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Johanna Rothman: Catch people doing something right

Michael Hunter

Hello, and welcome to the Uncommon Leadership interview series. I’m Michael Hunter. Here I talk with leaders in software like you about their journeys to building teams around the unique gifts each of their people brings.

Today I’m talking with Johanna Rothman. Also known as the Pragmatic Manager, Johanna offers frank advice for your tough problems. She helps leaders and teams learn to see simple and reasonable things that might work. Equipped with that knowledge, they can decide how to adapt their product development.

With her trademark practicality and humor, Johanna is the author of 20 books about many aspects of product development.

In addition to her Pragmatic Manager newsletter, Johanna writes two blogs, one on her site,, and a personal blog on

Welcome, Johanna!

Johanna Rothman 1:05

Thank you so much. I am so happy to be here.

Michael 1:09

I’m happy to have you here. You’ve be one of the most influential people in my journey in seeing people as people and building teams around the unique gifts that they bring. I’m excited to have you here.

As you reflect over your journey to seeing people as people and learning to leverage their unique gifts, what stands out as most impacting your progress to achieving what you have?

Johanna 1:39

You actually sent me this question in email before we spoke, so I had a chance to reflect on it. And I was thinking back to before I was an official leader.

I’m thinking back to a time when I was unconsciously competent. Because I think a lot of us kind of start there, right? We do stuff. It seems like it works. So, we do more of it.

And I was unconsciously competent. At about 19, I was a camp counselor for an all-girl sailing camp. One of the girls, I think I’d met her before, a few years ago, back when I was a camper. She seemed quiet and not outgoing. I’m not talking about extraversion, but I’m talking about unsure of herself. And my job that summer was to teach her all about sailing. So we started with knots. The knots that you tie in lines and what other people would call ropes, but they’re called lines on a sailboat.

So, I taught her all about knots, and making sure she understood that, and then we moved on to different aspects of sailing. Because if you can’t tie the sailboat up at the dock, you’re in big, big trouble, because the sailboat goes off. And if you don’t tie the lines properly on the boat, the sails fall down. I mean all kinds of bad stuff happens.

So, this is kind of the basics. I didn’t think much of it. She was a girl in my, I hesitate to call them classes. Whatever. It was camp. We had different modules at different times. It was fine.

And at the end of the summer, her mother took me aside and said, she, the mom, had never seen her child with this much self-esteem. And she thanked me. I believe I managed to say, “You’re welcome,” because I was totally shocked. This girl had plenty of self-esteem. But no one had done the reinforcing feedback. Catch people doing stuff right.

And that’s what I had done all summer. This is my unconscious competence fully at work. All I knew was this girl. I mean, how hard is it to learn how to tie lines on a sailboat? It’s not that hard. Which is when you need to know what you’re doing and when to do it.

So that’s when I realized if I caught people doing something right, and I reinforced what they did that was right, they were more likely to succeed in their work.

That’s what I use for myself. I, you have known me for many, many years, my mouth often gets the best of me. I am always going to be blunt and direct. If I focus on, “How can I use the best words for this situation?” as opposed to not being blunt and direct, I can focus that bluntness and directedness into a better outcome.

And that’s what I did with this girl.

And if I do that for myself, why not do it for other people? Or, I really should say, with other people.

Michael 5:34

That’s maybe the most powerful tool I’ve found. No matter how horrible everything is going, there’s at least one person who’s doing at least one thing right. And by focusing on that, and celebrating that, everyone notices, including me and the other leaders, and they start doing the same thing. Noticing when people are doing things right and praising and focusing on that. And then that just starts reinforcing yourself. And the more that happens, the more it happens and pretty soon the team is awesome.

Johanna 6:20

It’s that positive feedback loop, right? We have reinforcing feedback loops for many, many things. But when we reinforce behaviors we want to see, and we focus on that and we talk about it, we are much more likely as leaders to see much more reinforcing behavior that we all want to see.

Michael 6:50

So, you said that you did this, in this example, you were unconsciously competent. When did you first recognize that this is what you’re doing? Catching people doing something right? And start switching from unconscious competence to conscious competence.

Johanna 7:07

Well, I wish I could say I had done that, you know, a couple of years later. No, I am pretty sure I kind of figured it out for myself in the first few years I worked. But until I became a project manager, which I think I was 25 or 26 then, and I’m pretty sure it was a small hardware+software project in a small company, where there was a mechanical engineer, a hardware engineer, and me. I was the software engineer and I was also the project manager, which is really I got to do the PERT charts. Which I use, I used PERT charts in the same way I used yellow sticky scheduling once we had yellow stickies. Which is, you know, for the next couple of weeks, where do we think we’re going and what are the deliverables we think we have? And all that stuff.

That’s when I realized that if I was if I focused more on the deliverables, and not on how people worked, that I would get the deliverables because I really did not know how the other two engineers worked. And I didn’t need to know.

All I needed to know was, could we as a team, make our deliverables?

And that’s when I think I became more conscious of it.

I’m not sure I still had the words yet for catching people doing something right. But I know that when we all made our deliverables and made them together, we were able to deliver that product. And we could show interim demos. I will not say that this is an agile approach. But it was less waterfalling and more, we were able to change. That’s what I really wanted. And that’s what we did.

Michael 9:20

You were change-adapting regardless of what methodology you thought you were following.

Johanna 9:25


Michael 9:30

You mentioned that you knew then, that you didn’t need to know how the people were doing their work. That’s something you’ve always known?

Johanna 9:40

I think so. I grew up in—I’ll just say I’m pretty sure I’m going to be 67 this month. So, I grew up in a time when girls “were not good at math.”

Somehow, I missed that. I missed that knowledge. I have been oblivious to many, many things in society for my entire life. I am such a typical, nerdy, geeky kind of person. I just am.

So, when I took, was it trigonometry in high school, something like that, or intro to calculus, whatever it was, I had different ways of doing things than my instructor did. I didn’t care. But he—all of the “he’s”—really hated that.

So, I said, “If I get the right answer, do you care how I did it?”

And they all said, “Yes.”

I said, “You have the one right way of doing math there. Is no other right way? I mean, there’s a transitive property, right? We can do all kinds of other things. If we use a transitive property, if I use them correctly.”

And they said, “Who is this little girl?” I mean, one of them actually said to me, “Little girl.”

I said, “Hey, man.”

You are not so surprised.

So I am, I have been, I don’t think of myself as—what’s the right word, Michael?—a rebel. But I guess I always was. If I got the right answer, why did it matter how I did it. Now, I needed to do enough of the work in the right way. And I always showed my work because I am not an intuitive math person. I just really enjoy it. Once I got to symbols, I thought “Oh my god, this is great. It’s not arithmetic anymore.”

So, I always found that I have never really been a fan of “the one right way” to do anything. And you’ve seen this in my writing. You’ve heard it in my teaching.

Michael 12:20

I’ve worked with, and for, a number of managers, engineering and otherwise, who felt they did need to know how people were doing their work, and maybe even felt they needed that work to happen in a specific way. Have you helped managers make that transition to, “Oh, you’re right. I just need to know that the outcome I want is going to happen and let you go.” And if you have, how have you helped that occur?

Johanna 12:57

So yes, and that’s always been a challenge.

I think that when we started focusing on processes, and we still in our field, we still have a huge, huge focus on processes.

So, a bunch of my product manager, leader, clients really want to know that the teams are doing their backlogs “right.”

I say, “How have you created an overarching goal, so that people really understand the goal that they’re working for,” and then they say “Oh, I have a whole process for OKRs (objectives and key results).”

My experience with OKRs is not very good.

So, what I say to them is, “Tell me about their product goal in terms of the stories that you want your clients to talk about.” And that’s when they say, “I haven’t really thought about that.”

And I say “That’s the overarching goal that the team needs. That’s the discussion you need to have with your team. They will figure out the backlog. They will figure out the deliverables. And you might need to talk with them about the ranking of which deliverables. But when you talk about the stories you want the customers to talk about, now you’re expressing that overarching goal. You don’t need to focus on the process. If you talk about the stories and which stories and these are not user stories, right? These are product-based stories. If you talk about the stories you want your teams to be able to effect in the customer. Now that’s the overarching goal. The team will figure out how they get there. With the deliverables, you might still need to say ‘Oh, this story needs to come first. That story needs to come second.’ That’s all fine.”

I try not to talk so much about outcomes anymore. Because we’ve all heard “Outcomes over outputs.” The output is the focus on the process. The outcome is the focus on the product.

So many managers have not enough experience really focusing on outcomes. So, I’m working on new ways to express myself so that they understand. And I found that the stories that users talk about the product is a nice entree right now. I’m probably going to have to change what I say, but right now, that’s working for me.

Michael 15:47

Because you’re helping the manager make this transition. The team is making this transition as well. Do you explicitly help them through this journey? Or are you just sort of, “Well, I’m working with a manager and the rest are gonna follow along.”

Johanna 16:08

I have found that, while I really like to work with leaders in their teams, I don’t always get paid for that.

So, I always focus on the manager, because the manager sets the culture.

And if I can change a little tiny bit about how the manager talks with the team?

“With the team” is different than “to the team.”

If we focus on project-based deliverables, as opposed to process, then we are much more likely to get the outcomes we want.

So, it all depends on who’s paying me for what.

Michael 16:57

When you can only work with a manager, and you don’t have the ability to have any interaction with the team at all, how do you help the manager bring the team along when they don’t realize that’s what they want to do? Or they may even explicitly be fighting doing that for whatever reason.

Johanna 17:21

I tend not to work with people like that.

I try and be easy to work with. I really want people who are willing to do a little bit of work themselves. I cannot open a hole in their heads and pour knowledge into it. That does not work. I really work with my clients.

I focus on outcomes, from the very first discovery call that I have with a client.

I say, “What outcomes do you want to achieve?”

And they often say, “The team isn’t delivering enough.” Very rarely is it “I don’t know how to manage the team.” These people are all effective in some way, shape, or form.

So, I’m looking for the areas of leverage where I can reinforce what they’re doing already well and say, “Have you considered this option? How about this option?”

If we start to talk about different options for different outcomes, we are much more likely to get to a place where they start to change how they work with the team.

Michael 18:51

If you get into a situation, where, at the outset, it seems like everything’s set up perfectly, they’re exactly the kind of person you love to work with and can really help make an effective change. And then you get into the middle of it and find out everything is bound up. And I don’t know where to go from here. What do you do in that situation?

Johanna 19:18

I go meta.

I say to the client, “You have all these constraints, right?”

And, the client is often maybe not able to articulate all the constraints, but understands.

They often say to me, “I feel like I’m in a box and the box is getting smaller and smaller.”

What was that first Star Wars movie when they were in the trash compactor? That’s what clients, they describe it as feeling as if they’re in a compactor.

I say to them, “Okay, let’s make a list of all the possible things that are forcing you into this small space.” And then we make that very large list. And we often, sometimes we draw together, sometimes it’s a linear list, it does not matter.

Then I say to the person, “What one thing do you think you could focus on? And who is the person you think has some kind of leverage to start breaking some of these bounds?”

And they often say, it’s either “my manager” or “manager over here.” There’s somebody else higher in the hierarchy.

And this is when we do a bunch of what ifs. What if you spoke to them about this thing? How would you do that? All that kind of stuff. If you knew the answer to this problem, what would the answer be? Or what would have to be true for you to do this?

We do a lot of wandering around the edges.

When we wander around the edges, we often find a single place of leverage, a single person.

Then I ask, “What are the other two people or two other points of leverage?” Because we always need the Rule of Three. Now we are starting to break through.

It’s slow. This is not fast work.

Michael 21:43

It sounds like you’re doing this through a lot of tiny experiments, not just tiny thoughts.

Johanna 21:50

Right. We often have big thoughts and many many small experiments.

Michael 22:01

As you’re doing this, wandering around, not sure where you’re going, clients are maybe getting really uncomfortable, because they’re used to knowing where they’re going, and they don’t have a clue. How do you help them become comfortable with not knowing where they’re going? Or maybe it’s more helping them understand that there’s always somewhere they’re going and they can see at least that next tiny step?

Johanna 22:29

So partially it’s reframing what an experiment is.

As long we get information or reduce risk, or we find something of value, which is often information, then we have a successful experiment.

Even if we don’t like the outcome, we have some kind of success.

That gives us information to then plan the next small step.

Michael 22:59

This is something that I’ve been focusing on recently as well, that, because every step is giving us more information than we had before, we’re always moving forward. We can’t possibly move backwards.

And so, no matter how different the result is from what we hoped it would be, even if the information it gave us is very different than what we expected or hoped for, it is still more than we had before.

So, we’re farther along.

That is really helping my clients’ fear of change, and of trying something, melt away.

Because they aren’t ever two steps back. It’s always one step forward.

Johanna 23:49

I think that the one step forward and the two steps back, is a relic of old thinking.

I think of it more as a zigzag. We zigged and we thought, “A little bit,” and we zagged and we thought, “Maybe.”

It’s kind of like playing that childhood game Hot and Cold, where you’re warmer and colder.

The more we zig and zag, the more we understand about the entire situation, and we are able to make much much better decisions, because we have small small bits of data.

We have not bet the company.

We have not bet our careers.

We are always moving forward.

I think that the key to what you and I do is this small experiment business where we say, “What can you do in a day or two? Maybe a week. But if you could do it in a day or two, that’s even better. That would give you more information about where to go next.”

Michael 25:01

And, “What’s the one piece of information we need to get? Yes, we can measure 100 different things. There’s only one of those that really matter right now. And what’s that? Answering that question a lot of times makes so many possibilities obvious that were completely hidden before. So, we’re trying to solve for 100 unknowns versus working with one partially at least known.

Are there other principles that you use to help guide yourself in your clients through this chaos part of change?

Johanna 25:45

Empathy is really something I try to extend to other people and to myself.

Especially empathy with the people actually doing the work.

Whether it was the team, whether it was the management, whether it was the people above who were making decisions.

There are always people above. If I’m working with a CEO, it’s the board. If I’m working with anybody else in middle or senior management, it’s the CEO. If I’m working with a team, it’s the manager. There’s always someone above who has interests that might not yet align.

If I have empathy with the people who are doing their work, and think that they are doing the best job that they can in this in their current circumstances, that allows me to be much more congruent. That helps me figure out, what are the possible next steps.

Now, I am very quick to judge, and I don’t have a lot of patience for people who are mean to other people, in my perception.

So that’s when I have to say, “What would be true for people to act this way? Because Johanna, you have in, less than a nanosecond, you jumped to a conclusion that might be correct, but maybe it’s not.”

So, I really try hard to be empathetic. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I don’t. I am human. As all of my clients are.

So partially it’s about, how do I extend respect and empathy? And a little, really thinking about what would have to be true for that for people to act this way.

Michael 27:53

That takes us back to the reinforcing loop.

Because it doesn’t matter how often you forget to do this. Every time you remember to do this, you remember a little more the next time.

Johanna 28:05

Yes, yes. I don’t have to be perfect. I don’t know anybody who is. As long as I am trying my best and reinforcing that best behavior then I will do better and better as I perceive.

Michael 28:26

You’ve mentioned through our conversation today, several challenges that you’ve encountered. What would you say has been the biggest challenge for you as you’ve gone through this journey of really working with people where they are, catching them doing something right, and celebrating and really leveraging what they’re great at?

Johanna 28:56

My biggest challenge, is that the question?

Michael 29:01

The biggest challenge you’ve encountered as you’ve worked through doing this for yourself and with others.

Johanna 29:08

I’m thinking of a couple of management situations where I really thought that the managers had leverage and they really felt that they did not. And so, we bumped up against, “I can’t do this”, and “You can do this.” And people were so afraid for their careers, for their salary, for their bonuses, that they did not take that first step.

And while I can support them, I can do all kinds of things as a consultant, if they are too afraid to take that first step, even if they know they need to, I am not working at the right level in the organization.

Their fear is real. I need to work with the people who create that culture of fear.

And so, there are times in my career that I’ve worked at the wrong level. And those managers, those leaders, have not gotten what I thought that they could get out of our work together. And that’s disappointing to me.

Michael 30:39

For those of our listeners who are in that exact place, of “I am not at the right level to make the change, and I don’t know how to find or work with the people who are at the right level to effect this change,” what advice do you have?

Johanna 30:56

That’s where I recommend we do a force field analysis where we really look at the structures keeping things in place.

I go meta and say, “If you were in a place to effect this change, what would you do?”

And then we start to whittle down all of those, because the person has really big ideas. I guarantee it. And then we start to whittle them down and say, “What are the one or two or three things you could do to make a culture of less fear for your circle of influence?”

Start with yourself. Always, always, always start with yourself.

And even if you can’t change enough for you to break through, you can change for the people whose lives you directly affect and start there. And that might be enough to make changes over the very long term for what you need to do.

Always start with yourself.

Michael 32:09

Yeah, that’s one thing we can always change, is ourself.

Those changes have oftentimes outsize effects versus trying to change an entire team or org. Just seeing there’s a little bit different way to do things can have amazing impact on those around us.

Johanna 32:33

It’s the ripple-in-the-water effect.

You drip, drip, drip, this little low, tiny change, and then it ripples out.

And maybe it doesn’t change anything here, in this organization. But this is where you have no idea whose lives you change over the course of their lives. They take that model that they saw you do and they bring it with them to other places.

If you really work in a toxic culture, you probably can’t change much until something else really big changes.

But people can say, “I remember how that leader made me feel. I will take those ideas with me and move to another company where it’s less toxic and I’m more able to work the way I want to.” And they don’t have to be specifically leaders or managers. They can be “just,” in quotes, “just” regular people doing development or testing or product or whatever.

They take those ideas, that slightly less fear, slightly more open, and they reinforce that in the teams that they go to.

That’s the effect of making a safe culture for the people with whom you work and the people whom you lead.

Michael 34:06

Yes, because everyone is a leader. Some people recognize that. And then some of those do something with it.

What else should I ask you, Johanna?

Johanna 34:24

So, the problem with a question like that, is that we could keep talking for hours. Because we have a good time talking together.

You know what, I’m going to ask you a question.

How have you learned any of this from your work with me in the writing workshop? Because for those of you who don’t know, Michael took my writing workshop last year, something like that.

Michael 34:58

Earlier this year.

Johanna 35:00

Okay, fine. Earlier this year. And you saw me behave in ways that I probably don’t even know that I did. So maybe you could pull up something from that. And we could talk about it.

Michael 35:18

Over and over, I saw you catching me doing something right.

Focusing on that, you helped me see your perspective.

I have my perspective for each piece. I knew all of the backstory and the context and all of these things. And I don’t always recognize when that’s only in my head and not on a page. And you helped me recognize signals that that wasn’t all on the page.

Maybe the most extensive, or impactful, change you helped me make was moving from sentences that were this long (hands far apart) to this long (hands close together). Then, words that are this size (hands far apart), to words that may be this size (hands closer together), but are mostly smaller, without losing the preciseness of the longer words and without losing the thread of the longer sentences that might go on for pages.

That’s informed not just the writing I do for my business, but the writing I do for my day job, the writing I do with friends and family, everything has just completely transformed.

From that change, I’ve seen people understand what I’m saying much more rapidly and more thoroughly and more precisely. And, I would say, from my point of view, more correctly. Which is really saying that what I’m meaning to say is coming through to their understanding.

Johanna 37:22

You’re making that connection, you’re not bouncing off.

I teach this for writing. It’s the same thing for communication, for verbal communication. It’s the same thing for writing code or writing tests or any kind of product development.

For me, writing is a form of product development.

It feels exactly the same way that programming used to feel. And, when I did management, how management used to feel.

Because in management, this is the interesting thing about management versus product development. You make a decision in management, January 1st, you don’t see the effects until April, June, September, even worse, next January 1st.

One of the big problems in leadership in management is to try and make smaller decisions so that you can see the effects earlier. So you can figure out what to do with your feedback loops.

And this is something I have been struggling to explain, working on, I think my entire career.

And I figured it out for the writing workshop. Which means there is hope for me for figuring this out for all my leadership workshops and everything else that I do.

I am so happy that you have found several keys for your writing.

Will they work all the time? No. Eventually, you’ll have to change them.

But I think you have the tools to change them, to assess and then change.

And I think that it’s incumbent upon all of us to find those tools for ourselves in our daily lives as humans, and for our families and the people around us who support us. And to also find those little tools for us as people who work. How can we find those little tools to make shorter feedback loops, so we get the outcomes that we want?

Michael 39:52

You may have just answered my last question. What would you like to leave our listeners with today?

Johanna 40:01

So, I would like to leave the listeners with, if you want more of this, interesting ideas about feedback loops, please see or All my writing is there, and I would love to connect with people.

Michael 40:27

And you have newsletters there as well.

Johanna 40:29


I write three newsletters: The Pragmatic Manager, which is very work focused and management leadership focused; I write the Create Adaptable Life newsletter; and a fiction newsletter because I’m writing fiction. Because I don’t have enough to do.

Michael 40:51

And of course, links to all your books, and the hundreds and hundreds of other articles and things you’ve written.

Johanna 40:58

Yes, thank you.

Michael 41:02

And I can say from my experience, if you’ve enjoyed our conversation here today, all of that stuff you’ll find on Johanna’s website, you’re gonna just eat up, so much good stuff there.

And if you’ve enjoyed our conversation today, you might enjoy my newsletters. You can sign up for that and find all my past newsletters and other writings at the top of this page.

Thank you, Johanna, for this edifying conversation!

Johanna 41:32

Thank you. I really enjoyed this.

Michael 41:36

Thank you to all our listeners. Have a great day!

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