, it would hold them back from their actual contributions.)

In the second PI planning day, we came to the plan review session where each Product Owner had to present his/her plan to the collective management of the Gov agency and stakeholders. (Almost 200 people in total.) When it came to my workstream, I presented our plan with the objectives that we would and would not commit to. As anticipated, the agency Program Manager “asked” if we would commit to more if he authorized more resources to our teams.

My reply to him did not include the word “no”. My reply was, “I do not believe that that would be helpful to us. Here is why...”, and I laid out my aforementioned reasons. (These are also the premise of “The Mythical Man-month”, a time-honored study on how adding developers to a software project hits a point of diminishing marginal returns and actually delays the completion date of it.) I followed up by explaining how this is sticking with our “known quantity.”

To this he replied, in a dissatisfied tone, “Steve, are you aware that that was a non-binary answer?” To this I replied, “You could say that.” He did not press us on this issue again.

I did not actually use the work “no” with him. I simply explained the problems that would be introduced if we did what he asked. It is basically the same as when your boss asks you to take on another project which you do not have the time for. You do not say, “no”, you detail for her everything that you are working on currently and ask which of them she would prefer you drop to make room for the new project. Usually, she will back off on the issue.

I also knew that if I let him “bully” me around, like he was trying to, it would only create more tensions in the future if we didn’t deliver with them. These would come back to haunt me, and us, and impact my credibility. The fundamental to this is that bad news does not get better with age, unlike wine. I got to it directly and the matter stopped then.

The end results were that my workstream delivered all of the features that it committed to, I maintained good relationships with my higher management as well as my counterparts in that Fed Gov agency, and the application of Herculean proportions deployed on schedule. In this unideal situation, I just laid out the reality of the matter in constructive terms that most people would understand.

I also have good references from this project. If you have any questions about this, please reach out to me.

. . .

Steven Kury, MBA, is a software product manager. Throughout his career he has contributed vision and leadership to a breadth of online applications. Contact him at or (717) 350-6781 to discuss how he could contribute to your system.