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Johanna Rothman on Modern Management Made Easy

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Johanna Rothman about her seven principles of modern management, reward and incentive systems, multiple career ladders and ways to experiment with decisions for rapid feedback.

Key Takeaways

  • Managers are often trapped in old ways of doing things, even though the organization wants to move to new approaches
  • Focus on flow efficiency over resource efficiency
  • Reward structures in most organizations set up perverse incentives as opposed to virtuous feedback cycles 
  • The more expensive a management decision is, the more we need to experiment with that decision
  • There are seven principles for modern management that can help guide managers today


Introduction [00:21]

Shane Hastie: Good day, folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture Podcast. I have the privilege today of sitting down, again, with Johanna Rothman. We're still not in person, but Johanna, it's great to see you again. How are you doing?

Johanna Rothman: I'm doing well. And I am thrilled that we have a chance to talk again.

Shane Hastie: You've recently published three new books in a bundle, all about modern management made easy. And it starts with practical ways to manage yourself, practical ways to lead and serve and manage others, and practical ways to lead an inevitable organization. What brought these about now?

Managers are often working in old ways, despite the demand for new approaches [01:23]

Johanna Rothman: So, as you have seen with your work in ICAgile and with business agility, Agile is the new thing. Everybody is doing it. That's great for teams and it's also great for programs, but what are the managers supposed to do? And what I keep saying again and again is that the managers have no idea how to enhance agility. Instead they are still working on old ways that do not enhance anything to be honest. But it's all of the myths. It's all the old traditional ways that are not serving anybody in the organization.

Shane Hastie: Given that management itself seems to be behind some of the practices that we're seeing in organizations today, as you say, business agility is the driver. Everybody's gone digital in the last year. COVID has been the single biggest driving force for the digital transformation of organizations. What are some of those management mistakes and myths that are still continuing?

Johanna Rothman: When I see what happens in my clients, a lot of the managers have no idea where they fit. And so what they tend to do, the senior managers tend to micromanage the middle managers who tend to micromanage the first level managers. And then those first level of managers micromanage the teams. So the micromanagement occurs all the way up and down and no strategic thinking happens. I mean, what passes for strategic planning is very, very tactical.

Flow efficiency over resource efficiency [03:02]

Johanna Rothman: So that's something I see a lot of. And we still have a focus on the individual as opposed to the team. And it's not just the teams, the feature teams or the product teams, it's also teams of managers, right? So if we have teams of managers who collaborate, first of all, they can decide on things much, much faster. Secondly, they have the same overarching goal because they are a team of managers that allows them to then focus their teams on that overarching goal and to focus on flow efficiency in which not to measure it, I rarely actually measure the ratio of flow efficiency to wait time. But I do want to see where the delays are and how long the delays are compared to the work time. That I find very, very useful.

Shane Hastie: Flow efficiency. As a manager, how do I enable flow efficiency? Perhaps a step back even. When we say flow efficiency, what do we mean?

Johanna Rothma: Let me contrast that with resource efficiency. In resource efficiency thinking we say, "Shane can do this thing. Johanna can do that thing." And we can assess the value of each of their contributions to the whole, right? And we really focus on the individual and their supposedly value. In flow efficiency, we say, what's the unit of the people doing the work? Is the unit a team? Maybe the unit is actually a program, which is a collection of several teams, all contributing to one business objective.

Johanna Rothman: Maybe the team is a collection of managers who are deciding on that business objective. So when we think in terms of flow efficiency, we think about what a team can actually do and how that contributes up to the greater good of the organization.

Shane Hastie: At a practical level. What do I do differently? Because I'm used to looking at the people on my team and saying, "Well, yes, Shane can do that. So if I've got one of that, that needs to be done, I will give it to Shane. And if there's another one, I'll give it to Shane and then I'll pile it all on Shane and then Shane starts to feel a little bit overwhelmed. But there's a queue now of stuff for Shane."

Johanna Rothma: Exactly.

Shane Hastie: How do you change that?

Agreeing on the approach to working together [05:34]

Johanna Rothman: When we think about flow efficiency, then we say, and if you're the manager, you might say, "Who would like to work with Shane?" And Johanna puts up her hand and says, "I would like to. I would really like to learn what Shane is doing." And Shane says, "Oh. That Johanna, she has such a big mouth. I wonder if she can say quiet while we're actually pairing." So Shane and Johanna actually discuss how they will work together because I am a huge, big time extrovert. And anybody compared to me, looks like an introvert.

I need to negotiate how I will work with other people, right? This is part and parcel of how we work together as a collaborative team. So we do this at the team level and we do this if we repair. We do this if we swarm. We do this if we mob. But what is really important for managers is to saying, "How can I encourage people to negotiate those working agreements so that they will decide how they want to work? How can I create an environment where they can do their best work, not their best individual work, but the best work for the product, for the organization, for whatever the overarching goal is."

Shane Hastie: One of the most common blockers to this is going to be the organization's incentive structures because every company has the individual incentives. So if I'm Shane and I'm the hero of doing this type of task, do I want to share that?

Incentive structures often inhibit flow efficiency [07:11]

Johanna Rothman: Probably not. Right? So we really need to address the incentive structure and say, instead of having individual goals, how about if we incentivize Shane on how he supports the rest of his team. How he helps Johanna learn this very interesting piece over here and how she could then do it herself later or maybe collaborate with Brad, or collaborate with Joan, or collaborate with Tricia? Right? That we have other people.

So the work does not queue behind Shane, but we have multiple alternatives for all of us to learn together. And yes, that totally breaks the compensation system, and the current career ladders. Yeah. I'm talking about breaking all of them because first of all, they don't work. And secondly, they set up perverse incentives as opposed to virtuous feedback cycles.

Shane Hastie: So what does a career level look like in that context?

Three-column career ladders [08:14]

Johanna Rothman: So I've been doing a bunch of work about career ladders recently. The more I think about it, the more I think it's based on influence. Right now, my working model is a three column career ladder, right? Not dual track. We actually have at least a triple track. Maybe it's more, I don't know. It's not less. So than the technical track all the way on the left is we have most of our influence over the code and then the product. That's where the architects are. That's where our principal engineers are, our test architects, our principal test people, right? I think about development and test in the same way.

We're talking about the code and the product, the technical part of that. The middle column for lack of a better term is much more in how we have influence over the product. So, anybody who facilitates a team in some way, so our product owner, a scrum master an agile project manager, program manager, a senior... I don't even know what a senior scrum master or a senior product owner is.

I've seen all those titles, right? And product managers. They all are in what I call that middle column, where they focus on the product and they work on the process so they can help deliver the product. Here I am, empress of the universe again, but in my world, it's not so much that we have people who focus on the process, but we have people who understand process so we can deliver a product. So for me, the influences, the product influence in that middle column. And then on the right hand column, that's all the people leadership stuff.

So first-line manager, director,a VP. All of those people are going to be in the right-hand column. And if you start to think about the influence that they hold, then you can see how people can move across from technical, maybe into product, maybe not through product, but into management. And then maybe if they decide, "Management, not really for me, but I want to focus on the product."

Now, they go back in terms of the columns, not backwards in terms of their careers. But back to the middle column where they say, "I want influence over the product." Not from the architecture perspective, which is on the left-hand column, but from the entire product perspective in the middle column. The more we think about this kind of three-track career ladder, the more flexible we have for our jobs and the less any manager has to do in terms of saying, "Well, you did this thing, and this thing, and this thing, but because we're focused on your achievements, and you use your influence to help Shane get ahead or Johanna get ahead. Now we're going to mark you down." That's kind of crazy. We want people to influence each other for the greater good. And that's what this kind of triple track career ladder would do.

Shane Hastie: It breaks the existing models for many organizations, but perhaps it's time that some of them did get broken.

Johanna Rothman: Well, yes. I'm happy to do that.

Shane Hastie: Across the books, you have these seven principles. Do you want to tell us about them?

Introducing seven principles of management [11:351]

Johanna Rothman: Sure. Well, the first one is to clarify your purpose and that's for yourself, your team and the organization. Because if you don't know why you exist, not that existential why we exist, but why we exist here in this organization, then we can never fulfil it. Then the next one is building empathy with the people who do the work, building a safe environment. We talk a lot about psychological safety in the agile community. And, oh my goodness, we do not do enough of it. Not nearly enough of it.

Seek outcomes and optimize for that overarching goal that I've talked about already several times. Encourage experiments and learning. I see way too many organizations where the senior managers and even the middle managers want predictability in the product backlog in the amount of money we're going to spend, in the project portfolio. I'm not sure what the right frame is for projects or product.

You and I have had several interesting discussions about that before. And I'm sure we will, again. However, the more we encourage experiments and learning, the less either of our positions matter because the whole idea that both of us agree on is that we need to do a whole lot more experiments and a whole lot more learning in the organization. I'm a big fan of catching people succeeding and appreciating something that somebody does every single day.

I'm so glad I had a chance to speak with Nancy before we started this, right? For those of you who don't know, Nancy is my friend also, Shane's wife and I have not seen them in way too long, right? So neither of them, and certainly not Nancy. And then exercising value based integrity. We all know what we should do. We know when our organizations ask us to do something that violates that integrity. And the more you can live by your integrity, the better you feel about your own contributions to the organization. So those are the seven principles. And to me, they all kind of mesh together.

Shane Hastie: Let's dig into some of these. Clarify your purpose. "I'm here because I'm good at writing code. I'm here because I know how to design tests. I'm good at that." Is that enough?

Principle: Clarify your purpose [13:56]

Johanna Rothman: Well, I think as a first step, sure. I mean, when I was a 22-year-old software developer, I had a single purpose. Make money, learn more. Okay, I guess that's two purposes. But I very quickly learned that if I was not interested in the product, I did not do a good job. I see every reason for an organization to explain why they are in business. And returning value to the shareholders is an outcome of doing great products that wonderful customers want to buy. And the way you create great products is with a cross-functional team that's diverse. And this is how it all goes together.

So several years ago, I did a little tiny bit of work for a local company whose job their entire company was based on. We help people exit the hospital when they are done. I'm not sure what the health service is like in New Zealand. I'm sure it's so much better in some ways than it is here. But here, there is paperwork. I'm in the US, for those of us who are listening worldwide. So in the US, paperwork, paperwork, paperwork. And your doctor can say to you, "You're going to leave this morning, and by two in the afternoon, you are not yet done."

They did not bring you breakfast. They did not bring you lunch. You're dying of hunger. You're ready to go home. You're really, really ready. And you cannot go home because there's more paperwork. You would not think that this is a goal that people could coalesce around, but the way the company framed it, it was absolutely a goal that people could coalesce around. And they all said, "My part serves this purpose. Everyone understood exactly why they were there."

So it might be, I'm a developer. I'm working on making sure that the data from one place to another goes in the right order and is coherent, and whatever else data does, right? Because this is now the edge of my understanding. But that person had a really clear purpose for their work.

Shane Hasti: Build empathy. Shouldn't that just be natural?

Principle: Build empathy [16:08]

Johanna Rothman: Luckily you did not meet me at the early part of my career. I did not get into software because I was such a people person. I'm still not really a people person. I practice a lot, a lot, a lot. And empathy comes up in several ways. So one way that I find really interesting is that if you have empathy with the people who are doing the work and they say, "It's going to take me a week or a month or a year."

You don't say to them, "I'm sure you can do it in less time." That's not having empathy. You might say, is there anything I could give you? Right? More machines, more people to work with, better tooling, better infrastructure. Is there anything that would make that take less time because that's a useful conversation to have, but not “back in my day, we could do all this stuff in an hour or two”. So that those kinds of conversations.

Shane Hastie: And that builds or builds towards the create safety.

Principle: Create safety [17:06]

Johanna Rothman: Oh, yes. Yeah. Because if you can not have a good discussion with people about, I might actually say to you, "Your request of me is kind of crazy. Crazy is not a helpful word, Johanna." But I might say, "I understand why you want that because I understand why you want that to be done in less time. I will ask you what are the benefits to you of having it be done in less time?" And here's the stuff that I need. Notice this is a two-way conversation between a team and the manager or a person in a manager. Not the typical conversations we have where somebody at the top rolls down a demand, and somebody then rolls down that demand, and rolls down the demand and send the demand without understanding why that demand occurs.

Shane Hastie: As you mentioned psychological safety is almost become a buzzword. How do we make it real?

Johanna Rothman: I'm a huge fan of managers actually teaching feedback and coaching. In the old ways of management, the manager offered feedback, hopefully in every one-on-one. But I know that there were managers who did not do that. And the only time people got feedback was that their review. That's totally wrong, has not been useful for years and years and years. However, when the manager teaches feedback and coaching and then says, "Hit me with your feedback." Well, maybe not hit me. "But I encourage feedback from you," and then does something with it.

One of the people I led and served many, many years ago said, "I realized that you want to do so management by walking around and listening, Johanna, but every time you stop in my office, you interrupt me and I get reset from my thinking. I really want you to not come into my office anymore”. I said, "Oh, thank you for telling me. I apologize." He said, "Fine, now go away." So the “fine, now go away” was possibly a little excessive, but I think I really irritated him. And because he gave me feedback and because I knew about that, I could then email him.

“Do you have any time in your schedule for a minute drop by at some point? I would like to discuss these two or three things with you”. And then he would email me back and say, "Not today, but tomorrow I'm free from 10 to noon." So, it seems kind of funny to have an appointment for managing by walking around and listening. But I think it's quite reasonable. We can internalize this feedback and use it to the best of our ability. And there are certainly times people have said to me, "Johanna, I really need you to stop talking because I'm thinking." You might've actually said that to me when we were working on a workshop earlier in our careers. But it's possible.

Shane Hastie: What's the difference between seeking outcomes and clarifying your purpose?

Principle: Seeking outcomes [20:02]

Johanna Rothman: When I think about seeking outcomes, it's all about instead of tests with outputs, it's how do we deliver to an overarching goal? And when I think about the purpose, I think about what value do I offer in the organization? The two are definitely related. I don't see how to separate them, but understanding the why for the organization and then understanding how we deliver that why, for me, the delivery of that why is the outcomes? So we offer products and services to deliver on the why for the organization. And if we are smart, we also think about how we encourage experiments, because we might be able to deliver more products and services or different products and services for different customers if we experiment more often.

Shane Hastie: What do these experiments look like?

Johanna Rothman: A really quick experiment is you're having one of those project portfolio conversations. Should we do this project or that project? Or should we initiate this product or initiate that product? What's the smallest thing you could do to get an answer? Why not actually do something like that? Why not have a monthly project portfolio conversation or product experimentation conversation so that you can re-jig where you find value as an entire organization.

Both of us have attacked this project portfolio, product delivery problem from various perspectives in our careers. And I suspect that you would agree with me that so many organizations want to plan for an entire year. And we certainly saw this in 2020. We're seeing it again in 2021. We are not able to plan for much more than a month at a time, even that.

Shane Hastie: If even that.

Johanna Rothman: I am a huge fan of rolling wave planning and understanding where are we now? What's the next reasonable place to get to. And especially the more expensive the management decision is, the more we need to experiment with that decision. Not just to reduce the cost of the decision and then reduce the time of the decision, but to actually see could we get the results we want in a different way.

Shane Hastie: And recognizing success. How do we make that, I'm going to say real, not fake?

Principle: Recognize success [22:30]

Johanna Rothman: What I recommend in the books is that you find something to recognize about every person, at least once a week. And if you can, more often. Because so much of the feedback we get in organizations is, "Johanna, you're too blunt and direct." That's not very helpful feedback. The first time somebody said to me, "Johanna, I really appreciate how you chose your words for this difficult conversation. And here's the impact it had on me."

That's when I sat back and said, "Oh my God. They're talking about choosing my words." Not being blunt and direct, I can do this. I got words." So that totally changed how I felt about that particular piece of feedback. I mean, you've known me a long time. You would say, "I am blunt and direct." There was no question about it. However, you have also seen me, I hope, try and choose my words better and better over time. And that's the kind of appreciation that when we catch people succeeding, that's what really makes a difference. So I'm talking about the really small things, because when we appreciate the smaller things, that's what we do more of, and we tend to do less of the big, bad things.

Shane Hastie: And value based integrity.

Principle: value based integrity [23:53]

Johanna Rothman: So let me tell you a little story. Back when I was a director of many things at a company in the Boston area, we supplied a voicemail system to a telephone company. This company has been out, been acquired and sold and acquired and sold. So none of the products and services are the same. And we had a pretty horrible release. And my boss told me that my job was to make it right to our customer. This customer was 90% of our revenue, which is in itself a very difficult place to be.

Then I said, "Okay, the way I'm going to make it right is to say customer. We have a problem. However, you can start your internal testing. We will give you an update every week. We will send you tapes." Because this is still back in tapes or maybe it was CDs by that time. "But we will send you updates every week until we make all of this right." This is our initial release. And my boss said to me, "No, you can't tell them that. You need to say that you personally certified this release."

And I said, "In what lifetime, do you think I'm going to say that? I have trust with this customer? Why would I say that? I would wreck all of my trust with this customer? Why would I do that?" He said, "Because I'm asking you to. No, I'm telling you. Your job depends on it." I said, "No." And I walked out of his office. So of course, I went home and called my husband and said, "I might not have a job by the end of today."

Fine, but my boss then caved, and he said, "You're right. I don't like it. I don't want to have to tell the client this." I said, "We need to be honest with them otherwise they will rip out all of our equipment and get in our competitor. If we're honest, they might not do that."

Shane Hastie: Thank you for that. So some clear principles that are not necessarily easy.

In most organizations management compensation goes against these principles [25:49]

Johanna Rothman: Oh, no. In fact, management compensation actually goes against each of these. The way we reward managers goes against all of this. So I'm asking managers to do a very big thing. And of course, I'm working on the HR stuff and on how to put together a reasonable environment, a culture that makes much more sense.

Shane Hastie: We're in the Culture Podcast. What does that culture look like?

The need for culture change [26:18]

Johanna Rothman: I think that what we need is an agile culture, that the way we treat each other, I really like Schein’s ideas for culture. He talks about artifacts and assumptions. So, he makes my head hurt. But if we think about how we treat each other and what we can discuss, and what we reward in the organization, then these principles actually do a lot of virtuous cycle of, we treat each other better. We are not perfect. We don't have to be perfect.

In the books, I say, "Work on your own behaviors and it’s progress, not perfection. I'm never going to be perfect. Not going to happen in the million years, but I can keep making progress and I can still get emails from people I manage 20 years ago. I'm still in touch with those people and they say, "I really like what you did then. I like what you're writing even better now."

So it's kind of funny. But when we treat each other as humans, when we make almost everything safe to discuss, and I know that there are financial matters that some people cannot discuss at certain times. I totally understand that. There are quiet periods for a publicly held companies. If you're doing anything with a person and you're trying to move them out of the company, you cannot discuss that with anybody else, right? I'm not talking about total transparency, but I'm talking about making almost everything safe to discuss.

And then if we talk about rewarding people, so that it's all about what we do together, it's all about how we look for that overarching goal and all support that not cascading things down, then we are much more likely to create the kind of environment, the kind of culture that we need for real business agility.

Shane Hastie: What's next for Johanna?

What Johanna is working on [28:08]

Johanna Rothman: I'm finishing more books. Oh, you are so surprised. I'm working on a consulting book right now. And I realized in the consulting cohort that I need to either write a series of blog posts while it will probably turn out to be a series of blog posts about critical thinking skills for consultants and coaches, because I'm realizing a lot of people come into agile approaches via a framework. That's wonderful, right? I have nothing against frameworks except for when people think that that's the only way to think about a problem.

You and I see signals in many areas of the organization and we can not solve all those problems that the signals show us when we have only one framework or only two or three, because some things are just not frame workable. So I'm going to finish the consulting book. I'm probably going to do this critical thinking posts and possibly a little book to collect it all together. And then I need to go back to the compensation and career ladders because we are not doing a good enough job for everybody in the organization. We are just not.

Shane Hastie: Johanna, thank you so much. It's great to catch up again. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Johanna Rothman: Well, first of all, thank you. I really enjoyed this. And secondly, everything is on, Yes, I got a domain name when it was fine. But it was fine if it was just my first initial and my last name. And I also write about a lot of what's really agile, personal essays on my site. Because I talk a lot about adaptability and resilience there, and I find that people who read those personal essays often get a lot out of them for their agile journey.

Shane Hastie: Thank you so much.

Johanna Rothman: Thank you.


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