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I'm currently working in a startup that's incubated inside a much bigger company. We are a team of 4 people, including the leader (aka product owner). Our leader is a long time developer who has 15+ years of development experience, our data analysis guy also has 15+ year of experience, but, has a LOT more knowledge due to study and multiple graduations (I would say he is more of an academic person), and then there is me and another junior developer. Everyone gets along well and we could be called "friends" at this point, including the lead.

The problem we're facing is our leader's resistance to our ideas. The project itself is very young (less than six months in development) and everyone has a better idea on how to do certain things, but when presenting them to the leader, although very open to debate, he is extremely resistant to suggestions. We've multiple times come up to him with solutions, backed up by articles, evidences and studies, and we're still faced with a long debate on (sometimes) obvious topics. In the end the idea is neglected and the product ends up being a shadow that what it could have been.

I've "lost" a debate to him for the third time in a extremely obvious topic, and I'm starting to feel like it's better to just proceed in a wrong path and let it break at some point than to enter in another pointless debate. My coworkers have faced this problem aswell, more than I have and sometimes with harsher resistance, and that's why I decided to post this, because I don't think that's how startups should work.

How can I and the team approach this resistance? Should I give feedback to him about how the team feels about this issue? If so, should it be a group meeting or a one to one talk?

Notes: He is anxious in general and that reflects during debates. He doesn't let you finish, he talks 70% of the time while you talk 30%. He has previous leading experience. He is 95% guide and facilitator and 5% code, he only does so in an extreme case, like a deadline or something that has already taken a lot of time, he acts as a helping hand. Although he is extremely resistant, he also encourages feedback and suggestions a lot, that's why I get confused sometimes.

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  • is he anxious in general? are the topics you discuss topics he would consider himself an expert in? can you give insight or speculations on why he resists?
    – Benjamin
    Aug 20 at 14:16
  • does your leader have previous leadership experience? or was he a developer the whole time, and he now leads for the first time? What's his role? I presume it's a mixed leader + developer role: So he leads, and he also codes, right? How is the generel hierachy and feedback culture of your company?
    – Benjamin
    Aug 20 at 14:19
  • @Benjamin I edited that question, thank you for your suggestion. He is not an expert in any of the topics with discuss with him, in the cases that he is, we understand his views and he acts more like a guide than a barrier. But I have no idea why he resists on topics that he is clearly outdated, maybe because he has done things a certain way and isn't open to change?
    – Jalkun
    Aug 20 at 14:23
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    Is this startup dependent on producing/selling this product in order to fund itself, or is this more like an incubator that the larger company hopes will produce a useful product the larger company can then use/sell?
    – BryanH
    Aug 20 at 14:27
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    @JoeStrazzere well, when 2 people have opposing views of what should be done, they debate to decide the better solution. What do you mean?
    – Jalkun
    Aug 20 at 18:53
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To be able to convince others, being able to take no for an answer is a good starter. If your boss feels like he only can say yes, otherwise you will have bad feelings, he will feel pressured and say no more likely. By being able to take a no in good stride, you make him feel free to decide what's best. Being open to feedback is a good thing, but expect that most product feedback turns into a no. It's much easier to have ideas, than to turn them into reality.

There might be a myriad of technical and non technical reasons to say no:

  • Political reasons within the company: Maybe that technology/solution is burned, and it would need political captial to have another go at it. Political capital your teamlead might not even have, and if he has it, he might spend it otherwise
  • legal reasons. I had a coworker once propose a Machine Learning solution, which would have been much better. But that didn't matter, the most important thing was that we could explain to customers and possibly a judge why our system decided what it decided. With ML, the quality would have improved, but the explainability would have suffered.
  • the hidden assumption: When 2 or 3 technical proposals collide, and everybody is sure their is best, their might be a hidden assumption in there. Maybe about user behaviour, user/customer expecations, usage, data shape, or something else. Everybody might be right if THEIR assumption is the correct one. The trick is to make that assumption visible, and then find out which one applies. E.g.: I worked several years at a company where downtime could be measured in money. We always knew how much each minute downtime costs. (This depend on weekday, time, weather, month, and a few other factors. But we always knew). So uptime/reliabilty was a huge factor. When I came into the next company/project, I brought that assumption with me. I had disagreements with people, until I found out: Downtimes don't matter, people just have to wait. If the whole software doesn't work for one weekend, that's fine. Just fix it monday morning. Of course, that changed the solutions I pushed for once I realised that.
  • Cost/benefit analysis: You might be right, your solution might be better. But is it worth the cost/effort? Somethings might only be worth it at a certain scale, if the customer base is big enough, etc... Also factor in cost of maintenance, not only development: If you use something fancy/exotic, it usually is more effort for the Operations team to keep it in production. They might need to hire somebody with specialised skills. Also, what if the development team has to grow? if you use many fancy solutions, it will be thougher to findsome who knows all that. Or more expensive to train them up instead
  • other reasons still

So I would first advice to accept that it is perfectly fine to accept feedback, and then not do what is proposed. Doing so gracefully is a skill, if your PO is lacking in that, help him develop it. If he needs to explain better, ask for better explanations/context. Be open to hear him out.

Shooting down most suggestions and wanting more suggestions can be perfectly consistent: You want to hear everything, accept the one suggestion that's a goldmine, and decline the rest. That includes stuff that is merely good.

Another very general point: Even if you are right, and the company should do what you propose, how you go about it matters. It's though to sum up all advice on good communication in a stackexchange answer: There is a reason there are whole books about this topic. As programmers, we often feel the best solution should win, how one argues for it shouldn't matter. I understand that idealised vision, but the how often matters more then the what. So if you take courses on communication, or read books, or watch videos that will benefit you in the long run a lot.

What you can do in the short run: Talk to your PO, in a meeting with only you two, when you have enough time and quiet to talk this through. Explain to him that you feel sad that all your proposals didn't get accepted. When doing so, only state facts and your personal feelings. Speculations about his motivations or feelings aren't facts. A fact could be: I proposed something 3 times. You said "No, we won't do this" to all 3 of them. Only use his verbatim words. Then ask to help you get your ideas accepted: What can you do so he accepts them? You want to bring your ideas/creativity to the team, so ask him to help you do it. If he is serious about wanting feedback/suggestions, he will be open to discuss this.

Hopefully, you will be able to find a solution that's acceptable to the both of you.

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    Thank for your response. I'm very passionate of what I do and I preffer to deliver everything as best as possible, after all, it's my creation, and what creator would purposely leave his work with flaws? I'll try to understand better the reasons behind certain decisions and accept them. This situation has already taught me a few things about negotiation at least.
    – Jalkun
    Aug 24 at 12:52
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As you've stated that your relationship is overall friendly I would bring your higher level concerns to him:

I think there is a pattern developing here where ideas of other team members are being being unduly rejected. {state 2 or 3 examples, including ideas from others). I'm worried that this is creating an environment where input from the team will stop coming in, which will hurt the final product and hurt the team. Do you see where I am coming from? If so do you see a path forward on this?

I would ensure that this is a face to face conversation, in private, done with care in terms of keeping tone calm (nobody is accusing anyone of anything) and only with a manager you are on friendly terms with. Just remember 15+ years of dev experience doesn't mean he has leadership skills and learning to accept the ideas of others can be one of the hardest steps for someone making the jump from technical to leadership.

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  • A good leader offers suggestions last to encourage teammates to contribute and also to not unduly influence/suppress other solutions. After all, who wouldn't want a GREAT solution?
    – BryanH
    Aug 20 at 15:03
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Here's the key phrase from your question

everyone has a better idea on how to do certain things, but when presenting them to the leader, although very open to debate, he is extremely resistant to suggestions.

Yes, so your arguments are not sufficient to convince your PO and it is possible you're dead wrong (you might not understand the requirements/constraints and/or the big picture).

Can you say why your way is better and defend it from a technical standpoint? If not, then you really don't have a viable alternative.

If you can defend it and the PO still rejects it, ask why. Don't argue, just listen. From their answer, you will begin to discern their own internal criteria for viable solutions and can adjust your approach thusly. Whatever their point, you need to address that aspect next time.

For example, say you're discussing versioning APIs.

  • You say the API versions should all have a different URL.
  • PO says no.
  • You ask, "can you help me understand why that isn't a good idea?"
  • PO says, because (making this up) clients can't use different URLs
  • You say, "Ahh, okay, thanks for that"

Next time you have an opinion for similar situation, make sure your solution addresses the constraint of the clients.

Note - if your startup was a standalone, I would advice you to leave as soon as you can, because—speaking from experience—with that much discord on the team, it is very possible they will fail to produce a viable product before they burn through all their cash and go out of business

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  • We're not bringing solutions out of nowhere, as I stated "backed up by articles, evidences and studies", he is the one doing it. Three different people with different experiences and backgrounds have already debated various topics and faced the same issue. There are a few specific themes (that he is not an expert at) that somehow he resists even if we give him clear evidence, is it really the team who should improve their negotiation skills then? That's my point: how to convince someone of something even though you show them clear evidence?
    – Jalkun
    Aug 20 at 15:28

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