This is a transcript of episode 154 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 for part II 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 and guest Johanna Rothman.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Johanna: Hi.

Squirrel: Well, it’s excellent to have Johanna again. We just had her last week and she was talking to us about her series of books, three books, Modern Management Made Easy. And we gave a nice introduction last week. We won’t repeat it all this week. But Johanna is the author of 18 books, hundreds of articles. One of my favourite books is Behind Closed Doors. I recommend it to every new manager I meet and she helps leaders and teams do reasonable things that work. And she was telling us all about how she’s written that up in these three books. So I thought maybe we’d just pick up where we left off. And that was, I think, talking about some of the principles that underlie the themes of the book. And I wonder if either of you guys would like to talk a bit more about that.

Jeffrey: Absolutely. I think what I’ll do so. The three books of Modern Management Made Easy, Johanna, you lay out that you have seven principles. I’m going to read them out very briefly and then I’ll want to highlight a couple. So clarify purpose, and I’m giving a shorthand version. This is not the full version, want the full version? Go read the book, they’re great reads. Clarify purpose, build empathy, build a safe environment, seek outcomes by optimising for an overarching goal, encourage experiments and learning, catch people succeeding and exercise value-based integrity as a model for the people you lead and serve. I feel we were just describing a little bit in the last episode about how congruence with Value-Based Integrity was something that drove, insubordinate conversations, difficult conversations. In our work, we often talk about productive conflict, that if we want good outcomes, that means we want different ideas and we want conflict between the ideas, not between the people. And I feel like that’s what you were describing and it was the drive for congruence and value-based integrity that would give you the courage and drive to have these conversations. And I think that’s where we got to in the last episode. But one element of that and I think maybe this is a good place to go, is the element of empathy. And you talk about empathy in a few different ways in the book. One was this idea of empathy as part of congruence, empathy for the other. And you make the point you can have empathy without being a pushover and I tell people, every dialogue of the myth sections show the speaker not being a pushover. So that’s there. But what you also say is have empathy with the people who do the work. And that is such a key idea for a manager. Can you tell us a bit about what you have in mind about how does a manager illustrate empathy for the people who do the work?

Illustrating Empathy as a Manager

Listen to this section at 03:15

Johanna: So partly it’s about extending the guidelines and constraints and being really specific about those so that people have the maximum amount of freedom to actually do the work that matters. So for me, empathy is about having people solve the problem where the problem is, right? Don’t solve problems for other people, mostly because if we are as a manager, I never understand as much about the problem as the people who have the problem. So there’s that.

Johanna: It’s also about how do we understand what estimates or forecasts really mean? I worked with a guy many years ago as a client who proudly, proudly told me he always takes 20% off all the estimates anybody ever gives him. And I said, OK, and he said, “And this really works because they’re meeting every single day.” And I said, “OK.” And as I walked around to the other managers, they said, “we inflate our estimates by 40% because otherwise we can’t possibly deliver what he wants us to deliver.” So I did not tell him at that time that he was not paying me for that advice. However, I suggested a couple of other ways we could make the organisation work better. And during those other ways, he actually learnt that people were inflating their estimates. He was quite disappointed. And I said to him, “when you tell people how long something is going to take, you are not in the code. You’re not in the problem. You’re not in the customer. You don’t know.” But that means you’re not extending empathy to the people who are actually doing the work. You’re just demanding something of them. He said, “oh.” That “oh” all of us who were ever programmers remember the programmer refrain “Oh” and it’s also the management refrain, right? That’s when we realised we were doing something we really did not want to do. And it extends to asking people to do more than they possibly could, write 14 projects as opposed to one.

Squirrel: It goes in many ways and we have a recent episode which we prefer listeners to on giving 110% which goes exactly to the manager who added the 20%. So I was having flashbacks to that discussion that we have just a couple of weeks ago so strongly agree with the analysis of how that comes to be.

Jeffrey: That “oh”, in the book, the programmer refrain, you describe it as when you realise that the computer was exactly what you told it to do, it just wasn’t what you wanted to tell it to do. And I think here you’re saying is you’re getting the outcome from the people, which, they’re behaving the way that you’ve trained them to do. That may not be what you intended.

Johanna: Yeah, that’s why managers have to manage the system.

Managing Systems

Listen to this section at 06:45

Jeffrey: That’s right, and this idea then of managers managing the system, I think the principle you have that covers that the most is seek outcomes by optimising for an overarching goal. A similar thing that you say, I think this is the third book where you quote and I can’t remember the author you’re quoting who says essentially ‘every organisation is perfectly designed to generate the outcomes that it’s yielding. The output of the system as a function of the system. That’s the damning quote that I have well memorised. But it turns out many people talk about the same element here, which is in a sense, your outcomes embody the system that you’ve built. And if you want to change outcomes, you need to change the system. And this idea of the overarching goal. Can you say a bit more about that and the manager’s job of managing the system?

Johanna: Oh, so I am sure that most of our listeners have either experience with, “OKRs”, because in my clients, all of their OKRs are really MBOs (management by objectives) And they take this supposedly amazing goal, which is not very amazing. And they roll it down to what a person can do. And then a person’s bonus depends on their little contribution to that goal, which is not really a goal. So I the idea of, OKRs are excellent ideas. However, the more we put people into silos and I’m talking about managers, right? Managers might support cross-functional teams. But if you have the dev manager and the QA manager and the UI manager and the tech Bob’s the manager and any other manager, and they as managers, as a cohort, do not have an overarching goal. And you have to go up to the middle managers or up to senior leadership to find the overarching goal. You’re going to get resource efficiency, which is individuals working towards their little thing with not enough collaboration for the rest of the team to work together, because I need to make my manager look good. How do I make my manager look good by working towards his or her goal that goes up the organisation and where they meet is way too far. It’s all the way at the top as opposed to at the team level. At the manager level. At the middle manager level.

Teal Organisations and Career Jungle Gyms

Listen to this section at 09:34

Jeffrey: What you’re describing here, I think leads in great to a question I wanted to bring up and one area where we might debate a little bit here, because what you’re describing there in a sense was a problem of hierarchy and these silos and not having the cross-functional organisation. And I had asked you in discussing congruence and value-based integrity, to me, that was an email exchange before this. I said for me it resonated a bit about reinventing organisations. The book describes Teal Organisations, one of the elements about Teal that I really like, is people being their authentic selves, which I think for me is very closely tied to this element of congruence and value-based integrity. And you had said back one of the things you didn’t like about it was the idea that you wouldn’t need managers, that you don’t need a role of manager. So just a moment of that. So we talk about the role of a manager, their job is managing the system of work. That’s that’s a job of management, perhaps, rather than managers. Can we distinguish the work to be done, the value added work to be done of managing the system of work, to be analysing and understanding the system that exists and optimising that system? Can we separate that from the hierarchical role where we give people the title of manager is? Is that a reasonable thing to do or is that just craziness?

Johanna: So I believe that Morningstar actually separates, the role work from titles so we can do it. Do I find that particularly useful? In my experience, not much.

Jeffrey: Okay.

Johanna: Because I keep finding organisations where even though they have managers, people say, “I don’t know how to do that. I only know this little piece of my portfolio. I don’t do these three other things that should be done by somebody with a management role.” Now, there are many ways we could fix that, but I would much rather have an organisation where we have criteria for our roles. I talk about a career ladder, which I really like Sandberg’s idea of the jungle gym. It does not have to be a linear progression up and down. It needs to be across, I think you actually need people with overlapping expertise and criteria. However, as humans we really like structure, not everybody likes structure. I happen to be a structure based individual. I have the same thing for breakfast and lunch every single day. I know. Some people just got nerves, broke out in hives. I like my routines. They work for me. They don’t work for many other people. That’s fine. However, enough structure and maybe we do this with roles and maybe we do this with managers, we all need enough structure. When I was a senior engineer, I really wanted a promotion. I did not want a promotion to management. I wanted a promotion that recognised my technical contributions to the various products under my influence. I don’t know how we get that without a manager role, but maybe I just don’t have a good enough imagination.

Jeffrey: Ok, what I hear you saying is the idea of people being recognised for the impact they have.

Johanna: Yeah.

Jeffrey: And so someone could have more technical impact and grow or they could take on other organisational dynamics so the job of management. And they could have impact in that way. So they’re spending more time thinking about the system or they’re thinking about even larger pieces of strategy and then being recognised and rewarded for their contribution to have that impact. But part of the challenge becomes, well, who is assessing that impact? Who the person who can see the people’s contribution? Because you talked about that challenge in Leading and Serving Others about how do you manage people’s performance management? How do you assess them for corrective feedback and as well as for pay changes? This challenge of knowing is one that’s difficult, even with managers even whose job it is to do that.

Benefits of Being Blunt

Listen to this section at 14:33

Johanna: Oh, so the team always, always knows. The team always, always knows. The team understands who is working and who is slacking off. They might not know why, it might appear like somebody is slacking off. Or it might be that they are actually slacking off and the more people work as part of an Agile team, the more transparency they have. So in my experience, the team always knows and one thing I always used to do as a manager was to ask people for their lists of accomplishments. I had one on ones with people, that was back in the days when I had a one on one every week. Now, a manager might not have a one on one except biweekly. So you have twenty six times during the year where you can take a note and say, tell me about your accomplishments. Not what you did last week, what you accomplished, the outcomes. And I find that when managers and the people they lead and serve have honest conversations, they are more likely to say, here’s what I accomplished and here’s where I need you. I need your help to do this. So back when I was a senior tester, I was called a senior member of the technical staff.

Johanna: And my boss was supposedly in charge of the beta programme. He was doing a horrible job at it. So, I said, “you’re making my job more difficult in these three ways. Would you like me to take over the beta programme?” He said, “Oh God, yes, I really hate doing project management.” I said, “I’m really good at it. I will do that.” And so we figured out what was right for each of us. I still needed him to do a whole bunch of lawyerly work. I did not want to get together with the lawyers. However, reaching out to the customers, the beta customers, getting testimonials from them, making sure they installed the software, getting their feedback about the product, I could do all of that and I did it really well. So when we met in our one on one, he actually was smart enough to ask me about my outcomes. And I said, “Here are the outcomes I delivered for the beta project. Here are the outcomes I delivered from my testing. Here’s where I’m a little bit stuck. Here’s where I need you.” And was I kind of back leading him? Maybe, maybe not. I was not that good a manager at that point, but I understood what we both wanted for the outcomes of the organisation.

Squirrel: And having had been subordinate, if you had placated him and just said, “Oh, okay, great, you’re doing fine. Everything’s good Boss. I want you to give me a promotion. So I’m going to tell you it’s all fine. You wouldn’t have got the beta programme improved the way you did and you wouldn’t have made the career move that you did, which gave you more responsibility, which let you talk about more accomplishments.

Johanna: Exactly.

Squirrel: Beautiful case study of what we keep saying and what you’re echoing and we’re echoing, in your books is being subordinate isn’t going to help you. Being blunt is what’s going to help you.

Johanna: Well, blunt in a way they can hear.

Jeffrey: Yes.

Johanna: So so my colleagues and the rest of the testing department did not really know what we did because we did not work together as a team. We were a work group. And so when you have a work group, you might have to have a different way of assessing outcomes. But I think is if you start asking about outcomes and accomplishments, you get a lot further.


Listen to this section at 18:34

Jeffrey: And one element here, I want to come to this, both in the conversation and the challenge of changing behaviour, all three of the books end in a very similar structure. All of them end with a chapter, which to me was the call. And so in the first book, you ask, “Where will you start managing yourself?” In the second book, you say, “Where will you start leading and serving others?” And the third book you say, “Where will you start leading an innovation organisation?” And then you ask people the three things that were common. You’d say, “assess your behaviour, change your behaviour first, and you don’t have to be perfect.” If someone is going to start changing their behaviour, we talk about this idea because essentially we come back, what’s success for you with these books. I asked you and you said, well, mostly you want people to read them and to reflect on their behaviour. So, if people examine their behaviour, where would you recommend someone start? Someone who’s heard this, they said, “Wow, all these ideas sound really exciting. I want to begin.” I want to say here there should be a bias to action. People hopefully, our listeners for the podcast know we’re very much about doing the work, folding the piece of paper, recording the conversation. Where does someone start doing the work?

Squirrel: And of course, the first thing is they go to and they buy copies of the books. So that’s the first thing and once they’ve got the books. What do they do with them?

Johanna: So even if they went to book one and started with that chapter. I would say in book one, the biggest things for me was being able to admit I did not know and I needed help. If you are a manager and you can start saying those things, that frees other people to also admit that they don’t know and that they might need help. So I would start there with managing yourself. And in in book two, I would say, how can I create a one on one structure that works for me as an information gathering system and helps me understand what people are actually accomplishing, not what they’re working on, but what they’re accomplishing. So I can see where they have friction and where they are able to move smoothly through the organisation and through the work. And then book three, I would say, there’s so much in book three. I would say, do I know my purpose? Do I know why the organisation exists? I did not talk a lot about strategy in Book three, because I’m really trying to make the books stand on their own and not not talk about the next book. But so many of my clients really do a horrible job on strategy. They don’t know why the organisation exists. If you could do one thing to lead an innovative organisation, you might decide why does this organisation exist? And then if I can go for two, I’m going to anyway, stop doing the things that don’t offer value to why your organisation exists, limit the work as an organisation. And for me, the way you do that is with management teams at all levels.

Jeffrey: And I’ll just say there’s a lot that falls out of what Johanna just said. She illustrates in the book, because some of the issues like performance reviews or estimates or things like that, you eliminate because they’re not value add. And so it becomes actually a very sharp razor that cuts away a lot of things that people might be surprised to find.

Squirrel: Or in the specialised circumstance where that thing is particularly helpful for your organisation, you might keep it but you know, exactly while you’re doing it, rather than saying, “well, those other people do it. Yeah, well, that’s the Spotify model. That’s the Teal model. So we’re doing what those people do.” And the Cargo Cult is what Jeffrey and I’ve been battling for years and Johanna for even longer than us.

Jeffrey: And I think, Johanna, here in this book, I say for our listeners, it’s a great example. I think you have in your book brought in the principles that Amy Edmondson describes in Teaming about creating a psychological safe culture. You’ve done that in your book because you have said how do you lead for a learning organisation? You say that you don’t know. You say that you need help. You assess, you say we are going to do experiments and you say that you don’t need to be perfect. And so you’ve laid that out for the readers. So hopefully any of our listeners who become readers will feel safe in picking up Johanna’s book and understand that it’s an invitation to join the world of modern management.

Squirrel: Ok, well, that’s quite a fantastic invitation, which Johanna has very kindly written up in three whole books for us. And we could be talking about those books for the next 17 episodes, I’m sure, if not the next 52. So I think we’re going to have to let Johanna go have some lunch because she she’s wasting away in front of us and we’ve been keeping her here.

Johanna: Oh, I wish I was wasting away.

Squirrel: She’s dying of hunger. We can’t let her do that. We’re very grateful, Johanna, for your wonderful books, which all of which we recommend to our listeners. There’s many, many links in the show notes. I’ve been taking notes as we go. And Johanna, we really appreciate that you’ve come on the podcast to discuss your ideas so, so thoroughly and hopefully for us. So thank you.

Johanna: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

Squirrel: Fantastic. Well, if listeners want to get in touch, first of all, with Johanna to get her books and to talk to her and to hire her for consulting and all the other wonderful things she does, that would be Or That’s where you can find all of her writings and thoughts and blog and all the other good things. If you’re interested in getting in touch with us, that would be Jeffrey and I hang out there, we have workshops and links and Slack communities and you wouldn’t believe it. Free videos, all kinds of stuff. So find us there and of course, come back next week. Maybe we’ll have somebody half as exciting as Johanna on.

Jeffrey: Like us.

Squirrel: One of our latest stories so you can find us every week, we’re going for 52. Not going to miss any weeks this twenty twenty one if we can manage it. So come back next week, hit the subscribe button and you can hear us again.

Squirrel: Thanks so much, Jeffrey and Johanna.

Jeffrey: Thanks Squirrel.

Johanna: Thank you.