From Chaos to Agility with Mark Kilby and Johanna Rothman | DistantJob - Remote Recruitment Agency

From Chaos to Agility with Mark Kilby and Johanna Rothman

Luis Magalhaes

Mark Kilby is a seasoned agile coach, and co-founder of several North-American Agile communities. Johanna Rothman is a prolific author, management expert, and teacher of best management practices. Both are experienced software engineers, and by their powers combined, they are the co-authors of the newest book about remote agile: “From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams.”

Johanna Rothman and Mark Kilby

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Luis Magalhaes:    Greetings ladies and gentlemen, this is Luis, your host for the DistantJob podcast. And today I’m struggling a bit, I admit, because I have not one but two guests, Mark Kilby and Johanna Rothman, are the authors of the new book, From Chaos to Successfully Distributed Agile Teams. Mark is a scrum master and agile coach with many, many years of experience under his belt, the founder of several agile related outfits including Agile Florida and Agile Orlando. Johanna is the owner of the Rothman Consulting Group that has for over 24 years helped people manage their product development. She is a prolific writer, having written several books, blog posts and currently writing a free email newsletter. She maintains several professional blogs and is just a fountain hat of information on everything related to management. Their new book is incredibly complex. I made a good effort to read most of it and I manage to do so, but not all of it and I could never cover it all in a one hour podcasts.

Luis Magalhaes:    So I tried to approach it from the perspective of someone who really is a dilettante when it comes to agile. I’m not a professional and I don’t have any formal training, it’s more something that I have self-educated myself on to try to improve my management? And so I believe that this interview shouldn’t be intimidating for beginners. In fact, it should be perfect for people that are still trying to figure out what agile is and how they can apply them to their management style. But it also has some interesting tidbits for people that are more seasoned. So you really don’t need to be neither an expert in agile or a novice with an interest in agile, just the interest in leadership and management is enough for you to take some very nice tools, tips and strategies away from this episode. I really enjoyed it. It helped me a lot and I believe it will do the same for you. So without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I bring you my conversation with Mark Kilby and Johanna Rothman.

Luis Magalhaes:    Hello ladies and gentlemen, this is Luis your host at the Distant Job podcast, a podcast about building and leading remote teams that win. And today I have Mark Kilby and Johanna Rothman with me, they are the authors of a new book on agile and distributed teams, From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams. It’s the name of the book. And Mark, Johanna, welcome.

Mark Kilby:    Thank you.

Johanna Rothman:    Thank you.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah, it’s a pleasure to have you. Thank you for agreeing to the interview. Now, I will have introduced you already, but tell our listeners a bit more about yourself and what you do. So I guess Johanna.

Johanna Rothman:    Oh, thank you. I’ve been in the software industry for a very long time. Since you’re listening to the podcast, you cannot admire all of my gray hair and [inaudible 00:03:21] agile community since … I did not realize actually I was in the agile community in the 90s. I sort of realized it in the early 2000s but I’ve always used an iterative and incremental approach to managing projects. I’ve also worked with distributed teams since about the mid-80s. So I have a lot of experience with, how do we actually get stuff done when we are working across the world, across hours that may or may not overlap, and how do we actually get the product out the door?

Luis Magalhaes:    All right. That’s great. That’s a lot of experience and it’s reflected in the book actually, but we’ll get to the book later. So Mark, what about you?

Mark Kilby:    A similar experience. I’m trying to catch up with Joanna on the gray hairs but not quite there yet. I had been working with teams starting the 90s and also distributed teams at point and then early 2000 is about the time I started applying the agile principles and practices, which if you start diving into that or your audience has dived into that area, it’s all about collaboration, which sounds really strange if you’re dealing with distributed teams that are not in the same space. And so I have been wrestling with that problem in particular with distributed agile teams for 15 years. So about the same time as Johanna.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. Well that’s actually something that I want to get to later because I think that a lot of people have been struggling with distributed teams for the past years. Some people want to solve it with agile, and we’ll see later in your book that agile is not necessarily a magic bullet for it, but we’ll get to that a bit later. For now, I really wanted to ask you just as a starting, what’s the best lesson that working with each other has taught you?

Johanna Rothman:    Oh, so working with each other. Mark and I pair wrote this book. So literally we open the same document, we happen to use Google Docs. We literally wrote it all together, and we had a ton of fun. And I think that, that ability to figure out what we’re doing and enjoy what we’re doing and adapt in the moment and build resilience into our teams, we actually lived all the principles in this book.

Mark Kilby:    So I would definitely agree, fun. She stole my [inaudible 00:06:16] there. The second one there is, don’t let your partner gets stuck. And I think that’s where we collaborated very well because we would often switch between one of us writing and the other one reviewing and thinking of other options on how to, unpack what was being written. And never did we get bogged down for more than a few minutes, because the other one would jump in and say, “Well here, let me try this.” And would jump in with a few sentences or a new paragraph or, “Let me come in with a story,” or vice versa, and that being able to pair together live, even though we’re a couple … Oh, no. What? 1500 miles apart I guess right now?

Johanna Rothman:    I think so. Yeah.

Mark Kilby:    Yeah. So we worked just as effectively as if we were sitting next to each other in that respect and not letting the work get stuck or letting each other get stack.

Luis Magalhaes:    That sounds nice. So as a writer, the thing that pops to mind first for me is, how did you avoid getting a lots of duplicate content? Certainly a lot of your insights overlap. Was it just a matter of you reviewing what the other had written every day?

Mark Kilby:    We wrote it all together.

Johanna Rothman:    Yeah. We did.

Mark Kilby:    Yeah, yeah.

Luis Magalhaes:    It was literally at the same time?

Mark Kilby:    Yes.

Johanna Rothman:    It was truly at the same time. Yes.

Mark Kilby:    Yeah.

Johanna Rothman:    Yeah. That’s why the voice of the book sounds like us, as opposed to Johanna in one place or Mark in another place. It sounds like us.

Mark Kilby:    Yeah. Well, and Johanna and I both have been in other collaborations on books where we’ve written chapters of the books, and you can tell when you read the collections, there’s very different voices and sometimes it doesn’t always carry well, and it doesn’t get the message across well. In this one since we wrote every line together, literally every day, we have that consistent voice, and I think that’s what makes it flow so nicely.

Luis Magalhaes:    Wow, that’s super cool. It’s like musicians jamming.

Mark Kilby:    Exactly. Yeah, exactly.

Luis Magalhaes:    That’s really cool. Okay, I mean, apart from … Oh, and again, by the way, you were very kind to give me a pre-release copy of the book. I haven’t read it all, but I’ve read a big chunk of it, and not sequentially, so I believe I can ask you questions about several parts of the book. This podcast should be live in two weeks, by the time this podcast is live, will the book be available for everyone? Is it already available for everyone?

Johanna Rothman:    It is. It’s already available on all platforms that I know about, in eBook and print.

Luis Magalhaes:    Great. That’s awesome. So a part from the availability of this book, what excites you the most in the agile world right now?

Mark Kilby:    Interesting question there. I’ll say that the last few years there’s been some divergence around different approaches, especially in how businesses are getting larger and how you apply agile concepts to that, although we’re starting to see a little bit of convergence around that, I think that’s exciting. I think also, and getting around the topic of the book, realizing that there’s yet other ways to apply agile principles to make an organization work more effectively. Now in the book we focused mostly on teams, and as I mentioned before, we had to cut quite a bit out to shorten the book. But there was more we could have written about how you apply this at an organizational level. That might be a future book.

Johanna Rothman:    Yeah, what I’m really excited about is management and culture. That’s been my focus as we wrapped up this book. I am now focusing on, how do we look at the organization as a whole that’s a cultural shift? We talked a lot about mindset shifts in culture and the book. How teams reflect the culture of the organization that they’re in. And that last chapter about Lead Your Distributed Agile Teams to Success, that’s all about what managers can do at the various levels. We don’t actually say, “If you’re a first line manager, do this. If you’re a middle, do that. If you’re a senior, do that.” But the idea is, how can you live these principles as an agile manager, so can create an agile organization?

Luis Magalhaes:    Got it. This is not the book that you read once, and are done with. It has a very textbook like approach. While we were waiting for Mark, I talked with Johanna a bit about this. It’s looks like the textbook that I would get back in med school. That’s my original background in healthcare versus most of the books that I read today on management that are a bit more constructed like self-help or personal development books, not dissing those books. I enjoy a good personal development book myself, but I was going through this book, and it has a lot of references. It feels very scientific. Was this a conscious decision?

Johanna Rothman:    So I have very strong feelings. I know Mark is laughing, nobody can see him, but he’s laughing. I have very strong feelings that it’s fine to synthesize ideas and use our experience, which is what this book is. This book is an experience based approach to distributed agile teams that is successful as opposed to theoretical. And that, when possible, we should help people refer to primary sources. So while we think that this particular book is quite readable, I certainly had a whole lot of textbooks that, I wouldn’t read [inaudible 00:12:43].

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. I meant a good textbook not one of those-

Mark Kilby:    Yeah, yeah.

Johanna Rothman:    Yeah. But it was so important for us to be able to say, “Here’s a real primary source.” So for example, Mark, when we were doing the rich and natural communication piece, you first found the Wikipedia article, and we had a long discussion, probably longer than you wanted about my use of Wikipedia. So for example, I like Wikipedia for blog posts. I like Wikipedia to help me see what the primary references are. But in any of my books, Wikipedia is not actually a reference.

Mark Kilby:    Yeah. I think one thing that we both consciously focused on beyond the references was the stories, because we know from our consulting, that’s what people want to hear. What were the success stories? And so we tried to blend in as many stories as we could to say, “These are not just principals we came out of the blue with, these are based on our experiences working with different organizations and different teams and different industries.” Now most of it is software based, but we are really working across many different industries, with these teams and how they’re solving these problems, and so telling stories, we always find is a very powerful. That’s a big part of the book as well.

Luis Magalhaes:    And actually it is, and I really appreciate that, because the stories you tell, they … Sometimes you read a story in a book, and you know that it’s a made up scenario. The writer just made up a scenario to illustrate a point. Your stories, they feel real. That’s very nice.

Mark Kilby:    Yeah. We of course, change some details to protect the innocent. But those are all … There’re real elements in each of those stories.

Luis Magalhaes:    I guess my next question has to be why now? Tell me about the day when you decide, and I don’t know if you decide at the same time or if it one calling the other. But when was the light bulb moment? Was there a specific event that crystallized the idea that you really should write a book about this?

Mark Kilby:    I’ll jump in if that’s okay. Johanna and I have known each other, we’re very familiar with each other’s work. We were at one of the agile conferences, the big [inaudible 00:15:27] conference in 2017 and we happen to be there on the last day, walking down the hall together, talking about what we were seeing and not seeing, and Johanna asked me, “Have you seen much on distributed teams in this conference?” And I said, “No, not really.” And the year before, I had three different sessions on that, and so it was odd that there was nothing. And she said, “So, are you thinking of maybe writing a book about this?” And I was, “Oh wow, I’ve heard so many bad things about the book writing experience.” She goes, “Well, I’ve been thinking about it. Would you like to pair on this and maybe write a book together?”

Mark Kilby:    It took me about half a millisecond to think about that question and say, “Yes, let’s do this.” Because I think what’s different now, and my guess is a lot of your listeners will understand this, the technology is changing, but also the attitudes are changing about working remotely. So right now your audience can’t see it, but we’re watching each other on video and so we’re reacting to each other’s body language and facial expressions as if we were sitting together in a studio and able to chat about the topics at hand. We now have that experience, so the technology in the last few years has really enabled a more natural type of communication online. But also, because we’re distributed and the attitudes of change, we have little more flexibility in how we work. So that idea of having a flexible work schedule combined with the technology to support connecting with other people with a high degree of skill.

Mark Kilby:    That’s a part of what drove me to say, “We’ve got to get the idea is out there on, this is how you can make this work.” And I’m going to hand it over to Johanna, because I’m sure she has much more to say about that.

Johanna Rothman:    Well, no, I’m not going to say much more. I had been thinking about this for a while, and I’d been giving some talks and people really liked the talks that I gave, and I still thought that there was more. So I have been a consultant for the last 20X years and Mark has been an employee, a remote employee, a virtual employee for the last several years. Actually more than several, I think.

Mark Kilby:    Yeah. It’s going past a decade depending on which organization you’re talking about.

Johanna Rothman:    Okay yeah. So even more than I expected. And I decided that Mark would be ideal because he has such a great reputation in the industry for distributed agile work. So I wanted to partner with and to pair with somebody who already had a great reputation.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay. I want to go into … Again, I believe I’ve said this before, but when it comes to agile, I’m really a dilettante. I’ve had conversations about it with people, I’ve read some books, but I’ve never had any formal training, any formal education. It’s a process, it’s a framework that I know that exists out there and it looked like more and more that it could be useful. But I want to go back to a conversation that I had with a friend. A couple of weeks ago, I had an agile coach, Molood Noori on the podcast, he was sending the podcast to a friend that he leads a distributed development team, actually partly distributed, about half the team is offsite. And he said, “Oh great, I’m going to listen to it because I want to implement … I want to start using agile practices in my team.” Just as a jibe to him, I was like, “Well, why Agile? Why have you decided to go with this?”

Luis Magalhaes:    And he was very honest with me, he was very frank [inaudible 00:19:29]. He was like, “Well, things aren’t going as I wanted it to go. We’re not delivering as we should. I need to do something. This is going to be my experiment.” How do you feel about this? It is it agile something that you … If the team feels stuck, do you think that it’s viable to say, “Okay, we’re going to try agile,” is this even a realistic scenario? What are your thoughts on this?

Johanna Rothman:    So I would not say, “Try a specific agile approach.” I would say, “Go with the principals and ask, ‘How often can we collaborate as a team to learn? How can we collaborate with our customer or product owner? How small can we make something so we can ship it or release it or show it to get feedback?'” So agile approaches are built on iterating over the features and incrementally delivering, and this notion of double loop learning, where we examine the process and examine the product on a regular basis. I mean, I’ve even written a book about agile project management. I am not dogmatic about any specific approach, as long as the teams use the principles and your colleague, the one who said, “We can’t really get anything out that door.” An agile approach might be exactly what he needs because, the team is probably taking too much at a time. They have too much work in progress, they’re not slicing and dicing.

Luis Magalhaes:    Mark, I guess that Johanna is done, would you like to add anything?

Mark Kilby:    Sure, yeah. So as Johanna said, a big focus of agile is collaborating together as a team and getting rapid feedback on, are you building the right thing? Are you building it the right way? And, do you have the ability to adjust? So your friend using the phrase experiment is actually very promising, because that’s exactly the attitude we take from an actual standpoint is if we see something that needs improvement, what’s a short experiment? Instead, what a lot of people will do is they’ll say, “Oh, here’s this new thing. I’m going to grab onto it and make my team do it.” An agilist would say, “Well, let’s try something for a couple of weeks and then let’s chat about how well it worked for us.” So that’s part of that double loop learning is, it’s just setting an experiment and let’s see how it goes and not commit to it yet. Let’s see how we might tweak it after we experiment with it for a little bit. So you probably picked up on that theme throughout the book as well.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So somewhat related is really, I see a lot of people fall into what I call the spell of the sun god manager, which is basically there’s a manager or director, it’s like the sun and then the other people, they aren’t really a team, they are employees orbiting around that person. He’s the one that says, “You go here and you do this with this person.” Something like that. The problem with this, usually teams they … Not really teams, but I guess you can call them that, they are people working on the same stuff and they actually deliver work. But the problem is that eventually the sun burns out or maybe the sun needs to move to other place and then it starting from zero again. So it’s not a resilient approach by any means. How would you insert agile into the system in a way that that changes it into an actual resilient system and not employees orbiting a manager?

Mark Kilby:    Very good question. So first of all, and this is where we get into some of the mind shifts we talk about. Does that manager realize the impact they have on their team, both positive and negative? Do they understand that they’re actually not tapping into not only the expertise, but the creativity of their team? If they’re directing all the activity, then are they really getting the most out of the people? So if they’re trying to make the people efficient but not really getting ideas from them and getting them to collaborate and getting them to work together as a team, they’re probably not getting the most of that team. So it would be working with that manager to understand, there’s some other things you could do to get even better results and not burning the bay out, including yourself as a manager. Because as a team grows, that gets very taxing. It’s hard to keep up with all the individuals. Instead, can you set up a system where the team runs itself and that’s part of what the agile techniques allow you to do.

Johanna Rothman:    So we actually talked about this a lot in chapter 11, which is Lead Your Distributed Agile Team to Success. And I think that part of the problem, if I step back, is that the organizations often reinforced this behavior. They reward this particular behavior, so a given manager might not feel as if he or she can really change, in that case go up a level and say, “I realize that you want to reward me for this, I think we can get better results and better products and better everything for the organization, if I stopped directing people and start encouraging and leading people.” In too many organizations, that’s a really big mindset shift.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. So you mentioned chapter 11 and actually one of the notes that I did in chapter 11 was related to … You recommend that the team decide how to organize itself. And maybe if it’s not quite ready for that, start with creating a cross functional team with enough hours of overlap. Let’s say that to her in this situation, where there’s the sun god manager, but you prompt the team about it and it falls flat. The team is like, “Well no, we’re okay. We’re okay as we are. We were not delivering. We just need to work harder maybe.” How do you change this mindset?

Johanna Rothman:    So here are a couple of things I would do. I would actually say, “Okay, if you guys are working well together, how can I see a valuable result every single day? What do you have to do as a team to show me that I don’t have to direct all of your activity?” And that’s when the team might say, “Holy Moly, I’m not sure we know how to do that.” And that’s when you can start to coach the team. That allows you to manage for change. The next thing is all about, how can we collaborate as a team. If I’m the manager, I then check the affiliation, “Is everybody on this team affiliated as a team or am I still doing something or allowing something else to happen where they are affiliated with other people or teams across the organization?” The sun god manager is almost always a system problem. It’s the system of the organization. I mean yes, some people really love to say, “My people and I have 3,000 people.” Or some nonsense like that-

Luis Magalhaes:    … I mean there’s an equal amount of people that say, “I just wish I could not have to direct everyone.”

Johanna Rothman:    Yeah. Mark, did you have anything to add since I [crosstalk 00:28:21].

Mark Kilby:    Oh yes. So as Johanna has pointed out, I have worked in some of these scenarios and work with some of these teams. And in some cases you can go on, you can talk to that manager, you can talk to the teams. But if everything seems to be working well, they might be resistant as you said, they said, “No, everything’s fine.” And so in tough cases you might need to let them fail a little bit. Not catastrophically, but, let’s say that, that sun god manager as you put it, is somebody not with a big ego or not setting territory, but just is really good at organizing work and really good at helping people get things done. And because of that, as Johanna said, the system or the organization reward that and promotes them, so now instead of one team, they might have three teams or five teams they’re overseeing. Well, that becomes almost impossible for them to direct everybody now.

Mark Kilby:    And now that team that was waiting for that manager to direct them daily, they’re just not going to have the contact. And so the team is like, “Well, we’re running out of work.” So a question I might ask them is, “So what might make sense to do next? How can figure out the next thing you need to work on? How do you get that direction without having daily direction?” And that’s where we can start setting up some self-management and talking with that original manager to say, “Okay, what can you start setting in place? What other things can we set up within the team so they can start developing and planning their own work and not have to tax as much of your time?” And that’s where you can start doing it, but sometimes the team has to stumble a little bit to realize that.

Luis Magalhaes:    That’s a good point, so let them stumble a bit. I find and I see in several situations that some people just like to be told what to do and obviously [inaudible 00:30:26]. I am always looking for ways to let people, feel how good it is to self-direct a bit. So anyway Johanna was there anything that you wanted to add to that?

Johanna Rothman:    So one more thing. My experiences that people out of school these days really want to take a hold of their career and a hold of their lives and they are totally self-directed unless the system pushes them down. And if you have somebody with five to 20 years of experience, where every single time they poke their head up, somebody pushed them down, they want to be told what to do. They are tired of being, cut off in some way, shape or form. So the reason I’m a consultant is because I’m not very good at being told how to do my job.

Mark Kilby:    I can confirm that.

Johanna Rothman:    Yeah, yeah. [crosstalk 00:31:33].

Luis Magalhaes:    Yes, well I feel.

Johanna Rothman:    Even when I said to Mark, “Oh, let’s do it this way.” And then three minutes later I had a better idea and I went off on another tangent. He every so often had to say, “Can you bring me along? I’m not quite sure where you’re going.” And I would have to stop and say something, because every time I have a good idea, I would like to do a little experiment. I don’t go open loop for too long. We’re not talking about an experiment of a month, we’re talking about five minutes. And if people have the experience that every single time they wanted to try something, they got beaten down, that they don’t want to try something.

Mark Kilby:    Like they’re conditioned to not try.

Johanna Rothman:    Yeah. Yeah.

Luis Magalhaes:    So somewhat related to this is there’s a part in the book where you’re talking about retrospectives and you say that retrospective is the one agile component that there’s not that flexible. If you don’t have retrospectives, you don’t have learning, so you don’t have agile. Maybe I’m not putting as elegantly as I could, but I’ve been in meetings and retrospectives, where the company was trying to adopt the agile principles and there was … The sense while I was there was that people were just going through the motions. It’s a situation of, as you say, fake it until you make it. Everyone was on video, but people were just saying, what they did during the week and then when someone else was talking, their eyes just glaze over and they were probably playing Minesweeper or World of Warcraft or something like that. Is this a step forward or not? Is this a problem? And yes, how do you solve it? Or is it just people will do this until they catch on? How do you read this kind of thing?

Mark Kilby:    So this is why in the book we emphasize looking at the principles and not just trying to grab on to agile practices, because you’ll get into some of those scenarios where people will go through the motions and not understand why they’re doing it. So whether you call it a retrospective, the older term is postmortem, but we do it continuously in agile, so it’s not really after the fact. But the idea is, are you taking time to look at really what’s working for you and your teams? Does that mean that everyone feels psychologically safe to share what they need to say in those meetings? That’s a key component. This is where if you’re starting out, you really need an experienced facilitator who can help set up those conditions, for psychological safety and take it beyond the typical retrospective format of what worked well, what didn’t work well, let’s get the list together, let’s stare at the list for a while and not do anything. That’s not an effective retrospective.

Mark Kilby:    Instead, it’s having an experienced facilitator and say, “Okay, what’s really challenging you as a team and what are you observing That’s the source of that challenge? What can we do about it? And then, what do we need to tap management for?” Because maybe the team doesn’t have control over it. That’s part of that system effect there. Maybe it’s the way the organization or the system is set up, that’s not allowing the team to be more effective. So how can we work as a team and how can we work with a larger organization to make a change? That’s where retrospective can be effective. Also, I gave you the funny look, which the audience didn’t see that part. But I gave you the funny look because retrospectives can actually be extremely flexible. And that’s where people forget that they’ll do the same type all the time and people get bored with it.

Luis Magalhaes:    I meant that you have to have a retrospective. Now, it can be done a flexible way, that’s what I meant to say. Am I wrong in that? Do you think you can have an agile practice without retrospectives?

Mark Kilby:    Well …

Johanna Rothman:    Can I jump in?

Mark Kilby:    Yeah, go for it. Go for it.

Johanna Rothman:    I don’t see how you do an agile approach without a retrospective of some sort. And the one thing I want to emphasize, especially for distributed teams is that you can make it smaller. You don’t have to have 90 minutes every two weeks, which is something that Mark and I normally recommend. But when Mark and I wrote this book, we did little kaizens of anywhere from five to what, 20 minutes?

Mark Kilby:    Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Johanna Rothman:    I think at the beginning they might’ve been 20 minutes long. Once we got into a roll of how we would work together, we had a lot of stuff to figure out at the beginning. The first couple months I think we were finding our feet, so to speak, and finding our writing rhythm. And a lot of distributed teams do that. So we made our retrospectives much more often, much smaller. And we only chose one thing to focus on. I think that, that’s the piece that a lot of people don’t realize, especially for a distributed team. Make it smaller, focus on one thing, do an experiment, see how fast you can get some feedback and then decide what else to do.

Mark Kilby:    Yeah, and if people didn’t catch that word that Johanna used, it was kaizen, which essentially Japanese for small change. So the idea is, how can you make it almost a daily practice instead of having a ceremony? Ceremonies are boring.

Johanna Rothman:    Yeah.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. It’s the 1% better everyday thing.

Mark Kilby:    Yeah.

Johanna Rothman:    Oh yeah.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. So, okay. I want you to jump a bit, and we talked about time, and I want to jump a bit into time zone overlap because that’s mentioned a lot especially at the beginning of the book. And actually I felt very validated because the whole business of this job … We’re recruitment and placement agency that also handles the HR. And our differentiating point from the start was that, look, we find people all over the world. We find the best people in the world, but we find that people that are willing to work, your work hours. So we find the geeks that want to go during the evening, at night, et cetera, and [inaudible 00:38:29] the whole morning.

Luis Magalhaes:    I felt very validated when you stress the importance of having a good overlap between everyone in the team, and I believe you recommend minimum four hours. Did I get that right? [crosstalk 00:38:46]. What we’re seeing today is that people are getting very focused, and not to say that it’s a bad thing, but people are getting extremely focused in the work-life balance, quality of life thing. And we get more clients telling us, “We don’t really care about the whole overlap. We don’t care that much, as long as they have one hour to get in touch that’s fine.” Apart from reading your book, which I think everyone should, please just explain my audience why this is a massive mistake.

Johanna Rothman:    Okay. So the subtitle for this book is Collaborate to Deliver. And if you don’t have enough hours of overlap, you cannot possibly collaborate. And so we’re not foolish. We are not saying you need eight hours of overlap, but if you don’t have, four hours of overlap, you don’t have a couple of hour chunks to be able to work together. So the four hours might all be in the morning, but that allows the team to pair, to mob, to swarm, to collaborate in any way that makes sense for them. And if you want to rely on the handoffs, Mark and I do not have any experience where you have a successful distributed agile team. You couldn’t rely on handoffs, but we don’t see how they are agile at all. Not successfully.

Luis Magalhaes:    So mark, do you have anything to add?

Mark Kilby:    So, if in your audience, you have freelancers that have sort of a well-defined product and process, let’s say they spin up a website for people. That probably doesn’t require a large amount of collaboration. But if you’re launching a brand new product or service and you need everybody’s mind in the game and you need everyone to innovate and be creative and use their combined skills to build that wonderful new product, you’re going to need that collaboration time. Using agile principles, we found that four hours is sort of that minimal sweet spot. Now if you have more time and overlap, that’s wonderful. I have one team right now that’s all in the mountain time zone. They’re in different cities and they’re on frequently. They’re either on a meeting like this or they’re on chat going back and forth, firing ideas at each other and reviewing each other’s work all the time.

Mark Kilby:    I have other teams that have that minimal four hours where some individuals that are further to the East, let’s say central or eastern Europe or a little bit more of a night owl type person. And so they prefer to get up late morning and work through the evening. That’s their prime time. That’s when they’re at their best. And they can work with east coast US, central US, because they’ll have those hours of overlap. But if you’re talking 13 hours difference, 12 hours difference, I don’t know how you’re going to get the people to work together to really share ideas and share talents to build that new cool product or service. I haven’t seen it.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah, I once met a guy that wanted to that while juggling another full time job. So who knew? Who knows when he’ll sleep?

Mark Kilby:    Yep, yep, exactly. And how brilliant will the idea of be after no sleep?

Luis Magalhaes:    I don’t know. We’re getting into the final third of the podcast, but I do have one final question about the management and team building thing. You talk in the book about, and may be using this term wrong, so tell me if I am. But you talk in the book about some teams having a silo of one problem, where really basically everyone works on their own stuff and there really is no crossover. And this is not an agile team because by definition an agile to meet needs to promote cross-functionality. Are there some ways to solve this, assuming that people think that we can work better if there is cross-functionality, how would you get the buy-in and how would you help people develop their knowledge in a way that the team would become more cross-functional?

Mark Kilby:    So, can I answer your question with a question? Do you mean by buy-in from the team or buy-in from management or both?

Luis Magalhaes:    I guess, both because not always, but sometimes you get a position from both. Sometimes-

Mark Kilby:    Yeah, that’s why I ask, yeah. So-

Luis Magalhaes:    Most of my experiences in marketing, I don’t have coding experience, but sometimes in marketing I get the email expert asking me, “Why should I know what good copy is? I just need the copy person to hand me the copy.”

Mark Kilby:    Right, yeah. “So let me just put on my headphones and be down on my laptop and work away because I know what I’m doing.”

Luis Magalhaes:    Exactly.

Mark Kilby:    I’ll speak from the team perspective and maybe Johanna will take the flip side of it. So in working with some teams like that, we find that yes, you might … Let’s say you had a team working on a book like, and yes, you might get a beautiful cover, and you might get, some interesting layout, but until you set a vision with the team on what the product is, how do they’re working toward the same product or different products? And so, it’s getting that team to understand that it’s not challenging their expertise, it’s really building on their expertise and also building off their ideas, because of their unique expertise they might see from the product vision, “Oh, I see some unique ways to go.” And so does this other team member. But if they never talk, if they never collaborate, how are they going to figure out which of those new pathways are going to work for the entire team? So it’s working with the team members to understand by working together, you build a much better product than working separately.

Johanna Rothman:    And from the management perspective, too many managers don’t actually realize that, especially software, but almost any knowledge work is work that is communal learning. So if we do not learn together, we cannot deliver a product, not the product that you want. And this is why agile approaches are so wonderful for software because they allow us to learn every single day. When managers and anyone else in the organization buys into the expert, “I need an expert on this and an expert on that,” without thinking about how the team can integrate all of that expert’s knowledge into the team, they shortchange the team, they shortchange the expert, and they end up … The product actually costs them a lot more to deliver.

Johanna Rothman:    We have a whole section about cost of delay in distributed agile teams. Managers are not trained to think about the cost of delay, they’re trained to think about literal project costs. What does it cost me to have a person with this wage in this country? That’s not thinking about ration of the project. That’s why the acceptable hours of overlap are so important. And that’s why thinking in what’s called flow efficiency, how do I think of this team as a team as opposed to a bunch of individuals.

Mark Kilby:    I’ll bet that some of your audience has had the experience where they’ve hired that team of experts, they’d let them work their own way and when they brought their individual contributions together, they got to spend weeks or months sorting it out and getting it as one product, instead of when they all contribute together, it’s already this one product, there’s no extra integration, there’s no extra sorting out and trying to get it consistent.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. I think the biggest challenge here really is communicating the value, and I guess that depending on the company, maybe it will be communicating the value to management or communicating the value to the actual people working. But yeah, I think that once they know the value, then they are sold. They are sold, but communicating the value isn’t always that easy, so thank you for your suggestions. So I want to ask you, each of you to tell me the story of the lesson that you learned the hard way while working on this book

Johanna Rothman:    oh, while working on the book?

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. [inaudible 00:48:14], let’s make it in the last three years, if you prefer, a lesson that you learned the hard way.

Johanna Rothman:    The audience can’t see this. But both Mark and I had this damped look, because here’s the problem. We have set up our work and especially our collaboration on this book to learn fast. A lot of people say, “Fail first.” That’s not what we do. We learn early. So how fast can we learn? I think that if we had to think about something I learned, it would be, was there a possible way to get an earlier book out so that we could get feedback on it, because we architected the book several times. That’s what you do with books. Well, I’m not even sure that we were slow on that. So-

Mark Kilby:    I would say regarding the book, I think one of the things that … I think we initially … Well maybe I learned the hard way, was rely more on your team then the tools. So for writing the book it was Johanna early on, because we wanted to do this real time writing together. We experimented with a few different tools and each time we were like, “Yeah, it’s okay,” but we went back to something we knew would work for us. There’s always new tools coming out, and you get the shiny new thing syndrome and which I’m very susceptible to. Johanna was patient with me and some of my suggestions on tools, but when we got into a better idea of what our process was, we realized, we really could do this in any tool, let’s just stick with our process and let’s just keep moving forward. So it’s not trying to rely on a tool to drive your process is it’s the people.

Luis Magalhaes:    Yeah. I mean, I have [inaudible 00:50:29] to go, because when Joanna mentioned that you were using Google Docs to write a book, my heart jumped a bit ahead. I was like, “Whoa.”

Mark Kilby:    I can say that one is a little more stable. It’s not shiny new, but it’s stable. It’s a good platform.

Johanna Rothman:    Yeah.

Luis Magalhaes:    So excluding your own books, what’s the book or books that you have given out the most? This can be two to close friends or relatives or to employees, to people in companies, whatever you feel is more relevant.

Johanna Rothman:    Oh, so my favorite book that I tell people to read all the time is, This is Lean, by Modig and Åhlström. I’m sure I said that wrong. They’re Swedish. This is Lean: Resolving the Efficiency Paradox. I read that book and it gave me the words to talk about what I’d seen. That’s where I first read about flow efficiency and resource efficiency. So I recommend that book all the time. I don’t think I’ve delivered a talk in the last three or four years where I have not recommended that book. I mean, I would love it if people bought my books, but that one book, This is Lean: Resolving the Efficiency Paradox. Oh, it’s a wonderful, wonderful book.

Luis Magalhaes:    All right. High praise. What about you, Mark?

Mark Kilby:    I’m sitting here looking at my closest bookshelf. I think I’ve loaned it out to somebody actually. There’s a book that predates agile, but it’s a book by a Norm Kerth on project retrospective. So Norm, several years ago wrote a book that was not only about how you produce retrospectives, but how you can facilitate and how you can deal with some of the psychological challenges of psychological safety and how to help people navigate emotional reactions and things like that. Now, there’s much better books, but I still find a lot of value in going back to that book and referencing that for others who’ve maybe not had facilitation training. There’s still a lot in that book, that’s relevant.

Luis Magalhaes:    All right. So thank you for that. I will ask that you try to find the name of the book and send it to me so I can add the link to the show notes later on. By the way, everything we talked about will be in the show notes. Now, if you had 100 bucks to buy something for everyone working with you remotely, and I mean 100 bucks per person, what would you buy for them?

Johanna Rothman:    I would buy a camera.

Luis Magalhaes:    Always a safe choice.

Johanna Rothman:    I think that all three of us on this Zoom have separate cameras, not the camera that came with your computer. That’s a good camera. That’s fine. But it doesn’t give you enough of a wide angle. And if you have multiple screens, you can’t use it with multiple screens. So I really like a camera. And if you’re starting, to you use an agile approach, you might even want a separate camera to focus on a board if you don’t know what the team’s flow of work is. So for me it would be cameras and cameras are not that expensive.

Luis Magalhaes:    So do you have any specific recommendation Johanna? Any camera that you think is particularly good?

Johanna Rothman:    I’m not sure if anyone has particularly good, I have a larger tech something or other. I’m trying to look at it, I can’t see. I mean, any of the external cameras that give you enough context, so you don’t just see the person’s eyes and mouth, but you see enough of their context to see what’s going on. So when we got on this call, Luis you mentioned my books. I have a lot of books in this office, and I would have more if I had more space. That’s a part of me, and I find that that can invite people in, maybe it doesn’t invite people in, but it’s a part of me, they need to see my context.

Luis Magalhaes:    Awesome. Okay Mark, how are you going to follow this up?

Mark Kilby:    So along with the camera, a good headset. So many times people wrestle with background noise or they don’t even realize the background noise that they’re transmitting without a good headset. And there are several brands out there that are very good mine happens to be Plantronics one that I’ve had actually for a few years now. And with some money leftover and I will provide a picture for your audience, but notice the light strip on my door. That is an Ikea light strip that … What I do is I will change the color, my family knows whether the camera’s on, that’s red. If there’s no camera, but I’m in a meeting that’s yellow and so I signal to the rest of my family, “I’m in a meeting.” If it’s off, they know they can come in and say hi and we can chat and things like that. That was probably a $15 investment and has helped prevent many accidental interruptions over the last few years.

Luis Magalhaes:    Wow. That’s actually a new recommendation, never had heard that one. Now, I feel like an amateur for not wearing a headset though.

Mark Kilby:    I didn’t point that out. But you’re also not in a noisy environment.

Luis Magalhaes:    No, no, I’m just joking. That’s my own recommendation because I don’t enjoy wearing headsets, so I just went all in on a nice directional mic.

Mark Kilby:    Yeah, [crosstalk 00:56:41].

Johanna Rothman:    That also works. yep

Luis Magalhaes:    Exactly, exactly. Nothing spoils a conversation like a lousy headset, so I’m all with you. And that the Ikea lights strip, I actually have to adopt that one for myself. Good one. I guess that Mark already replied to this more or less, but I guess I can’t let you off the hook, so I’m going to ask you to tell me a second thing. But what are the purchase that you have made that has affected your work the most in the best couple of years?

Johanna Rothman:    So I will start with that. I have the paid version of Zoom and I use it for everything. Every time I’m on a call with a potential client, I deliver courses, I do webinars. I mean for me, Zoom has made being a distributed consultant and coach easy. Not difficult. I’ve been coaching clients for years one on one, and I find that if I want to coach a leadership team that I get them all on Zoom and it allows me to do a coaching circle. It allows me to actually have the thing I would like to have in person. But I use it for my business. I don’t even remember what it costs per year, but it’s not that expensive.

Luis Magalhaes:    It’s not that expensive. So many people recommended that I really should get the sponsorship. It’s really is a great tool and thank you for pointing that out Johanna. It’s always nice to remind people that. Some software is worth paying for. It really is.

Johanna Rothman:    Yeah.

Mark Kilby:    Absolutely.

Luis Magalhaes:    It really is. Mark, so light strip aside.

Mark Kilby:    So light strip aside. So I’m actually going to steal one of Johanna’s, so having that external camera, because by placing it where I have you and Johanna on the screen, I can look you directly in the eye. And having that direct eye contact is so important for remote team members. Your audience didn’t see this, but as I just demonstrated, because it’s external, I can show what’s happening in my office. So I showed you my light strip, sometimes when Johanna and I would do a check-in the morning, I would show her the outside weather. I’d pointed at my window and she could be jealous about my Florida weather here. But, the external camera, very inexpensive, but also when I facilitate larger in person gatherings, but I still have some remote people, I can point that camera at the group and the microphone is good enough. If it’s not, there’s also … I don’t know if you’ve come across the Jabra Puck, that is a wonderful tool. It’s a speakerphone set up. It works Bluetooth, it can work USB. And if you have say a gathering of a 15 or 20, you can put that in the middle. It will pick up everyone very well and they can hear the remote participants very clearly.

Luis Magalhaes:    Can you spell that for me and for the audience? I will include it in the show notes.

Mark Kilby:    Yeah. So the company is Jabra, J-A-B-R-A. I believe it’s called the Puck. And I’ll send you information.

Luis Magalhaes:    Cool, I’d look that.

Mark Kilby:    Yeah, yeah.

Luis Magalhaes:    I would love that. Okay, so we have been going for nearly almost an hour now that we’re recording. So I want to be respectful of your time, but I do have one last question and feel free to jam on this. I don’t need a separate answer from each of you. So let’s say that you are hosting a dinner where all the top technology execs of Silicon Valley are going. It’s going to be at a Chinese restaurant and the topic to discuss is around table on remote work. Now since you are the host, you get to decide what is written inside the fortune cookie. So what are these people going to be reading once they crack open their fortune cookie tonight?

Johanna Rothman:    One would be about experiments. I think that something like encourage experiments.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay. Mark.

Mark Kilby:    I think another one might be, what is your biggest dream for remote work?

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay, so experiments and what’s your biggest dream, we can mix them. We can just have half the fortune cookies have one and half the fortune cookies have the other. All right. This was an absolute pleasure. Thank you very much for being here. The listeners should know that this conversation was far, far, far from exhausting the content of the book. In fact, I want everyone to go out and buy the book. So I tried to ask relevant questions without overlapping a lot in this subject matter that you talk about. It comes highly recommended, but apart from obviously going out and buying the book either in paper or digitally, how can people continue the conversation with you? How can they find you? How can they reach you?

Johanna Rothman:    So everything I have is at I have a ton of articles, blog posts, all that stuff. I also write a personal blog at, which it turns out a lot of the resilience lessons from that blog are quite useful for distributed teams.

Mark Kilby:    Mm-hmm (affirmative). They are.

Luis Magalhaes:    Awesome.

Johanna Rothman:    And I’m also on Twitter and LinkedIn @JohannaRothman, Johanna Rothman. Yeah, everything is Johanna Rothman.

Luis Magalhaes:    All right. What about you Mark? How can people find you?

Mark Kilby:    Everyone can find out about my latest work in activities at, You can find my social media contacts. You can also sign up for my newsletter every week and see what’s next in my distributed.

Luis Magalhaes:    Okay, so I’ll add all of that to the show notes. Again, it was a pleasure, thank you so much, Mark and Johanna.

Johanna Rothman:    Thank you.

Mark Kilby:    Thanks Luis, it was great.

Luis Magalhaes:    And that ladies and gentlemen was my conversation with Mark Kilby and Johanna Rothman. And if you enjoyed this podcast, please consider supporting it by sharing it on your social network of choice and leaving your review in your podcast aggregating servers of choice, iTunes would be perfect, but if you don’t use apple devices, whatever you use to listen to the podcast, it would be great to have you review there. Every little bit helps. Now you can find all about Mark and Johanna’s projects in the show notes and obviously links to their book. And if you’re looking to hire to build the kinds of teams that Johanna’s and Mark’s work helps you lead, look no further than Checkout, go to and we can find you the best people in the world faster than anyone else in the industry. So check that out. You can also go to our blog, to the podcast section of the blog and register to get transcripts for this show and all the others. That’s it. This was Luis with the DistantJob, podcast see you next week.

For further inquiries regarding podcasts, eBooks, blog posts, or general information about remote recruitment don’t hesitate to send us an email at [email protected]

Welcome to the DistantJob Podcast, a show where we interview the most successful remote leaders, picking their brains on how to build and lead remote teams who win.

In this episode, we go through their experience with writing the book, and take a long, hard look at the common pitfalls that remote teams face – and where adopting Agile principles might help. We discuss how to promote cross-functionality; how to “sell” management and employees on Agile practices; how to preserve the health and sanity of remote managers; the importance of timezone overlap; and much, much more!


Want to continue the conversation with Mark and Johanna? 

Find them on Twitter and LinkedIn:

Mark Kilby (@mkilby) on Twitter (

Johanna Rothman (@johannarothman) on Twitter (

Johanna’s Books, Blogs, Newsletter and services:

Everything Mark Kilby (Blogs, Talks, Podcasts):

Recommended Books:

From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams: Collaborate to Deliver (

This is Lean: Resolving the Efficiency Paradox (

Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews (

Recommended Tools:

A Good Webcam (

Jabra Speak 510 (

DIODER LED 4-piece light strip set (


As always, if you enjoy the podcast, we humbly ask that you leave a review on iTunes or your podcast syndication service of choice – and if you could share it, that would be even better!

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