This is a transcript of episode 153 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

The fabulous Johanna Rothman, author of 18 books on tech and management, joins us to describe what modern management is and how empathy, safety, and purpose can motivate and inspire your agile team.

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Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Squirrel: And we get to say hello to someone else as well as someone that we’re both very excited about talking to, that is Johanna Rothman. Hi, Johanna.

Johanna: Hi. It’s nice to be here.

Squirrel: Well, we’re very glad to have you. So I should tell our listeners who Johanna is, if they don’t already know, because she’s very well known. And I’m a bit of a fanboy. I’ll tell you why in a minute. But let’s tell you who Johanna is. She’s known as the pragmatic manager. She offers frank advice for your tough problems, helps leaders and teams do reasonable things that work. And then equipped with that knowledge, they can decide how to adapt their product development. She is the author of 18 books and hundreds of articles, and you can find The Pragmatic Manager, a monthly newsletter, and her blogs at . And Fantastic. And of those 18 books. I have to say, Johanna, that I have been recommending Behind Closed Doors to every new manager I’ve met and we recommended in our O’Reilly course called your first 30 days as a manager. So for listeners who might not have heard me recommend that before, the first the first thing to know is when you go to Amazon, look for the one that’s by Johanna, not the one that isn’t safe for work or the thriller. So those are not the ones to look for. I look for behind closed doors. That is about management. And the wonderful thing about this book is that Johanna gives you a story about an actual manager, somebody who’s new to management and all the things that happen to them and what goes right and what goes wrong. And then she alternates that story with chapters explaining what’s actually happening and gives you practical advice for how to be a manager and how to hold one on ones and deal with rumours and all kinds of other fantastic things that happen to a manager in an organisation. So I’ve been a fan of Johanna for years and I’m so excited to have her here. Jeffrey you’ve been reading some more of Johanna’s more recent work and maybe you could tell our listeners about some of that.

Jeffrey: Yeah, absolutely. And we’ll be talking today with Johanna about her new trio of books. The title of the trio is Modern Management Made Easy and the books relate to each other. The first one is Practical Ways to Manage Yourself. The second one is Practical Ways to Lead & Serve (Manage) Others and finally Practical Ways to Lead an Innovative Organisation. And together, those are Modern Management Made Easy and that’s a great lead-in to my first question for you, Johanna, which is can you tell us what’s modern management? Making it easy is great but first, what is it?

What Should Managers Actually be Managing?

Listen to this section at 02:46

Johanna: So for so long we have been using this idea of management as much more tailor focussed management than how people can and could really deliver great outcomes for the organisation. So I see management, modern management, as shepherding the culture, not directly managing the people. Very few people really need management, most people need a direction, “where are we going? What’s the goal?” They need to understand who their team is. They need to understand guidelines and constraints. They need to know what the culture is. How do we treat people here? What do we talk about and not talk about? And what does the organisation reward? That’s the kind of stuff that people need to know they need to know how to get from point A to point B maybe and their team members often can help them do that. But telling someone, “I want you to drive here because we started off here at the origin and we want to get over there. And you must do it this way in my process.” Yeah, we don’t need that.

Jeffrey: So we don’t need people managing the work. Well, what are managers managing if they’re not managing the work and they’re not managing the people.

Johanna: They’re managing the system.

Jeffrey: They’re managing the system. And that’s modern management then in your mind, is managers managing the system rather than trying to manage people or the work.

Johanna: So managers serve and lead people. And when managers manage the system, they really look at the culture and they look at the blockers and they look at the things that enable friction and disable friction. So Bob Sutton really talks about friction a lot in in some of his work. And sometimes we want friction because we don’t want people to go that way. However, we more often don’t want friction because we want people to go this way. We want to make it easier for them to do the right thing. And that’s where managers can really remove all the friction from doing the right thing.

Jeffrey: These principles that you’re describing here, I really enjoyed reading the books and how you illustrate all of these in stories and examples. And the other thing, though is that it’s also incredibly well documented from a bibliography perspective, which I love and I also am a bit sad about because I now have a much longer reading list. My goal over the holiday break had been to catch up on my reading and I thought reading your three books would put me well ahead and now I’ve ended up further behind. This last one element here is the items you’re talking about, you didn’t invent these. You’ve collected that sort of distilled knowledge across many different authors and many different sources to say defining a corpus of this is the modern management principles. Is that a fair assessment?

Johanna: Yes, it turns out I mean, I would like to think I’ve invented a little bit, but probably not, probably less than I think. I have found that if we look at what makes sense for where we want the organisation to go, we can use all kinds of, “old”, management ideas. So, Peter Drucker, if you read Peter Drucker and you translate all of his “men” to ‘people’ or ‘men and women’, he said all this stuff, I would like to think I said it more excessively and maybe more ‘here are things to consider’. But Peter Drucker was not an idiot, right? He was a really smart guy and he was a writer of his times, but he was not an idiot. He talked about a harmonic hole where we want teams of people to do work. He talked about that the organisation has one job and that’s innovation and often innovation in management, that if we continue to do the same things we’ve always done, we are not innovating our management practises. And every single time I read Drucker, I have a new appreciation for him. So, yeah, I am going to suggest that people go back and read the original. However, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. So I find that while I do not feel as if I cherry picked ideas. I tried to point to specific ideas that would help people realise where they could go for more information.

Management is a Career Change

Listen to this section at 07:553

Jeffrey: One element here, is you’re contrasting new versus old, you make the point. And it’s something that I agree with completely, which is it’s not that people have read the old way of managing and it was wrong, but rather they are ignorant of management as a theory. One of the blog posts that came out within the last few years that I really liked was that the title said It’s Not a Promotion, It’s a Career Change. Moving from a technical role into management is a new career and it has its own body of knowledge. And my experience is that it’s not that people have outdated ones, but rather they’ve never explicitly studied in management at all and I think that’s kind of what you’re saying here by referencing someone like Peter Drucker saying ‘We’ve known this for a long time. If anyone would read the literature, it would be great.’

Johanna: Well, and part of that reason for, “not reading”, is because we often ask the technical expert to become the manager. We don’t explain to the technical expert that he or she is now doing a different job. And many, many first time middle managers think that it’s really important to also contribute technically to what the team is doing. So we asked people to have a foot in both camps and I don’t see how you can succeed with a foot in both camps. I really don’t. Maybe if you’re only leaning and serving two or three other people. But for me, I had a real line that for three or fewer people who are very experienced, who did not need me as a manager, very often, I could still contribute as soon as I got to person four or I had less seasoned people. I needed to focus on management.

Jeffrey: Having just read the book and you lay out your reasoning, your experience of managing and the demands in time for managing different numbers of people and how your management week would look like, it was a great example of what I really appreciate about the books, which was I would describe as the “I language” in it, which is rather than making statements about the world, claims, “no one can” management, you would say, as you just did, you say, “I don’t see how people could do it. I couldn’t do it because it took me this much time.” And so I think for listeners who are considering the book, this is one of things I would highly recommend for this element, which is there’s a lot of wisdom in it and a lot of your experience and you share your experience and the numbers behind it. So it’s very, very grounded in reality. So I really appreciate that element and this idea then of people not being trained in the role. And so then essentially being told to be masters of two disciplines without any sort of direction or coaching you’ve found that doesn’t seem to go well in the given the examples that you share.

Johanna: Well, I don’t know anybody who goes into work any day of the week and says, “I want to be bad. I want to be stupid. I want to make life difficult for all the people I work with.” I don’t know anybody like that.

Jeffrey: Right, even managers.

Johanna: Well. I know some people whose actions feel that way to the people they’re supposed to be leading and serving. But I don’t know anybody who actually goes into work and says, “I want to screw up everything for everybody else.”

Squirrel: And I bet there are some of our listeners who are thinking to themselves, well, the person who came and gave me that new demand and they said that it’s the new year, so we’ve got to get it done by Thursday. That’s that person. That person has a bad motive. That person is trying to screw me up. And I bet a tiny, tiny proportion of our listeners are right, there’s somebody who has a vendetta against them. It’s one out of thousands and thousands but if you’re listening to this, very strong odds are that I think Johanna and both Jeffrey and I are seeing this in the same way, very strong odds are that they think to themselves when they wake up in the morning, they make their “I” statements. Their “I” statements are not about making your life miserable. They might be about making more profit or about getting a promotion or about conquering a market or about just getting those blankety blank developers to write some code for pity’s sake. It might be lots of things but it is probably not, “I’m going to make you, Mr/Mrs Listener, we’re going to make you miserable.”

Squirrel: And I think that’s crucial. I was working on a new workshop Jeffrey and I are likely to give on Unreasonable Demands and Impossible Deadlines and How to Deal With Them. And I was thinking to myself, it’s going to be so easy for someone to think, ‘oh, yes, all right. But me, I’m the real special exception. They’re really out to get me, all of you people, you’re just paranoid, but man they’re out to get me, let me tell you.’

Johanna: So the pressure in the organisation flows all the way down and this pressure is pervasive. And that was actually one of the big things that made me organise the books the way I did. So book 3 is really about the pressure a lot of managers feel and how to get out of that pressure.


Listen to this section at 13:28

Jeffrey: And every one of these books is organised around certain management myths. That’s your organising principle. And so every one of these books you’re describing myths, for example, of this organisational level, at an innovation organisation you’re describing about leading and serving as the role of management, and the first book about managing yourself myths, about managing yourself. One of the things I really appreciate each of the myths were illustrated. With a dialogue where you would have that person who we might think, not the protagonist, but the antagonist, the person who’s embodying the myth and what was interesting, you had this constructive outcome, though, it was, as you put it in your introduction, the dialogues, it might seem like- it wasn’t mutiny. What was the-.

Johanna: Insubordination.

Jeffrey: Insubordination, yes! The dialogues might seem to strike people as insubordination in response. However, this is something I think is really key because it was the person who was being “insubordinate” was speaking, I think, out of an element of what you in the book called congruence and values based integrity. And it was this drive to be congruent, this drive to live, these values that required them, compelled them, to be insubordinate. Can you describe congruence and value-based integrity and why that breeds insubordination in a in a healthy, productive way.

Johanna: So congruence is this idea of balancing the self, the other and the context so that if we think about who we are in the organisation and who the other person is and what the organisation’s purpose, what it is you’re supposed to do, that’s how you’re supposed to balance all three and most of us, I think at least some of the time, are pretty congruent. Right. We can extend the other person the benefit of the doubt. We can see where we’re coming from. We understand why people want this project done now, we understand all of that. And managing our own emotions and reactions means that we don’t blame other people. We don’t have the the video on the podcast, but I’m pointing my finger at other people. That’s the blame thing we don’t placate, which is blaming ourselves. Right. Placating other people says, “oh, I’ll do whatever you want.” Oh, God, that’s horrible. And and being irrelevant is when you don’t even balance any of them. That is just nonsense. So there are several incongruent stances. However, when we balance ourself the other and the context, we are able to move forward as a team.

Johanna: One of the reasons why I really wanted to be on this podcast, is because you talk about conversations, right? A lot of what happens in in management is a conversation between two people. And when we think about that conversation, how can we bring the best of ourselves to the conversation, bring out the best in the other person in the conversation about the context. And if we think about that as a basis for congruence, that might well be the best way we can discuss this. And then if you think about values based integrity, how are we honest with people? How do we extend respect? How do we trust one another? I always go back to respect as the basis of all of our interactions at work. And if we use our value based integrity, especially in partnership with congruence, we tend to have a better outcome, is it guaranteed? No, no, not definitely not. But we tend to have a better outcome.

Jeffrey: You will say if you apply the principles behind your book, including empathy and catch people succeeding, you have a list of principles. You’ll end up with respect for yourself, the team and the purpose of the organisation, trust and team based approaches. It really struck me, as you say, we talk about conversations and the value of having difficult conversations. And I feel we’re really talking about the same dynamics with different words. And I would say that what I felt in reading, there’s an element of congruence and values based integrity and this element of respect in part is, I should have the conversation with the person, if I respect them. It would be disrespectful for me to not share my thoughts and feelings with them and to do anything less would not be respectful.

Squirrel: And that would include my thoughts and feelings that might be insubordinate.

Johanna: So you guys have seen me talk and listen to my podcast and read my books. I am even more blunt and direct in person. And I have had to learn throughout the years that I need to say things so that the other person can hear me and I continually work on this. So when my reviewers said to me, “I can’t believe you said that.” I actually said, “how could I not say that?” Right? So it was really respect for the other person and respect for our context that made me say that. And I continue to practise what little tact and diplomacy I have through a lens of let’s be honest about the organisation.

Squirrel: I’m going to suggest, actually, that we might stop there for this week, but we might have Johanna back again next week because I think there’s lots more to talk about. What do you guys think about that?

Jeffrey: I’m very much in favour of it. There’s three books worth here. We could we could talk for the next thirty six weeks, but we won’t do that.

Squirrel: No, we won’t. We won’t force Johanna to do that. But let’s plan to come back next week and we’ll cover some more of these principles. I think I’m really keen to hear a little bit more detail about how you actually apply these methods that are so congruent, to use the word, with what Jeffrey and I do. So if listeners are interested in any of those topics, you can always get in touch with us. You can also get in touch with Johanna at her Web site, which is, is that right, Johanna?

Johanna: Yes.

Squirrel: Here we go So you can find her there. You can find us at And we love to hear from listeners about the topics that we discuss, including modern management and value-based integrity and all kinds of other good things. And of course, you can hear us next week if you want to hear Johanna. She will be back again next week. And you can subscribe to us in the app that you’re using. And then we’ll be back here again. We only missed one week last year. We’ll try for 52 this year in 2021.

Squirrel: All right. Thanks, Johanna. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks Squirrel.

Johanna: Thank you.