Like Startups, Most Meetings Fail: This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade chat about the inefficiency of frequent meetings. We discuss what makes a meeting fail within the first few minutes, and provide strategies that can be deployed to make them successful (like defining a leader). We also complain about the neverending email thread, and the disconnect between our daily lives and the design of Google Calendar. Rich shares his best excuses (Ed note: lies) to get out of a meeting!
Rich Ziade You could put me in a room with five desktops and [PF laughing] I could have a full-blown meeting [laughs].
Paul Ford [RZ laughing] No, I mean or we’re just a —
RZ We’d have an outcome! We’d have takeaways.
PF Like a high pitched siren or one of those things — those little like cylinders you turn around and it makes a cow noise. You could be in a meeting with that [RZ laughs] [music fades in].
RZ I’d — [music continues alone for 16 seconds]
PF We do — You know how many meetings I go to every month? . . .
PF It depends, sometimes it’s uh —
RZ [Thoughtfully] Uhhhhm —
PF On a given month, I’ve figured it out —
PF No, that that bad.
RZ 60 —
PF Around there.
RZ 50 [music fades out].
PF Between 30 and 60.
RZ How many of them are garbage?
PF It’s really hard to calculate in our world. Nothing’s garbage, right?
PF Everything . . .
RZ Take your laptop to all of ‘em?
PF No . . . I don’t and increasingly I’m — I’m trying to take my laptop less and less and just —
RZ It’s pretty — it’s pretty bad. It’s pretty rude. Don’t be in the meeting.
PF Well it’s tricky —
RZ Not you, but anyone.
PF Well it’s tricky because the laptop’s ok if you’re kind of ambiently there observing. Like I felt that for the first couple years of the company —
RZ That’s the worst.
PF — there was more —
RZ That’s the worst.
PF But that’s no value! You provide you no value.
RZ No. No.
PF You’re just there and then you kind of become a keyword matcher. And they’ll be like, “Should we um start hiring dolphins as engineers?” And you’re like, “Mm maybe [sucks teeth] I don’t know.” Yeah, “Paul — ”
RZ Yeah, while you’re catch up to what was just said.
PF “Paul, what do you think?” And you’re like, ‘Well, I like dolphins.”
RZ Yeah. It’s like — you didn’t go to a meeting — you know baseball?
PF I would hire —
RZ You know the sport of baseball?
PF I — I — I hate you.
RZ [Snickers] So you don’t give it your full attention. You just sort of do other stuff while it’s going on in the background and then it’s like, “Oh there’s a long drive to deep left!” And then you —
PF You know what else is like that? This podcast.
RZ Well, you know what else is — shouldn’t be like that is meetings.
RZ It’s really bad when it’s like you perk up out of your laptop and look around and it’s like, “Ah don’t — I don’t know if I agree with that.” [Laughing]
PF There are two — right.
RZ When you look up and disagree!
RZ It’s way worse than just [PF sighs] saying, “Oh that’s a pretty good idea.” That’s a knife in the gut.
PF Oh it’s pretty bad.
RZ There’s discussing —
PF Well cuz then —
RZ — a thing.
PF And then you’re gonna catch up cuz you haven’t really heard the 20 minutes —
RZ [Laughs] It’s so bad. It’s so bad.
PF — and everyone has to —
RZ Like, rude!
RZ It’s to the point of rude.
PF You bring your laptop to meetings. I do sometimes too.
RZ [Sighs] So let’s go — let’s go to the very beginning: the invite.
PF Oh ok. You really — you wanna talk about meetings for real.
RZ Yeah, I wanna go in.
RZ Alright. So the invite.
PF Mmm god [uh]. This is a nightmare.
RZ You get the invite and you don’t know the meeting.
PF That’s — that’s the best. Also when the title — it’s not even when the title is like, “Check in,” that doesn’t happen very often, [no] here’s what really happens is you get . . . it’ll be like “Q4” and then it’ll be just like the room. So it’ll be like, “Q4 Skylight Conference 9” . . .
RZ That’s the room.
PF External. It’ll say that [right] and you’ll be like, “What in God’s name is this?” And there’s 22 names on it.
RZ That — that is when it all goes down, right?
RZ Like the 22 name — you don’t know why you got invited. I call that the carpet bombing.
PF That is brutal. It is.
RZ It’s just: “This is a big one, I need everybody in the room,” and it’s just a blast that goes out and you’re in the radiu — you’re in the blast radius.
PF The problem with the 22 as well is that it is — it is not collaborative but the fantasy — the — the polite fantasy that everybody preserves is that it is. Like you’re gonna around the room and introduce each other. That’s 42 minutes —
RZ What’s the max number? . . . I don’t think you can [umm] cross five —
PF I don’t think you can [six] either I mean like there’s the two pizza rule for Amazon which is you know no team should be bigger than what you can feed with two pizzas.
RZ But that’s a permanent team.
PF That’s a team. Yeah.
RZ A meeting —
PF Five is great. Three is perfect. Two is good.
RZ I mean if you — if you invite nine people you better be presenting and doing most of the talking.
PF I think there are three good meetings. There is, “Hi, let’s all get in a room as higher primates and get a sense of each other.” . . .
RZ Well this is like a “getting to know”?
PF Yeah, there’s that. There’s just sort of like you need to see and understand the people who are gonna be working with you on something.
RZ A kickoff.
PF There’s the kickoff. Then there’s the, “We went away and did some work and we want to show you that work and get your discussion within about a half hour.”
RZ That’s a — usually good.
PF And there is the —
RZ That’s the, “I’m — we talked through design, gave us guidance, and we wanna show you stuff.”
PF And there is the standing process focus meeting in which you know what you’re gonna do, it’s about a half hour long, and you — it’s just more efficient to do it with each other to find what the tasks are and walk away.
PF Those are the three that work.
PF Kickoff for us as a client, we need — always need a kickoff for the client service firm [mm hmm]. There’s no way around it. We uh I don’t like to see too much work in progress. I like to see — I like people to ask me for my input and what my suggestions are, and then about a week later I like to get that update.
PF And then I go, “You heard — ” You’ll — you’ll hear me say a lot: “You heard me.” Versus, “There are a few things that you might not have heard.” . . .
RZ Right. Right. And —
PF And then the third one that’s like — we do that with our sales in pipeline. We run down the same list, we take our tasks, we say how we did, we talk blockers — that one’s more of a stand up.
RZ Right. Um —
PF So those are the three —
RZ Is that it?!?
PF There — there are no other good meetings. I will — — I would gladly say that unless you can put and I mean I haven’t thought about this at all —
RZ A promotion is not — it’s not really a meeting.
PF That’s not a meeting. That’s a like, you know, that’s a promotion.
RZ “You have a minute?”
PF Yeah, “Do you have a minute?” [RZ laughs] “Lemme talk — ” Umm I mean there’s the review meeting and so on. There’s the one on one.
RZ You outright, like, you see a meeting, you know everybody, it’s in your company.
RZ It’s not outsiders and whatnot. You get the — you understand the — the — the topic.
PF Here’s the problem is —
RZ Do you ever just say no?
PF [Sighs] . . . Yeah.
RZ Just decline. Outright decline?
RZ Not because of conflict.
PF I do. I’ve got — more and more I just click that no.
RZ You do?
PF Not — I mean in term —
RZ You have reason?
PF No . . . internally not —
RZ I have — I have the ultimate sense: this is for free for all our listeners. It’s the opposite of saying, “This is a waste of time,” ready?
PF Mm hmm.
RZ Here’s the sentence: “You don’t really need me for this.”
PF Yeah, “I think you guys have got this.” [RZ laughs it’s — ] “You all have this one.”
RZ It’s just you’re seeding. You’re saying, “I have such implicit confidence in your ability to nail this without me in the room that you don’t need me.”
PF So, let’s go back for a sec because we started to talk about the calendar. I think a lot about the calendar. The calendar is . . . a territory. It’s this rectangle that belongs to you. When you first open up your like Google Calendar application.
PF And so people think about it incorrectly. You should think about it in the same way that you think about — like when people ask for a meeting, like it — it should feel kinda weird that they want that time. That’s time you’re not gonna be working or doing other stuff.
RZ With stickers. It’s [yeah] like, “Do you mind if I come over to your screen and just put some more stickers?”
PF So, yeah your week is like your computer screen . . . and as they put the stickers over it, you start to be able to see less and less.
RZ No, but! I mean let’s face it: you work with people . . . they can see your schedule —
PF Oh yeah.
RZ Your calendar [yeah]. And I mean the gaps between the boxes, look: it’s an — there’s an implicit open invitation, “If you need me, just tell — just bring me over. Just invite me. I am acce — I am available to you.”
PF I’m dying insid —
RZ That’s what this is.
PF You’re saying this and I think that’s real. And it’s killing me.
RZ But it’s real!
PF It’s killing me that this is how people perceive each other’s time.
RZ There’s — there’s still one more step: you have to accept . . .
PF [Sighing] Ugh I know.
RZ Right? There’s a paradigm here.
RZ You send the invitation . . . and then you have to say, “Ok, I accept your invitation — ”
PF You know what it’s like when you wake up on the morning and you look at that calendar and you see that like two hour gap? . . .
RZ Like of nothing?
PF Of nothing.
RZ It’s so vulnerable.
PF It does. It feels — oh first of all: sometimes I block that in and it just sort — I’ll just like put the word, “Strategy session”.
RZ That’s good. [You got — ] Filler — filler meetings are key. What are good titles for filler meetings?
PF Oh I had um, “book,” I had “working session,” I had “check in,” I had uh “email triage,” I had um [RZ laughs] “outside,” that was what I put in.
PF Um “family,” [yeah], “personal matter”, those are good. Um.
PF What’s another one?
RZ When you see like “doctor” four or five times on the same person’s, you start to worry.
PF Yeah I do “outlining” . . . is a good one. [RZ laughs] Just putting if you — cuz no one wants to — no wants to get in the way of your outligning.
RZ Did you say “catching up” already?
PF “Catching up” is good.
RZ Yeah. Do you ever outright lie?
RZ Like, “Client lunch,” [laughing] meanwhile you’re just gonna go to lunch [PF laughs]. So, the box comes in. You have to say yes. Or no. Or maybe. [K] Let’s talk about “maybe” for a second.
PF You shouldn’t say “maybe.”
RZ Never say, “Maybe”?
PF “Maybe” is appropriate when you are unclear about your sort of meta schedule. Like, “I have to go take my kids to school, but if I can get there early.”
RZ It’s such a middle finger.
PF That’s the problem, right? It’s perceived as a middle finger.
RZ I — i — “No” is good because it’s like, “I’m sorry, just find another time please.”
PF “That’s when I’m getting my amputation done.” [Yeah] That’s — that’s what “no” says.
RZ Yeah, yeah, yeah. “I can’t do it. I’m sorry. I’m outta the office.” No — uh “maybe” is sort of like, ‘Eh, that’s — maybe I’ll show up, I don’t know. I just confused you.”
PF Yeah, “maybe” is like: “Prove it.” [RZ laughs] “Maybe” is like, “Do I really believe that uh — do you really — do you really want me there? Do a little work. Let me know.”
RZ Alright, so let’s — let’s accept the meeting.
PF Ok. So your week is starting to vanish. That blank slate is starting to vanish.
RZ Um yeah. It’s like uh it’s like — you know how it’s trendy now? Adults are doing coloring books.
PF Right. Right. Well that was trendy a couple years ago but the [RZ laughs] — the point —
RZ [Laughing] It’s still around [yeah]. It’s like really intricate and it’s —
PF Oh yeah. Yeah yeah.
RZ Uh and that’s — maybe that’s what the calendar is — everyone gets a pencil.
PF Mm hmm.
RZ And they can take that pen — everybody — “Hey, my calendar is green. And everybody gets a green pencil.” And anybody can come in and if they see a gap, they can fill in. Sometimes they fill in on other people’s and then you’re calendar just really looks like shit. You know when they’re like — they kinda nudge off a piece —
PF I call that Jenga. When it becomes like the stacked [yeah] Jenga board and you’re just like —
RZ It’s really bad.
PF Yeah . . . To be honest, too, calendaring software is terrible. The way that we’ve arranged the weeks so that they’re vertical stacks from top to bottom is not how humans think about things. When you see the week in Google Calendar in other interfaces [hmm] and it’s like Monday starts up and goes to the bottom, Tuesday starts up — and it’s like these weird columns.
RZ Well you’re flying!
RZ You’re — you’re in the air. You’re in the sky, and then by the end of the day you’re — you’re underground [yeah but — ]. It’s essentially a metaphor for life and death.
PF But time really works [music fades in] like a slithering snake that goes from left to right [music plays alone for six seconds]. Alright, you know what? Before we go any further we should tell people [music fades out] who we are. I’m Paul Ford, I’m the co-founder of Postlight.
RZ And I’m Rich Ziade, the other co-founder.
PF Rich, we should tell people about Postlight in about five seconds.
RZ Postlight’s great. We build beautiful, amazing, efficient digital products.
PF Check us out at postlight.com, we could tell you more and more about ourselves but actually if [music fades in] you just wanna see what we do, that’s the way to do it.
RZ Do it! [Music plays along for six seconds]
PF Kick offs are hard. Kick — the kick off [music fades out] — not the kick off type of a meeting but like the first five minutes.
RZ Like getting it in order.
PF Pretty much where they all fall apart.
PF Most meetings are failures. Most are like most startups. Like most meetings — 95 percent of meetings —
RZ Fail in the first six months.
PF I — in the first six minutes.
RZ Right the minutes are months.
PF Yeah, I mean —
RZ Startups fail in the first six months —
PF Cuz people come in — First of all, there’s — there’s audio visual [both snicker] which is still a spectacular disaster.
RZ And we’re not talking about the tech. Like there’s good video conferencing. Like it started with WebEx and [yeah] then Skype showed up and it became kinda enterprised [mm hmm] and then Google Hangouts is very capable but we’re just about like the wire.
RZ [Chuckling] We’re talking about the HDMI cable.
PF Gettin’ the HDMI plugged in, for some reason it reason it doesn’t work and then there’s the Google Calendar, the Hangout connection, but it often doesn’t work on the other side.
PF And then suddenly there’s feedback . . .
RZ There’s feedback and then — or they’re talking and nobody can hear anything.
PF And then you’re like, “Well let’s fall back to the conference call,” but because of the way that everyone does the — the shift between the different signals, there’s all these weird pauses so you’ll just be like, “[Imitates stutter] G-g-go ahead. [Yeah] G-g-go ahead.”
PF And so — so there’s that. Like getting that set up, first of all, you lose all momentum. Here’s what — what do you really want? What’s the optimal state? Everybody’s sitting around the table, the leader walks in, and goes, “Great! I’m really glad you’re all here. I wanna talk about these three things.”
RZ That’s good, you’re saying?
PF Like [stammers]. No, like take two minutes, get everybody in the room, get ’em settled down [yeah], they’re all sitting there, idle chit chat. The — some — the door opens, silence, here we go. Get outta there in 20 minutes, and you killed it.
RZ Who — who’s the leader? You mean the person that scheduled the meeting.
PF [Chuckling] Well this is the fundamental question of every meeting, right?
RZ Well, who’s driving?
PF Well this — a-again, 95 percent of meetings nobody knows.
RZ 95 percent of the — yeah. Well, the person who set up the meeting: the invitor [sic].
PF Oh boy. It is grizzly.
RZ You know what the worst invite is? Here is the worst invite. The preface is this: we all gotta get into a room.
PF Yeah, those are bad.
RZ [Laughs] It’s like, “You know what? We were chattin’ about this. We’re on this and I saw an email thread, let’s get in a room.”
RZ And then you get in a room, and you realize you know the email thread was way more productive [laughing] than us getting in a room.
PF Well then you have to re — you have to repeat the performance of the email thread.
RZ You have to go over it. Recap.
PF Mm hmm.
RZ You gotta recap where we’re at.
PF Let’s be clear, too. No one prepares properly. Like I think at Amazon they want you to do — there’s like an eight page brief you have to write.
RZ Before the meeting?
PF Before the meeting.
RZ Every brief?
PF Well, I don’t know but I’m sure they have meetings where there — where there aren’t eight page briefs but like if you’re gonna do something serious there’s this idea that you’ve organized your thoughts, written it down.
RZ Yeah. You’re not just gonna come in and just babble in a meeting.
PF That’s right. That is very hard to pull off. And it’s very high stakes. So almost no one gets to ask for that.
RZ Yeah. I think that’s right. No — no, it’s just unless you did it. And then you decide [that’s right], “Hey, I wrote something and then I wanna talk about it and [right] please read it over and then we — we’re gonna gather and talk about it.” That’s — that’s fine [mm hmm] but homework . . . Amazon is a whole thing.
PF It is a whole thing.
RZ Amazon is a whole thing.
PF That’s real.
RZ Question. I’m gonna pelt you with a couple of questions.
RZ Email over meeting? . . . Like, th — uh some emails become ad hoc . . . meetings.
PF I’ll tell you what I like: email or meetings? Neither. They’re both terrible. Give me a document.
RZ No but you — you put a question out.
PF What’s the question?
RZ “Should we open another office?”
PF Ok “Should we open another office?”
RZ Ok? [Mm hmm] “Just wanna get this out there. We’re seeing a lot of interest in LA.”
PF Ok. First of all, forget the email chain. That’s terrible.
RZ I send it to you.
PF Mm hmm.
RZ And three others.
PF Mm hmm.
RZ One of the others, let’s call ’em Stan.
PF Mm hmm.
RZ Pulls in two more: “I really think Mary and John should be in the loop.” Now it’s — we’re fi — we’re six. There’s six people in there and then it happens. I don’t know if there’s a name for when the email starts losing more and more left margin.
PF Oh yeah.
RZ It just looks like an upside down st —
PF People call it different things.
PF Staircase. Yeah.
RZ To the point where you can’t even keep track of where we are.
PF It’s like — well I like — at the very — at the very bottom there’s that — the original email. It now like 20 pixels wide and about 7,000 pixels tall.
RZ [Laughs] And then somebody deep in drops like a — a screen grab of Google Earth [right right] to show you where in LA it would make a lot of sense. So now you’re having a meeting. That’s a meeting.
PF You are. You’ve started a meeting.
RZ That is a meeting. Now is that hell?
PF It’s not good.
RZ Next question.
PF Ugh, “Let’s get in a room about this.”
RZ Slack — Slack or meeting?
PF No, Slack’s also bad. Here’s what I want: and I can’t ever get this, and I accept it, accept that this is not how anyone else on the face of the earth works . . . I want a Google Document in the form of an FAQ about opening the LA office. “Why would we open an LA office?” “What would the advantages be?” “Who would run it?”
RZ See that’s seven steps down the staircase.
PF I don’t wanna go —
RZ You’ll come back in and say, “How about we start a Google Doc?” [Laughs]
PF That’s fine. But I mean that’s — kill this conversation, get in the Google Doc, put the questions in, here are the answers.
RZ Detour! You’re takin’ an exit off of the email.
PF That’s it. I just want structured responses and I do this sometimes. It’s very effective. Don’t do an agenda, don’t do a —
RZ Sometimes they keep going. You ever see? You start [oh yeah] the doc and they stick to the email, and they just — [chuckling] they wanna keep talking.
PF Oh and then — and then also sometimes there’s like Google — Google Docs are good when people stay in the document and they’re like you know, they sign things with their initials [yeah] but when they start doing the commenting on the right and that starts — like it starts to light up like a Christmas tree [RZ laughs], you can’t read ’em anymore.
RZ [Laughing] You can’t read ‘em —
PF What I’m trying to get to here is a top to bottom linear document in a Q&A format.
RZ You wanna orbit around a thing!
PF I wanna just — yes.
RZ You don’t want a transcript.
PF That’s right. One narrative where people are actually responding to real questions [mm hmm] because, you know, “Are we gonna open an LA o — office?” Well, can you give me three to four bullet points about why that would be a good idea? [Yeah] It’s exhausting and really when you’re trying to just get some information out of people, like if people wanna make an argument, that’s great. Just give me, give me those bullet points. Give me a — a thing that I can read and think about. Now this is actually really important for me because . . . lemme give you an example when do our — our — the Postlight finance meeting . . . We go in and we talk about — we look at a spreadsheet and we talk about all of the different things that are going on in the business [yeah] and I — I follow along . . . but I don’t really feel — I never can quite fully connect to it . . . There was one week where we had to cancel it. Uh we — everybody was busy. So somebody just pasted all the — the things that they would normally say —
RZ Stuff, yeah.
PF — into Slack, into one long narrative, and the entire thing just rang — I was like, “Ok, I get it. These are the three things I have questions about. Thank you.” My brain works that way. Business brains do not work that way. They talk and talk and talk and talk —
RZ Uh huh.
PF My brain works in eight and a —
RZ What is your brain?
PF Eight and a half by 11 paper, top to bottom.
RZ Got it.
PF That’s my brain.
RZ The document.
PF I can’t get that in business. And I accept that.
PF But I’m — that’s one of the reasons I always feel a little bit like a space alien. Because I — like I see you work and you collect information and then add it to throughout a series of meetings and then you synthesize.
RZ You know I think what you’re touching on is the different human motivations . . . that seep into um communication.
PF Mm hmm.
RZ There’s, “I wanna show I’m smart.” . . . There’s, “I gotta cover my ass.” . . . There’s, “I wanna undermi — undermine someone.” . . . There’s, “I really wanna help someone succeed.”
PF I mean maybe because I’m an incredibly sensitive and empathetic person and just wonderful, I pick up all that and it’s hard for me to focus on the content. That’s one of the reason —
RZ That could be the case.
PF That’s one of the reasons why I like things written down.
RZ That’s possible. You’re ver — yeah, your antennas are really sensitive to the human beings in the room.
PF They’re probably — they’re oversensitive. I’m [yeah] — I want people to be happy. That’s not the goal of the meeting.
RZ We didn’t cover takeaways yet! I wanna end the meeting.
PF Ok. Oh yeah.
RZ There is nothing worse. And this is another golden piece of advice: the danger of a meeting where a lot of really good ideas got bounced.
RZ And you’re about to disperse . . . And there’s nothing . . . It’ll never get spoken of again . . . Nobody’s accountable to anything again . . . It’ll be a bunch of great ideas that everybody thought was great, were great, and . . . that’s it. It is dead.
PF And this is [stammers] —
RZ It is dead.
PF This is where the leadership thing is killer where — where I’m saying that like meetings don’t always have leaders. I’m incredibly guilty of this too. Like I’m — I’m fully complicit in this . . . A good meeting is run by like a dictator who’s like, “Sam, you got that?”
PF [Chuckles] “When you gonna have it? August 3rd?” [Yeah yeah] “Uh what about July 4th? Well I know that’s a holiday. . .” [Snickers] That’s —
RZ Exactly. And it’s not fun and it’s kinda cold. But there needs to be a clear path to failure [ah!]. If there isn’t a clear path to failure then that meeting was useless.
PF That’s right. Full ownership from people who are — “When are you gonna report on it? What’s gonna happen? Ok. I got it. Bye.”
RZ You try to soften it with, “Let’s catch up,” but like what are you gonna do?
PF What favor are doing anyone by hiding the fact that you’re secretly a compulsive lunatic who needs them to do things?
RZ The three . . . is it legs of a stool? [Mm hmm] Is that what people say? Is what is the thing? . . . Who’s responsible for the thing? And when are you gonna get the thing?
PF The hard part is that what you back into when you try to lead can often get really dictatorial because it’s so efficient . . .
RZ It sounds cold. It sounds —
PF [Laughing] It’s so easy to just be like, “Ok. I need that Tuesday.”
RZ Yeah. Yeah.
PF But this also part of the culture we built here, too which is — and that’s — that’s one of the things that makes all the calendering stuff really tricky is that . . . we don’t have ownership of people’s time and vice versa. That’s not how we run this company.
RZ No. No, no, no, no.
PF Everyone — I couldn’t tell you what anyone is doing here all day long. I know that they’ve said they’ll get certain things done and I — that we’ve decide, collectively, that we trust each other to do them, which makes all this very chaotic.
RZ If I want a meeting with someone, I gotta look at their calendar.
PF That’s right.
RZ I can’t just trample on . . . their time.
PF You know it can be really hard, too cuz it like — they’ll be a client . . . When we’re in a client service in sales function, I just wanna get them what they’re asking for. Like they want this document, they want this, they want [yeah] that. And I mean every fiber of my being is, “How do I get that done and in front of them?”
PF And then I have people who are off working really hard for clients . . . who have the knowledge, information, and skills that I need in order to achieve my goal.
PF And it — I get — that’s the only time, as a leader in this company, where I feel myself slipping into dictatorial mode. Where I wanna blow it up and be like, “To hell with everything else! Get me the thing I want right now.”
PF And I don’t do that. I don’t. I’m sort of like —
RZ You can’t. That’s not a good way to work. There’s, I think, rather than it being you taking someone by the hair and telling them that’s the way to go —
PF I try to just share their priority. It’s just like [exactly], “I really would like to get this for them today. I need you to tell me what’s possible.”
RZ That’s right. We went — we started with meetings.
PF Well it’s cuz meetings are the core of everything, unfortunately. Calendar is the core of everything — how you organize your week.
RZ Calendars — and then we drifted into email [mm hmm] and then we came back out into meetings.
PF You could make a very strong argument that our company and most companies . . . take the office office out, take the — take almost everything out, they are a set of meetings and the company sort of orbits and happens around them . . .
RZ Yeah. I mean.
RZ We build a lot of shit here. So.
PF I know but that happens —
RZ A lot of times they put their headphones on and they just go.
PF But the shit that we build is the side effect of those interactions.
RZ That’s a depressing way to look at it.
PF Well this is what’s tricky, right? It’s because like is there another way to construct your life and your time so that [stammers] the human interaction is this sort of like positive give and take? There’s a lot of conversations that you and I have that are casual that would look like meetings . . .
PF If we scheduled them.
RZ But they’re just conversations.
PF They’re conversa — we’re continually talking about it. I would say 80 percent of the work gets done . . . in the conversations about work here are like that.
PF Right? Where it’s just like, “Have you seen this? This thing’s cool.”
PF And you’re just like, “I don’t know if this is working.”
PF Um. But then there’s that other 20 percent that feels formal — I actually, I mean the casual stuff is more important [yeah] to what actually makes a business a business [yup] but the — the formal meetings . . . you know they keep things on rails. So it’s — it’s very tricky because you can’t be without.
RZ Back to email for a mo — Let’s — Let’s punctuate this podcast with a little story about email.
RZ Jeff Bezos has this thing he does.
PF Oh no.
RZ He fishes around emails. He doesn’t just . . . look at his inbox cuz, you know, he’s got access in . . . the top layer, that sort of top sheen.
PF Oh it’s — Jeff — he’s the Outlook administrator?
RZ Yeah. He’s at the very, very top, right? [Mm hmm] And he’s getting, you know, EVP and SVP of this and —
PF It’s a dashboard, right?
RZ A dashboard. A human dashboard [yeah]. He likes to go in though. [Oh and like — ] He likes to see how like customer service is going or how — how the next version of the Ech — I don’t know, Echo . . . How many versions of Echo’s are there out there?
PF I can’t even remember which ones which.
RZ Whatever. There’s Echo 7 is coming out.
PF Echo Dot. Echo House. Echo — Echo Look. Echo Touch.
RZ He’ll zoom right in. 12 levels down. And read and just peek in.
PF Ok so he’s in there and you know he’s there.
RZ Oh yeah, yeah! He’s in there. He’s in there.
PF Oh! That’s horrible!
RZ But then he’ll reply —
PF Can you imagine cuz you just wanna be like, “Hey! Lookin’ good today — ”
RZ [Chuckles] Right.
PF [Chuckles] Yeah.
RZ I don’t think he’s sending a lot of those.
PF You think he’s in the like — you think he’s in like the GitHub commits?
RZ No, he’s gotta move [PF laughs]. He replies all [mm hmm] and just puts question mark. Send.
PF Alright, let’s — let’s. Woah. Woah. Woah. Ok so I write an email and it’s just like . . . “Hey, Mike, saw a few issues with the green circle instead of the blue circle [yeah]. Also the pronunciation on zero is weird [yeah]. Uh can we have a conversation about this on Tuesday?”
RZ Mike Lubsen like . . . the voice . . . guy.
PF Oh so ok so —
RZ So it’s — it’s building! It’s building, right?
PF There’s like five or six people on the thread now [yeah], they’re talking about the pronunciation of zero [uh huh], it ties into globalization in the way that they did the translation to Portuguese . . . and then you get this email.
RZ And it’s one character.
PF It’s reply. All the stair — all the stair steps are below.
RZ Yup. Question mark.
PF Question mark.
RZ Can you imagine . . . what those seven people, how they mobilize the minute that question mark lands? . . .
PF Uh! Cuz you have no choice. First of all —
RZ You have — not just that. It’s cryptic as all shit.
PF No. So there’s a point — first of all, when you’re in a company like that, no matter what your fantasy is of ultimate power like take — take this advice from two people who’ve been around for a while: you want as little direct exposure to Jeff Bezos as possible.
RZ Yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah.
PF If you’re five levels down, like — like that’s — you’re gonna fly very close to the sun and the sun can really burn hot.
RZ [Scoffs] So what’s the — we’ll close it with this: what’s the meeting equivalent . . . of the question mark?
RZ Is it just he listens for 40 minutes and then he goes, “Well?” [Laughs]
PF No . . . no, because what does a question mark really mean? It means, “I don’t understand why this pattern of communication has occurred. There’s a right path, and it’s not being followed.”
PF So — so I need you —
RZ So, ok, so give me in one sentence: you’re in the room, you’re in the meeting . . . you’re Bezos.
PF The way that you say that and you actually get the reaction if you have that [yeah] kind of power? “I’ve made this very clear to everyone, and I don’t know why you don’t why you don’t understand me.”
RZ Hard stop.
PF And then you say, “We can uh I would like to — I would like — I would like the plan to be updated within the next 48 hours,” and then you walk out.
RZ That’s the que — that’s the question mark.
PF Th — that’s it.
PF “I’ve made this very clear to everyone — ”
RZ Just atom bomb [PF chuckling], lemme try a softer approach, lemme try a softer question [alright] mark. We’re in the meeting, I’m 40 minutes in [mm hmmm] . . . and then I say . . . “Uh I’m not sure about where this is going.”
PF [Laughs] Well now you just killed everybody.
RZ No, hold on!
PF No, it’s just [grumbles].
RZ See now I’m using a metaphor which is travel through space.
PF Ugh god.
RZ “I’m not where this is going. We may wanna step back here.”
PF [Groans as if in pain]
RZ [Laughs] Um and just, oh, here’s the — here — you wanna hear the qu — you wanna twist the knife? Just close it out? [PF groans] “Uh I think we need to take inventory.” [Laughs] [PF groans] And then —
PF See, again, but what you’re doing is passive aggressive. That question mark is just like, “I have now created a vast vacuum that everyone must fill.”
RZ Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
PF Right? So you gotta actually leave them like going, “Oh no.”
RZ Ok. Credit to email.
PF Yeah, it can [chuckles].
RZ It’s — it happens in email. It’s one character. Arguably one of the most efficient pieces of technology to come out in the last 30 years.
PF Email can destroy —
RZ That question mark weighs 5,000 pounds [music fades in].
PF Email can destroy . . . forward progress at an unbelievable pace.
RZ With one character [snickers].
PF It truly can . . . Well, alright, well, look: I’m gonna, here’s my question mark: [silence for four seconds] alright, people should send an email to email@example.com if they wanna talk to us.
RZ [Chuckles] With more than one character.
PF Yeah, just firstname.lastname@example.org, check us out on — at postlight.com, give us a rating on iTunes . . . uh we try to helpful. Let us know what we can do . . . Rich, I’m gonna get back to work.
RZ Me, too, Paul!
PF Alright [music ramps up, plays alone for seven seconds, fades out to end.]