Interview With Pragmatic Project Management Expert, Johanna Rothman


It is very rare in project management field when you met such all-rounders who have expertise in many subjects. Johanna Rothman, commonly known as “Pragmatic Manager” is one of them. She is the owner of Rothman consulting group, Inc.

Johanna Rothman is a very popular and experienced consultant, author, speaker and product development manager. She helps and counsels people seeking services of product development.

She helps in product launch by making clients realize the options for product management. Her services also include agile transformation.

Her organization helps in managing risks. Moreover, she write blogs for professionals about hiring people and project management. She loves to write about change management both on personal and professional scale.

She has been a technical editor of Techwell.  She has worked program and project management as well. She is also the author of books namely “Manage It”, “Hiring Geeks That Fit” and “Manage Your Project Portfolio”. In addition, she wrote “Hiring Geeks That Fit” and several others.

Johanna helps professionals in working with managers and leaders for seizing opportunities. Johanna is the author Award winning books including Manage it! Your Guide to Modern Pragmatic Project Management.

Key Takeaways From Johanna Rothman’s Interview:

  • Common Problems Encountered in Product development.
  • Mistakes of Project Managers and their Remedies.
  • New Trends of Agile Software development in 2018.
  • Best Practices to Implement Change.
  • Biggest Mistakes Committed by Interviewers.
  • Useful Practices for Risk Management.
  • Problems Encountered in working with remote teams.
  • Exact Role of Scrum Master.
  • Advice for New Project Managers.

TaskQue: First of all, we would like to know what really inspired you, in choosing product development management as career.

Johanna Rothman: I started my professional career as a software developer. I loved solving problems and had such fun programming. I didn’t realize I was “developing products” until my second job.

In that job, I had responsibility for a product that the previous developer hadn’t quite finished. Yet, the customers were using it and loved it–as far as it went. The customers wanted more.

I had to release small changes fairly often and they loved the way the “product evolved.” (A customer’s words.) That’s when I realized I wasn’t just a programmer; I was a product developer. That started to change how I thought about my role.

When I started as a consultant, I realized many of my previous employers–and I suspected new clients–had the same problem. They thought they created systems, not products. If I could help them change how they thought, they might be able to do a better job.

TaskQue: You train people about product development, what are the common issues you have witnessed in various products development.

Johanna Rothman: Here are just three common problems I see:

  • The managers spend too much time thinking about which products to start and finish. That means the teams are under schedule pressure before they even start.
  • Someone (a manager/customer/some stakeholder) wants an accurate estimate at the start of a project. That’s the time we know the least about the requirements, never mind the code base.
  • People believe that multitasking works.

The too-much-time thinking (and not deciding) is a project portfolio problem. Once organizations start to manage their project portfolios, they make decisions faster and stop the multitasking.

The estimation problem is often because the people outside the team think they have articulated the requirements and people “should” be able to estimate.

I’ve seen multitasking issues at every level of the organization. We don’t multitask well at all. We can fast switch if we get to a stopping point.

TaskQue: Being an experienced product development manager, what mistakes do you find common among project managers, and what remedies do you suggest?

Johanna Rothman: I several common problems:

  • Thinking they won’t need to re-plan the project.
  • Trying to optimize for each person, instead of the project.
  • Committing on behalf of the team, instead of asking the team.

I have yet to see a project I didn’t need to re plan. Instead, I like to use deliverable-based rolling wave planning to plan the major milestones (or deliverables) and re plan at least as often as once a month.

We have data that says that flow efficiency (where we optimize for a team’s output) is more productive and more effective than resource efficiency (where we optimize for a person). If project managers ask a team to finish work, they will see more throughput.

And, when project managers commit on behalf of a team, they don’t know what they’re committing to. It doesn’t make sense to commit a team to a date or a deliverable without asking the team their opinion.

TaskQue: What’s your point of view on agile software development? What trends do you see in upcoming years?

Johanna Rothman: As far as I can see, agile has jumped the shark. The problem is that people have co-opted the agile words without adopting the agile mindset and practices. That’s why I wrote Create Your Successful Agile Project.

I’m not good at predicting the future, so I’ll tell you my hopes instead. I hope that people learn that collaboration produces better products than silos. I hope that people learn that explaining the purpose and having the team decide how to work is better than command and control. And, I hope that people learn that making progress one day at a time is much better than waiting six weeks to finish “everything.”

TaskQue: What do you think about change management? What are the key factors to manage change in a project successfully?

Johanna Rothman: Projects are full of change! I like to assume that change will occur and we need to expect and manage for change.

As to change in the organization? I like top-down, bottom-up, and sideways approaches to change. The first thing I like to consider is this: What is the smallest change we can make to become successful?

In projects and programs, I plan to iterate on the planning and delivery once we deliver something. It’s the same idea for transformation work.

TaskQue: At your blog. We found a lot of posts related to tips related to recruitment interviews, What are the biggest mistakes interviewees commit during interviews?

Johanna Rothman: I find lack of preparation on the part of the interviewers and the candidates to be the biggest problem.

Interviewers need to prepare their behavior-description questions. Candidates need to prepare the stories of their careers, to answer those questions. In addition, candidates need to prepare questions to ask of the interviewers.

TaskQue: What do you recommend for risk management? What are the best practices regarding risk management.

Johanna Rothman: In my experience, you can manage risks when you have small deliverables and show progress every day or so. Risks become quite large and come true when the project team delays their integration or works on large requirements without feedback.

I’m reluctant to use the term “best practices.” I know of potentially useful practices. Here are some I like:

  • Plan and deliver in small chunks, such as one or two days. Now you can see if the deliverables are in trouble quite early.
  • Ask about risks that surprised us in a previous project. What is the likelihood of that happening again?
  • What can we deliver and get feedback about early in the project to reduce the unknowns and risks later?
  • What kinds of experiments can we try to see how to work better?

TaskQue: Remote working trend has been very common these days. What challenges usually project managers face to manage remote teams and what remedies do you suggest?

Johanna Rothman: I see several problems with remote teams:

  • The people don’t have the skills and capabilities they need to do their job as a team.
  • They are separated by so many time zones that meetings are painful.
  • They don’t ever meet in person so they have a difficult time building trust with each other.

Too many managers don’t know what skills and capabilities the team needs. If the project manager can listen to the team, the project manager will see what the team sees.

As for the too many time zone problem, I recommend a project manager explain that problem to the managers who created this team. The PM can explain the Cost of Delay and the costs of asking a question with this team. It’s crazy for teams that can’t easily meet to try to work together.

The first thing a distributed team needs is to build respect and trust between the team members. Having everyone work together for one or two weeks is inexpensive compared to the costs of delay when people don’t believe the best of each other.

TaskQue: In an interview, you stated that scrum master should not be involved in coding level. What do you think is exactly the role of scrum master? To what extent, he should be involved in the organization?

Johanna Rothman: A Scrum Master facilitates the team’s process. If a Scrum Master is coding or testing, the SM is not facilitating the team’s process. (Take a look at the Scrum Guide for more specifics.) The SM cannot be a part-time SM if the team is new to Scrum. That doesn’t work. It’s possible a team accustomed to Scrum doesn’t need a SM, but that takes a lot of work.

TaskQue: You have been working in the field for a long time. Which personalities have inspired you? Who do you think are the shining stars in the community?

Johanna Rothman: Gerald M. Weinberg. I have also learned a ton from Tom DeMarco, Tim Lister, Esther Derby, and Don Gray. I don’t know how to discuss “shining stars” so I’ll leave that alone.

TaskQue:  Being a women in project management field, you are inspiration for thousands of women working in this field. What would you like to recommend to those ladies who wish to enter this field.

Johanna Rothman: Thank you! I don’t think of myself as inspiration for anyone, so it’s nice of you to say that. As for people who want to enter the project management field, here’s my advice: learn the dynamics of your projects, so you can think clearly about the risks and this project’s uniqueness. If I can add one more thing, it’s this: work with other people as much as possible in the project. Command-and-control project management doesn’t work (and never did), so understand how you can work with your team.

TaskQue:  Apart from your professional life, what are your hobbies and interests? How much do you believe in work-life balance?

Johanna Rothman: I said this in Manage Your Job Search: There is no such thing as work life balance. There is only life. Live it.

I like to read, cook, and I walk a lot so I can stay in shape. I also love to travel and meet new people.

TaskQue: Technological advancements are reshaping project management. businesses are implementing various tools for increasing efficiency. TaskQue is one of the emerging task management software. What are your thoughts on the user experience of TaskQue?

Johanna Rothman: You probably won’t like this answer.

I worry that you talk about people as resources. People are resourceful. However, they are not resources. I wrote about this in People Are Not Resources. You might also want to see what I say about flow efficiency and resource efficiency.

Think about how to move projects to done, not what people do and you’ll be on a better track.