The next event will take place on 24 - 26 October 2023.

/ 23. 8. 2021

Behind the scenes with Johanna Rothman


Johanna writes newsletters, blogs, and articles of all kinds and is the author of 18 books about many aspects of product development. She has a proven track record of working with development organizations to enable them to deliver products: on time, under budget, with the right features, and without defects, using iterative, incremental, and agile approaches to achieve these results.
She has keynoted on five continents (leaving Antarctica out for the time being) and this year she is coming to Agile Slovenia.

When or where did you first come across “Agile,” and what was “the thing” that drew you to it?

Johanna: If you mean the manifesto when it was announced. For a previous couple of decades, I had already used what we think of as “agile” ideas. For example, I created projects with cross-functional teams where the developers and testers collaborated. The project manager asked people what they could deliver. (I never demanded people “meet” a deadline.) I insisted on no multitasking.
I always created deliverable-based milestones. I used those deliverables to inform rolling-wave planning and milestone criteria. As an example, I used milestone criteria to know when we were ready for beta and general availability. 
I wrote the seminal article on inch-pebbles, one- or two-day tasks that are either done or not done. I’m pretty sure people still refer to my release criteria article that talks about when we know the product is done.
Please note the dates on those articles. I’d used them in practice since the 1970s. There’s nothing new in agile approaches. However, using them? That’s what’s new.

How would you connect agile with balance? What do you think we have to balance the most for creating organizational agility? 

Johanna: When I think about what we balance with agility, I think of balancing what we personally can and cannot do; how we work with our various teams; and how we understand and adapt our context. I know, there’s nothing there about how we work in an agile way. It’s all about congruence and our environment. In business, our environment includes our culture.
For organizational agility, we must balance the pressure we feel from customers and other stakeholders with the capacity of each team. Not team members, but the team itself. This means we need management teams, not just feature or product teams.
If we want organizational agility, we need an overarching goal that brings the managers together. There’s more, but that’s the first step.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, we have experienced tremendous shifts in all aspects of our existence. How did you adjust (if you did) your professional and personal life?

Johanna: I’ve been working out of my home office since I became a consultant, almost 27 years ago. However, this is the first year in all that time that I did not travel at least twice a month. I’m getting a ton more work done, now that I don’t wait for and sit on planes. However, I really miss meeting new people and seeing their situations.

What did you miss most during the lockdowns? Or maybe still miss?

Johanna: I miss seeing people in person.

Have you noticed any significant changes regarding agile transformation or lean innovation because of the pandemic? 

Johanna: I see several interesting changes. Some managers want to double down on micromanagement. However, more managers realize how important flowing the work through the team is. Some teams realize that their cycle time and lead times are much more important than any specific capacity for a timebox.

What is one main change you think we are headed to in our work culture in the next ten years?

Johanna: Things will keep changing. I wonder how much low-code environments will take off and become the norm. I also wonder about AI and machine learning. I wonder if those changes to how we program will change the problems we can solve. That means I also wonder if the problems we solve will change how we work together.
For example, I see too many managers focus on the tactical (the hows of the work) instead of the why we do the work and the what we do. I suspect that when we change the problems we solve, we might change how we manage and organize the work.

If any of our participants are flirting with the idea to become agile coaches - what are three personality traits you find important for this kind of work?

Johanna: Don’t. Just don’t become an agile coach. You won’t find a job. That’s because there are already too many commodity agile coaches. 
If you want to support a team’s agility, learn to be a great manager and create an environment where agility can thrive. That’s a lot more difficult than becoming an agile coach. Much more rewarding, too.
Double-down on what makes you unique. Learn more and do that. (Yes, I have a consulting book almost done that talks about this.)

What is your favorite (business) book and why?

Johanna: I read widely. I’m not sure if I have a favorite. I have learned a lot from Gerald M. Weinberg’s books. I have also read a lot of Deming and Drucker. I have gotten a lot from Carol Dweck’s Mindset book and from Amabile’s Progress Principle book.

Final thoughts (optional)

Johanna: When I think about agility, I think about these principles:

  • How can we work as teams to create short feedback loops so we can learn fast and incorporate that learning?

  • How can we make mistakes and recover?

  • If we don’t know why we are doing this work, how quickly can we learn the “why” so we can decide when to do what?

If we want organizational agility, we need an overarching goal that brings the managers together.

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