Unfreezing the Frozen Middle with Johanna Rothman

Unfreezing the Frozen Middle with Johanna Rothman

Keeping Agile Non-Denominational, Episode 12

Alex Kudinov   Hello, everybody. This is Tandem Coaching Academy's Keeping Agile Non-Denominational podcast. Myself, Alex Kudinov and Cherie Silas are your hosts today. Today we have Johanna Rothman joining us. Hi, Johanna, how are you doing?

Johanna Rothman   Thank you, Alex and I'm doing very, very well.

Alex Kudinov   Fantastic. So I don't really think you need a lot of introductions. In the Agile world, you're kind of towering big, but still for those of us uneducated, just introduce yourself; who are you?

Johanna Rothman   People often refer to me as the pragmatic manager, because my newsletter has that same name. I really focus on pragmatic and practical ways to help people look at and see what their product development system is and then decide what they want to adapt in, when. I rarely do big, big, ongoing coaching engagements or consulting engagements but I often do keep clients for a long time. I do this kind of a workshop, and then some coaching and consulting, then that kind of workshop. So, as they grow,  learn, and learn how to teach themselves, I can come in, do a little intervention, and then go away again. So that's how I work. Other people might know me as a writer. Once I got the writing bug, I've now been writing a lot more, and I released three books last year, and I have plenty more in me for this year, and I also speak, and I consult; It's all that stuff.

Alex Kudinov   Fantastic. So I know today we are going to talk about agility and agility not in terms of some frameworks and frameworks...well, let's admit frameworks are important. Sometimes they help us get things done but at the end of the day, when you go into your big engagements, and maybe when you leave and then come back for those tune-ups, I don't really think your main focus is on frameworks.

Johanna Rothman   Oh, no. No. So there are pieces of frameworks I find helpful. So, for example, I find the iterations helpful, often at the team level. I am not a big fan of more traditional standups but I am a huge fan of walking the board. So I just now talked about Scrum and Kanban and I do not use either of them religiously. I use both of them when it seems like they're useful. As for scaling frameworks, I wrote a book called Agile and Lean Program Management. So that's what I think about scaling frameworks.

Alex Kudinov   So non-religiously; it sounds really like music to our ears. At Tandem Coaching, we say we 'Keep Agile Non-Denominational.' We don't really care to whom you pray and whether it's Kanban or Scrum gods; all that matters is agility and proper coaching. So when you say you are going into a coaching engagement, what is coaching for you?

Johanna Rothman   Oh, so for me, coaching is offering options with support. So I often find -- well, there are also nine, stances of coaching, which I'm sure you folks use all the time. I try not to teach all the time -- I find that sometimes my clients just need a little hint about where they could go. Sometimes they want me to say, "Okay, here are your three, four, five, or six options." and "Here are the references that go with those options. I highly recommend that you read these things." Then they look at me and say, "Johanna, if I did not have time to read them before, I do not have time to read them now."  "Fine. I will summarize for you, so that we can talk about the pros and the cons and  then how can you make, and maybe with support for me, the smallest possible experiment to see what you would do next?"  This is not about how I think a manager or a senior leader should work. This is about what will work for them in their context. So for me, coaching has a beginning and an end. It's about offering options with support. It's about realizing that even if the client says that they know what their problem is, there's often a whole system around the problem. They might see a kernel of it, or a kernel of the truth, and my job is to help them figure out that larger system, so that they can really see where they have choices for interventions.

Cherie Silas   Johanna, when I hear you talk, you obviously know this stuff, and yet, I get the sense that when you work with your clients, you're not all that prescriptive.

Johanna Rothman   So I am a little prescriptive in terms of W.I.P. I wrote the project portfolio book, the first one over 10 years ago, and every time I go into an organization and work with them with a project portfolio, they have so many projects and so many projects. It's inconceivable to me that anybody could think that that is useful for the organization. So I do say, "If you had to do only three projects..." and everyone rolls their eyes at three, right, "If you only had to do three projects, what would those be?" That's how I come at the W.I.P. problem, the Work in Progress problem. So I'm not even really religious about that, because I know I'm not going to limit them to three. However, I wanted to get them to thinking about smaller batches, work in progress, how to have experiments that actually work. So yeah, I think... I guess if I'm religious about anything, it's about managing the W.I.P.; making shorter commitments at any level. It's really figuring out how to do the work that the organization really will find valuable.

Alex Kudinov   You keep coming back to this idea of experimentation. So the context and then you have this knowledge. So let's try experiment how this knowledge fits your context and how that might work for you. So I'm wondering, when you're leaving your organizations, hopefully in a much better state than you found them, how do you ensure that this idea of experimentation, making hypothesis and either approving or disapproving them, perculates the whole organization and maybe engrained in its culture, rather than just one-off thing?

Johanna Rothman   Oh, so that. Look, if I could do that, I could charge a gazillion bucks and really have it all made. I will freely admit, I offer this to my clients. Often this system is what prevents them from learning from experiments. In so many organizations, I hear things like 'Failure is not an option!'. How can you do an experiment if failure was not an option? I really like to reframe 'failure' as 'learning early'. So I don't even say learn fast, I say, "How early can we learn?", "What's the smallest thing we could do to learn?", and especially for senior leadership and middle managers I say, "How would you need to reframe this business of experimentation and learning so it fits into your environment, while you and your manager also try to change the environment?" I think that this is really the hardest thing to do. Since this is a podcast, I'm sure nobody can see my hands but you can really hear it.

Alex Kudinov   They will be able to on YouTube

Johanna Rothman   Good, then people will see me try and put this all together. So the more we have individual rewards based on outputs, the less we can encourage experimentation. Moving from an output based approach to the organization to an outcome based approach to the organization is a really big deal. Then, how can we change the reward system so that we are able to reward people on outcomes that they support. If managers are doing outcomes, that means they're not really managing; they're in the work. So how do we change everything about the organization so it rewards learning experimentation and rewards based on outcomes? That's kind of a big ask. I never expect to do that in the first engagement or even the second or the third. I have found that the way that works for me, to help my clients achieve more agility in their organizations, is to kind of poke away at all the pieces that prevent flow in the organization.

Cherie Silas   I heard you say something in there about managers, and I'm really interested to find out from you, if it's not the manager's job to be in the work producing the outcomes, what is it? I see a bunch of people go into organizations and say, You're the manager, sit down, shut up, go sit over there; you don't have a job anymore. This is Agile. I'd love to hear how you address that.

Johanna Rothman   So I think managers have a hugely important job. These are the seven principles in Modern Management Made Easy books. So the first thing is to clarify the purpose for you, as a manager, for the team, or teams that you lead and serve, and then for the overall organization. Every single time I go into a fortune 100 organization, and I usually come in to do project portfolio work, and they say to me, "Help us with the project portfolio." and I say, "Fine. Why does your organization exist? What is what is the thing that sets you apart from all the other organizations and how can you optimize for that  with your customers?" and they all kind of look at me and say,"Why? I have to start with why? I can't start with what or how?" and I say, "No. No, you gotta start with the 'Why?'."   You might need to iterate on that and this is something I do a lot with these organizations. Even with smaller organizations, there's kind of a sweet spot for seeing the 'Why' in a smaller organization, not in terms of people, not so much in terms of revenue, but the fewer people they have tend, you see, they tend to be more focused on this one 'Why?'. However, as soon as they get larger, they have more products, they serve more customer bases, the 'Why?' gets totally diffused, and that makes it a lot more difficult to see where the manager provides value. So if you're a manager in an organization, and you say, "Okay, I am going to listen to Johanna just for 30 seconds and I will clarify my purpose. Why am I here? What is the value that I offer? What value does my team offer? What value do our products offer the organization?" So that's why starting with the value, the purpose, is really important.

Alex Kudinov   So just kind of for a moment, let's say I'm that middle manager and I'm in that Fortune 100 organization. I was lucky to get in that meeting where you give this speech, and where you are asking this 'Why?' question. Okay, I'm very clear on the purpose of organization. Let's say, we did this job, and my hour is over, I'm going back to my desk, and I still need to deliver stuff, I still have deadlines, and I still have bugs in production. So yeah, useful, but how does it serve me?

Johanna Rothman   That's where you go to seeking outcomes and optimizing for that overarching goal. Once you know the 'Why?', now you can talk about the outcomes and the overarching goal, so that if people -- Look I have shiny object syndrome also and I think that a lot of people in the organization say, "Oh, that thing over there. I would really love to go attack that." That's where thinking in minimums, thinking in 'how little can we do for now', finishing this thing, so we can go to the next thing, that's all wound up with the purpose and the overarching goal. So if we think about how do we work in flow efficiency at all levels? So we understand about flow efficiency for teams, right? We think that way for any Agile team. What about if managers thought that way? What if managers had a cohort that they collaborated with; first level managers, mid-level managers, senior managers. We talk about the senior leadership team all the time. We talk about products and feature teams all the time. What happened to those other people? They are not chopped liver! So how can we collaborate to create outcomes with our peers that the organization finds value in? Well, change that around to a sentence that does not end in a preposition.

Alex Kudinov   So I absolutely love where this conversation goes and 'Outcomes over Outputs' has been kind of my topic for the last two to three years. What I find, not impossible but difficult, is to teach people, consistently, how to change that mindset; how to start looking for outcomes rather than outputs. It's hard work for an Agile coach. So I would love to hear your thoughts, or maybe kind of tips and tricks, how you coach people to get them to the point where they naturally start thinking in outcomes?

Johanna Rothman   So I think it's a combination of several things. This is a great question, because I haven't had to write this down yet. Thank you. I think it's about, who is the recipient of this work? At some point, that recipient is a customer, right, a user, a customer, somebody who will use this end product. How do I get the work to the recipient as quickly as possible, with it done?  I'm not talking about, even if it's just generating a report for inside the organization, I'm talking about it really done so that the recipient can use it. When I start to talk about the work that way, that's when the managers realize they have "customers" across the organization, that other people need information that they have, they might need some work that only the manager can provide, they need multiple managers to make a decision so that other people can use the result of that decision. When we start talking about that, it makes a lot less sense to think about, "Oh, I was in 14 meetings this week" and instead, start to talk about "How many delays did I incur because I was not able to make a decision about this particular question this week. So managers often make decisions that other people need. Even if you need fifteen managers in a room -- which we all know about kind of the sweet spot of six to seven, that's fine -- even if you need 15 managers, and it looks like a very expensive meeting, if you can get to a decision at the end of that one meeting, even if it's a cantankerous meeting, if you can get to that decision, you've only spent an hour, 90 minutes, or three hours, whatever it is, but you have not tried to do a meeting and then three weeks of delay, and then another meeting and three weeks of delay, another meaning of three weeks of delay. You have actually made a decision that other people can use to go on with their work.

Alex Kudinov   Hmm. Sounds like value stream for decision making.

Johanna Rothman   Yeah. I haven't called it that yet. Maybe I should. I don't know.

Cherie Silas   All right. I really want to go back to something you said a while back and Johanna I have to say that when I listen to you, I just keep building a backlog of questions in my head because there's so many things I could ask. So, you mentioned about compensation and rewards, and that's a big deal, and how do you help people move from that individual output reward system to something different, that's more effective?

Johanna Rothman   So the first thing I do is try to enlist HR, because HR is the holder of the reward system. So I want to make HR my allies. I also try and work with senior leadership and say, "Look at how you guys are rewarded. You're rewarded on your ability to work together to create outcomes for the organization, you have some delay compensation, and then some immediate compensation. Your delayed compensation is often based on your ability to make the organization better." Now we can talk about whether or not stock is the right way to do that there. There are very specific things I am not in favor of. However, if you look at the senior leadership team, they often have much more of a team-based reward system. Then we come down to individual people who were supposed to have outputs of, 'yeah, you checked in code this week', or 'you worked on that project', or anything else that's just totally output based. Then the poor managers in the middle have often - I'm just going to say it - a random kind of compensation. It's not based on their ability to support and coach other people, to raise the entire level of the organization, it's not based on them working across the organization with their peers, it's kind of, in my experience, random.  So I don't think we can move from totally individual based compensation to totally team based compensation. I'm not even sure that that's a good move. However, if we want people to work as collaborative teams, why wouldn't we base some of their compensation on their ability to work as a collaborative team? Call me silly, I just think you should reward what you want. I freely admit, I did not get into software because I was such a great collaborator, right? I have the gray hair to prove how long I've been in this industry and I had one team project, my senior year of college; it was such a disaster. I thought, 'I don't even want to go into software.' But luckily, I read The Psychology of Computer Programming by Gerald Weinberg. I thought, "Oh, yeah, if I could get rid of my ego, maybe other people would get rid of theirs." Yeah, maybe not. However, once I started to work, I realized, this is all team based learning, even back in those literally waterfall days because we had to work that way. There were a variety of reasons; this was a government contract but it was so important that I learned how to work with people. I think that if we said to people, "Part of your compensation is how well you work with others, how you support and lead others, how well you coach other people who are your peers so that they learn what you know, I think we would have really different environments in the organization.

Cherie Silas   I agree. I agree. So one of the principles in your book is to build empathy with the people who do the work. I'd love to hear what does that actually mean to you?

Johanna Rothman   So, one of the big management fallacies is if the work is easy to explain it must be easy to do. This is where we get a lot of pushback from management on, 'How could it possibly take that long to do the thing that I want you to do?' Well, if the managers don't know about the friction in the organization, if the managers have said that -- one of my clients several years ago, had "cross functional" development teams. They had developers and testers in cross functional teams; call it 25 teams of developers and testers. These people were great until they had to use any part of the UI for their work. They only had 12 UI people. So what happened? There was a request to the UI manager, who would then assign the next person up to work with a given team. That person had to be returned to the pool of UI people; you can see where I'm going with shared services, right? Shared services don't work for any kind of knowledge based organization. Then next time you're needing a UI person, you might get Joe Random as opposed to Mary Perfect, right? You could never tell. Then these poor people could not release on their own, and had to go to a Dev, literally, they call this a DevOps team; it was a deployment team. So while they were sort of kind of Agile in their development and testing, anytime they needed a UI expert, they needed to go out and wait and wait and wait for days or sometimes a couple of weeks, and then to release to the customers  took another two or three weeks minimum because this central release team was unable to cope with all of the changes that the organization wanted.  When I  created a picture of this, for the middle managers, they said, "It cannot be that hard. It just can't be that way!" I said, "I talked to some people. Here are the people I talked to. Do you want to go check with them? Maybe I only got a subset of the organization, I could be totally wrong."  I have found, and I suspect that Cherie and Alex you have found this too, when you don't say "I'm right and you're wrong", when you say, "I could be wrong," people are much more likely to believe you. So this is also a piece of extending empathy. These are the managers who had no idea they created this situation. So once they realized that my drawing was actually the best possible outcome, and not the worst, with all the delays, that's when they said, "We have got to change how we work." So that business of extending empathy and not believing what people say to you, understanding that you might have a different perspective on what they actually think is happening, and saying, "I could be wrong."

Alex Kudinov   It's interesting. So I want to kind of build a little bridge from building empathy with whoever -- with your rapports, with your peers, with your peer groups and all that -- to something that was in my mind for quite some time. I keep telling people that, look, we're all busy. Everybody's overwhelmed. Every client I take on, one of the first things I hear, "I have no time, I'm overwhelmed." Especially when we work from home, we start working longer hours. We got back our commute time and we spend that on work and what's falling through the cracks here is realization that we are getting better. It just kind of goes by, we don't stop, we don't reflect, we don't celebrate. When I say we need to celebrate successes people are like, "What are you talking about? I mean, what to celebrate here? Yes, we released like one minute earlier. So what?" So how do you build this culture of maybe reflection on your own success, and build it and make it ingrained into this fabric of organization and teams?

Johanna Rothman   So I think it starts at the individual level, where you offer reinforcing feedback where people have succeeded. If you catch people succeeding at the individual level, and you say, -- Alex, I'm actually going to use a real example because Alex really saved me from myself. So I'm not sure if all the people out there realize. You guys look for the best Agile articles and we can submit our own Agile articles. I had totally forgotten I had submitted something a month ago. I then submitted three or four more and there's a limit of three or two or something. Alex reached out to me and said, "How many of these do you want? You only have three. You have four or five."  I made one of those stupid mistakes and then what one of the nice things that Alex did for me afterwards is when I said, "Thank you. I'm sorry, can we do this over again?" He then said, "Thank you. I really appreciate you." I think he used the appreciation words, "I appreciate you working with me." And I thought, 'Oh my God, he's catching me failing and succeeding all at the same time.' and the way you reflected back to me was really wonderful. I mean, we had this conversation, I had to admit, I was kind of an idiot; I find every so often I am. So this business of catching people succeeding at the micro level, catching people succeeding at the team level, catching people succeeding at the organizational level; if we never acknowledge that, we are really missing opportunities to reinforce great behavior, great teamwork, and great products. So we used to have ice cream socials at the end of a big release. Now we release every day or at least every couple of weeks.

Alex Kudinov   We would get fat if we have ice cream *laughs*

Johanna Rothman   Yeah, I cannot afford to get any fatter. So we can't do any.We're all remote right now so we're not going to do ice cream socials or drinking. Well, we might do drinking but we're on our own Zooms. But acknowledging in words, I think, is very, very different than acknowledging in a ceremony. When we use the words, "I appreciate you for...", or "I am so thrilled that you, this team, were able to finish this product and here's what two or three of our customers said. Please take pride in your accomplishments as a team."  I really like this business of reinforcing feedback, starting one on one. We're so focused on change-focused feedback. I cannot tell you how many times people have said to me "Johannah, you're too blunt and direct" Yeah, not gonna change. However, when my colleagues started to say to me, "I really understood what you said there; you said it in words I could hear." That was reinforcing feedback that made a difference.

Alex Kudinov   So it's interesting, what I'm wanting to do is to take this a little bit level up. It sounds like all this appreciative feedback and kind of building this, noticing small things and celebrating small wins, that speaks to values that speaks to personal values. It has to speak to cultural and organizational values. We probably all saw how these company values, that get on the wall, how they are born. Probably a group of executives go to a posh resort, carrying like two or three days pow wow. Then everybody receives an email, "Here's our company value starting Monday. Everybody go and live this value." So that aside, we know companies that actually have a really clear set of values really defined set of values. Even at that point, we see like with Google and see a lot of articles that kind of Google lost its way, do no harm or do not do not be evil. So how do we coach organizations so that their actions and activities at the lower level, at the manager level, at executive level, they aligned with the values so it's kind of that integrity that you bring in into the company and if properly is it from top down?

Johanna Rothman   There's a lot there to unpack. So let me first start with personal values and personal integrity. If you have been a manager in any organization, even at the first level, your company or a company in the past has probably asked you to do something that violates your personal integrity. If you have not been in that position, I'm not sure how you got that lucky. So I have been in that position many times, often, where my managers asked me to lie on behalf of the company to a customer, which I think is the worst possible thing you can do. Then you lose all the trust; it takes you forever and ever to get it back. This is the same with value based integrity for the people you lead and serve. So I like to think about, what are my values? How can I exercise my personal integrity in service of the purpose of the organization in service of leading and serving the team? Then I like to extend that to, "Is there anything we could do as a department or as a team, even if it's just one feature team or for one product, how can we serve our customers, the best way we know how, and serve the people that we work with the best way we know how? For me, that's still about value based integrity.  I did have a manager once who thought that he was the king of account management.  I happened to go on vacation. I was the project manager and "lean developer" for this three person project. There was one other developer and a mechanical engineer. This was a customer in the Detroit area; it was automation for a car manufacturing machine line. So a very difficult project back in the 80's. I had the temerity to actually go on my honeymoon and be gone for 10 days. I know, what a mistake; terrible thing. So I had left the other software engineer in charge. I had told the client I was leaving, they said have a great time. I said thank you, I will. I told the mechanical engineer and the software guy, "Have a great time, I'm sure I will be thinking of algorithms on my honeymoon" They all laughed at me. It was great. So we were all set, this was not going to be a problem. Then this VP in the organization decided to insert himself into this project. When I came back, there were lights on the answering machine. This is back in the 80's we had answering machines. A message from the software engineer saying, "Please come in! As soon as you get this message, please call me! Please come in! Don't take that other day of vacation and do your laundry!" I said I was going to come back and do laundry. No, no, "Please come in! You have to fix this, the customer is all upset!" So  this VP, his values were no possible project can proceed without my involvement. That was not based on personal integrity. That was based on anti-personal integrity. I managed to salvage that project. It's amazing what you can do in only under two weeks if you really try and screw it up. So I managed to salvage that project and the customer, luckily, I had built enough trust with the customer that they believe me and not the VP. The VP was lying and telling all kinds of horrible things. So I think it's really important to say, what do you do when you're faced with these decisions? Do you go along? You might need to. There have been plenty of times when I have called my husband, this is back when I was inside organizations, and I said, "I just came out of a senior management meeting. I might not have a job in three hours." I was not willing to go along to get along and I think everybody will find their way.  What does integrity mean to them and when do they exercise it? I hold no judgment, especially on middle managers, because they are in the worst possible position. They probably make enough money that they would really feel, and they probably have healthcare -- if you're listening outside the United States, we still have health care through our employers, which makes leaving a job a very, very challenging decision -- So I do not hold judgment on these people. I asked them to think about what makes sense. Now, if you think about value based integrity, in terms of policies for the organization, that's an even easier decision. Right? How often do we punish people for telling the truth on their time cards? The fact that we still ask people to fill out time cards is just silly, right? I mean that's... nuts. I have too many clients that do that. So can you use your value based integrity to say, "We can trust these people to do the work that we asked them to do?" I mean, we only employ adults, they somehow get themselves dressed, and fed and clothed, and they pay mortgages and have children. I mean, I think that if we asked them to work 40 hours a week with a team, some weeks, they might only work 30 because they're mobbing and they're so totally exhausted, and some weeks, they might work 45, as Alex talked about or maybe longer.  So can we trust them to do the job if we look for outcomes, not outputs? That's where we can really apply value based integrity? How many policies and procedures can we eliminate?

Alex Kudinov   That's a really fascinating view on the whole slew of really ingrained and really entrenched problems. I'm pretty sure we're not going to solve that in the next year or two. It's a much longer conversation. So Johanna, you mentioned that three books in 2020, and I'm pretty sure that lockdown helped, held you in one place, you didn't spend a lot of time on airplanes at airports and hotels, and you were just kind of cranking at it and kind of writing it out, so, what's on your desk for 2021?

Johanna Rothman   So I'm doing the audio, I'm not gonna speak the audio, for the Modern Management Made Easy because life is short. I want to have somebody else do that. I'm finishing the consulting book. I'm getting the writer conference proposal in print and audio and all that stuff. So those books will be done this year. I am working on a Project Owner book. I'm not sure if I can commit to that being done in 2021 but I will certainly be on my way. So yeah, more books. I'm not sure I will have three done in 2021 but there will certainly be two and a half.

Alex Kudinov   Give us a little bit of a sneak peek into the consulting. What's the high level thought behind that?

Johanna Rothman   Oh, so that book is in progress on Leanpub right now. It's really about understanding your value so you can apply your value to your clients. So a lot of clients when we have a discovery call, they say, or in email, "What do you charge? What's your hourly rate?" I say, "I don't have an hourly rate. I create projects or I use value based pricing." and they said, "That's gonna cost me a lot more money." I said, "Probably not, it's probably going to be less money, because we're focused on the same outcomes. It might be less time." It's not that I'm trying to upend everything about consulting, although maybe I am but it's really about how do we find this partnership with our clients, so that we can provide the best possible outcomes that they can use right away? So I said at the beginning, I rarely have a long engagement with a client, but I often kind of dip in and then dip out.  I often do have ongoing consulting or retainer coaching agreements, but it's all focused on one thing for a time unless it's a retainer, in which case, that's a different kind of just access to my crazy brain. I find that if I do my work really well, the clients have different problems when I leave. They already have some tools to manage those new problems. So why would I want to work with them on the same old problems when I can work with them on new problems?

Alex Kudinov   Yeah, "I will come, I will help you solve the problems but make sure just be sure when I leave, you will have more." That sounds great.

Johanna Rothman   Well this is like the cascading defect problem in software, right? You fix the obvious thing and then it uncovers all this obvious stuff. So yeah, we're systems.

Alex Kudinov   Well, alright, this is all the time we have for today, we thank Johanna Rothman for joining us today on our Tandem Coaching Academy's Keeping Agile Non-Denominational podcast. This was Alex Kudinov and Cherie Silas, your hosts. Thank you for listening and goodbye.

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