Agendas are important, but can you stick to them too much? This week Paul and Rich break down how to transform your meeting from a rigid list of bullet points to a more creative and collaborative environment. They discuss how remote work has changed meeting dynamics and share what they’ve missed about the spontaneous, quick-fire meetings brought on by working in person.
Paul Ford Zoom thank God is a brand but whenever anyone talks about Google meet, we have these like USB microphones, but everyone is like, “Hey, is something wrong with the Meet box? And I—it just sounds awful. Every time someone says it. [music ramps up, plays alone, fades out] You know, what I say Rich?
Rich Ziade What do you say, Paul?
PF Podcasts are funny because actually, they’re just meetings. They’re just meetings that people record.
RZ That’s not… not the flattering thing in the world.
PF No it’s not cool! But let’s, let’s be transparent and honest. A podcast is a kind of meeting.
RZ It is a kind of meeting, if the person isn’t alone, which I guess if they’re alone, it’s an audio book. [Rich laughs] I think, I don’t know.
PF Yeah, or a bizarre monologue. That’s always my fantasy is that, you know, like, it’s good that I have to be with other people when I record audio, because I think if it was just me, I’d be like, you know, I would just make things up, it’d be like, I do an entire episode as if I was a squirrel. [Rich laughs]
RZ You know, it’s funny, though, for me, when I feel very strongly about something, no one else should bother being in the room. [Paul laughs] Like, my piece is gonna come out anyway.
PF We just had a meeting. It was beautiful. So first of all, I joined like seven minutes late, Rich had clearly been talking straight for seven minutes. [Rich laughs]
RZ It’s true!
PF Finally, after about three or four more minutes, you went, do we have a plan for that? And the person, the person on the other end went, yes. And it was beautiful. I had to give it to him. It was just like such—
RZ Killer move.
PF It’s the ultimate move. Right? The ultimate move is, yes, thank you for your time here. You know, is your throat clear? Because maybe we could move forward. It just keeps it moving. Like it’s I think the the power dynamics in an organization and in a meeting are real. But they don’t have to be treated as serious and sacred, you can also kind of call them out and make fun of them as you go along your day.
RZ I think you’re touching on something here, which what is implied in the Meeting, capital M, is some level of ritual, some level of decorum. Because it’s a meeting, I’ve sometimes walked into a meeting, chewing, and said, ‘Have you had these coconut chocolate covered coconut morsels, they are something else!’ and everyone looks at me, like I have completely lost my mind. And what I’m trying to do is inject a little bit of like, just normal life into the meeting.
PF This is actually something that people miss about you, which is that you bring the Bay Ridge out when you want to shake things up.
RZ Okay, this is a globally recognized podcast, Paul, take a minute, and tell people what bringing the Bay Ridge out even means.
PF Richard doesn’t actually communicate this outward about himself. But like, you’re a person with relatively sophisticated tastes. You’re a lawyer, you’re a very thoughtful person, you read a lot, you’re very engaged with the larger intellectual world, right? Like, museums, and so on and so forth.
PF Yeah, for real, right. Like, there’s 90% of the time, I’ll be like, have you ever heard about this documentary? And you’ll be like, yeah, I saw that, like five years ago. That is not something that I think a guy who grew up in Bay Ridge, who’s Lebanese really communicates outwardly a lot, right? Like, you know, my dad taught English like, I’m like, oh, well, your poetry is wonderful. And you’re like, yeah, cool, careful. So what happens is, you’re actually really thoughtful and really sort of, you know, you’re very there in the meeting, and so is everybody else because it’s 2021. But when you want to shake it up, you actually return to, you know, what streets did you grow up on? Like 86th Street?
RZ 87th Street in Bay Ridge, right next to a lovely little establishment called the Kettle Black. [Rich laughs]
PF Yeah, well, no, I mean, anyone who’s seen Saturday Night Fever has literally seen Rich’s neighborhood like that, how people talk. Look, I love this part of working with you because that’s there a lot. The guy who likes to go to the MET with his kids and taking the art is right there along with the guy from 86th street who cut meat in a bodega. So you bring that guy out. He comes in, and he’s chewing and he’s a little loud. And everyone is like, kind of was like, what is happening here? What is this? And it just throws them off. It’s a moment of joy for me. It’s actually because it’s a little bit of performance, but it’s also who you are. And it’s fun.
RZ I got to say, the pandemic and remote meetings. I mean, plenty has been talked about with Zoom and plenty what has been talked about, you know, Zoom calls and Zoom fatigue and all this stuff that’s associated with it. But for me as someone who really believes in the twists and turns that come with collaborating and the spontaneity that comes with the conversation. It’s been really missed. And I guess what I mean is this when you compartmentalize all the interactions into essentially subject lines that have been assigned to half hour increments, Project X update is 9:00 to 9:30. I can’t come in there and talk about the latest season of Handmaid’s Tale, in the meeting, that’s not what we’re there for. And what this is speaking to, I think it’s Bay Ridge, I think it’s, it’s what I miss, as someone who is a highly interactive type of manager that likes the dialogue, that likes the spontaneity of the dialogue. And I feel, I felt very boxed in, boxed in is such, I mean, look at that as a title of the podcast colon, box in colon. Here’s another observation, Paul, I’m telling you if you feel this too, because you sit, you know, very close to where I sit, which is, I’m so tired of getting presented to in this very tightly scripted setting, and it’s the case. But look, I’m a senior leader at Postlight. I’m a co-founder of a company, this is your shot, man. It’s like we’re redoing, what do you call when like a shell comes back on Broadway?
PF A revival.
RZ It’s a revival of Annie, and we’re recruiting, it’s the casting call for the orphan. And you’ve got 30 minutes to like, “the sun will come out!” I don’t want that. [Paul laughs] I don’t, I don’t want it and look, this is sounding really negative. But you gotta understand it’s been formalized in such an in such a way the normal dialogue is dead.
PF I can explain this. So first of all, I think most people are going to going to say, Well, look, that’s a natural artifact of growth. He used to be 20 people and you had, you know, kind of everybody was friends, you went out and drank, you had good conversations, and everybody was appear, and now Postlight’s almost 100 people, and it’s hierarchical, and on and on and on. And so there’s more structure and more things like that. I think there’s some truth in that, obviously. And so like, of course, you’re going to get presented to and of course, you’re going to get people are going to perceive the difference between where they are in the organization and where you are and try to meet you, right, like they keep trying to meet you. And here is where I think things are really complicated. In any organization. I think remote work has made this more complicated. So the disciplines inside of a company are very focused, they’re focused, they have clear metrics, they have reliable deliverables, I can say wireframes to anybody in design, engineering, or product. And everybody knows exactly what it means who’s capable of doing them, wherever they go, what tools you use, there can be an active conversation about how to make the most useful, but like, that is a thing that we understand how to make. And people think about that thing. And they think about how long it takes and what is going to, we literally extrapolate from wireframes, front end components, so on and so forth, into time that it’s gonna take to get a project done. And then we put the money value on that. And we ask our clients to give us that money in exchange for the work. So that is the absolute DNA of a services firm. As we have grown, that’s almost the platform of the company. It’s almost the API. And like, I think in a really good way of saying we take it for granted is can sound really reductive in a really good way we take that for granted, we know that the firm can do that work really, really well. But what’s tricky is if somebody is in the disciplines, they feel that they want to advocate and communicate the discipline. Right? That’s their base of operations. You and I, and I’ve been feeling this really profoundly lately, my base of operations was always you know, like, yes, I’m a writer and communicator. But the things I write and communicate about tend to be technology, engineering, and the change that those things bring. And so I keep my programming skills up just to kind of know what’s going on. I feel that as we’ve gotten to a certain scale, it’s more and more of a platform, what Postlight can do and what posts I can build, we’re building more and more products on top of that platform. And there’s just a natural tension and distance that comes in like, it feels like I’m working more and more with Postlight as an abstract thing, because I can’t I can’t go too deep anymore. And less and less with Postlight as like this, oh, I’m gonna dive in on engineering and figure out what’s going on over there. Right? That is a big gap between what we do all day, which looks to a lot of people like talking and running our mouths and asking for things that don’t have anything to do with the work they actually need to get done. That’s a natural perception from the point of view of the discipline. Why do you need that? We’re doing wireframes. So I think that that gap is hard to close up.
RZ It’s a product of growth, right?
PF It is, and I’ve been on the other side, I was on the other side until five years ago, until five years ago, I was the person presenting to the leader.
RZ I think for the first few years of Postlight, I think we were highly we were a collaborative place. Much more so and we still are because our model still deploys teams that collaborate very, very tightly. I think what you and I are missing—
PF But we made a choice to move away from being purely about the disciplines. Our slogan used to be Design, Build, Ship, right? And now we are your your partner, we identify your partner for your next big leap, your next big thing. Those are actually two really culturally different things. I mean, look, if you’re listening to this at home, you’re going like, yeah, whatever thanks for your motto, I get that. But when you’re inside of the org, these are really profound differences.
RZ No, and I think we’re feeling it more than others, right? Because I think we’ve created a place, we do have a product pod style model, we deploy teams, to projects, those teams work. It’s a beautiful thing. I’m envious, to be frank, because when teams work and collaborate together, and if they enjoy working together, it’s a really fun thing. It’s just you’re solving problems together. I do think that being remote and everyone being remote has made it probably a little less fun. And but what it’s done is this, and this is I think, where I want to shine a light for a second, what it’s done is this is what happens is collaboration has been, rather than it’d be a continuous cycle of communication, it has taken on a whole up, do some things, and then present dynamic that sets up very different collaborative setting, right, which is, let’s meet in three days, go do that, let’s meet in three days, you show me what you did, and I will react to what you did, right?
PF This is actually not about remote versus not remote. It is about the process that people use to communicate and make things collaboratively. But remote tools make a batch model of interaction much more easy and much more efficient than a highly like high bandwidth back and forth constant conversation model of communication. It’s exhausting to talk on Zoom and Slack all day, it’s actually really easy to sit in a room with you do about two hours or work together and then kind of wander around, get coffee, you know, go get lunch and talk about work on some other stuff, and then come back, maybe even take the train home at the end of the day and finish up our thoughts. And then and that rhythm isn’t impossible with remote work. But the tools don’t support it.
RZ The tools though, I think they support a lot of claims. I think they support a lot of things that are you know, more basic commodity outputs from people, I think remote works, just hey, let’s run through the backlog.
PF Oh, it’s great for tickets.
RZ But I think when you’re trying to collectively solve something, it’s hard to collect to do it in a way. And again, look, you’ve got one shot to be cast in Annie, this is it. You can’t come walking through the halls again and just humming me that you know, the sun will come out tomorrow, whatever you want. And maybe I’ll notice you next week, you’ve got one moment. And so this pressure—
PF And also wait, just pause for one second, because I think people need to understand this is not two people, two co founders running their mouths about how everyone should be in the office, we had our heads of design and engineering to the most critical people in the organization are located in two completely different states. And they’re very good at their jobs were very good. They haven’t they do a beautiful job building a collaborative environment. This is not us going like everyone needs to be back in the office. It’s us trying to figure out where things break down to do the really hard work.
RZ Or to find the breakthroughs. Sometimes it isn’t hard work isn’t like solve the problem. But how do we take it from like just checking the boxes to something really great. Can something really great come together when four people are on a video call?
PF Let me actually break this down in terms that I think are going to, you’ll find this interesting, here’s why you’re not motivated by remote work. It’s because you are a fast, reactive thinker who likes to directly engage and get feedback. I am not, I like documents, I like to go think and come back about three days later, remote work doesn’t bug me anywhere near as much. And in fact, when I was a journalist, it’s all remote work. Send him a manuscript. Five days later, the editor sends you their feedback, you send him another revision, etc. No one would argue that like magazine writing isn’t a creative, interactive act. But, let me be clear, I don’t get as much out of myself. If I’m not working closely with you in a tightly reactive you pushing on me keeping me on my feet is really, really productive for me. It gets me to think in new ways. If I could have my druthers, I would say Rich, why don’t you take all of your thoughts and organize them in a bullet pointed document of about eight pages because then I will really be able to internalize them. And you won’t repeat the same five same thing five times to me until I want to smack you in the head like all those dynamics go away and it’d be much more emotionally convenient and then I don’t have the, I don’t have to react in a minute. So that’s a beautiful out for me. But the output won’t be as good. I know that. If I’m not in the room with you, if you aren’t actually pushing, I won’t come up with the shit I come up with, okay, and that is just flat out, I know this about myself, I’d rather be at home with a little pen, write notes on my e-paper. But I also know that that is the way for me to kind of drift away, I personally need both. Because if I don’t get the stimulus and the push back—
RZ Right, to set you off in a particular direction.
PF That’s right. I want it speeds everything up dramatically. I think what’s hard for people to understand is like, you know, this is your role. Everyone’s created an ideology around remote work, and you know, companies should or shouldn’t, and so on, you know that your job is to turn the wheel and move things forward. And then if you get people in a room, you can do that more efficiently. And tha is just your instinct, and you’re going to do it. For me, I’m like, great, that is a power tool that keeps me from sitting at home looking at the same document 500 times. [Rich laughs] That’s a hard sell in 2021, which is like, I need you all to be slightly agitated and shook up so that we can get to the next thing, don’t take it personally. We’re having this discussion as usual in society, actually, not at Postlight. I think we’re having a very sort of healthy, normal discussion about the return to the office, and it feels like the stress is lower than it used to be. But as a society, it’s like, no one’s got clear strategies here. And you know, it’s all very confusing.
RZ It is, and I think it’s still, I think people sentiments are still shifting as we come out of this.
PF It’s a long pandemic.
RZ It’s a long pandemic, right? I’m gonna ask you two questions. What’s your favorite, I mean, there are different types of meetings, there’s the weekly check in, there’s the daily stand up, there’s the like, present to the client slash or a quote unquote, client, like, here’s our performance for the month. What do you think is the best kind of meeting?
PF I have a couple. So the first off, I love a good three day grinded out summit, absolute hellscape for everybody else.
RZ Okay, clear your calendar, we’re going to think big thoughts together.
PF There’s an aspect to it too, which is just like after our six on day two, when you start to separate the strong from the weak. [Rich laughs] That is when I find my reserve of strength. “Let’s return to how we’re going to do the data model.” I’m your worst nightmare.
RZ Can we revisit bullet 8 from yesterday? [Rich laughs]
PF Absolutely. Like, to me, the endurance test meeting is really special, because I will say you get through his own opinion, you’ve had a shared experience with a group of people. And now you’re on the other side of that. And frankly, you get to clarity through that kind of experience. Like it actually, by the two, everyone gets exhausted, they stop asserting their territorial demands, because they’re kind of like, by day two or three, they’re like, Oh, God, I gotta just get out of this room. And then, they can start to work and work together and collaborate. So that’s a horrible thing. But boy, is that good. The other one that I love is the one where I’ve just, I had a meeting this remote, but it was about a month ago, where you take the true time to really rehearse. And when I mean, rehearse, I don’t mean like you run through a couple times, but you’re gonna do a demo, and you’re in each of the 50, you have something to prove. In this case, I wanted to prove that a specific piece of technology was going to really accelerate where this client wanted to go, it was going to get them there 10 times faster. And it was going to be create a very meaningful experience for their users. And we’d give them power and tools that they didn’t really hadn’t conceived of before. And it’s open source technology. And I’ll just sort of leave it there. So I came up with a story. And I came, I used open data. And I said, let me show you what happens when we take this data, put it into this tool and give it back to you. There was a thing I was supposed to present. Here’s how we’re going to do it. And what I did instead is I took a step back, I said, What is their mission? What are they trying to do? But a little bit easier in this case, because it was a not for profit, but I would do with a for profit org as well. And I said, what is their mission? What story can I tell them, because I really do see that this tool is going to make life a lot easier for them. But they’re not technologists, there’s about 20 steps that they haven’t taken yet. You can take those 20 steps by putting up bullet points. Or you can say, I’m going to tell you a story. And I’m going to show you something, that is far more efficient. And at the end of the meeting, I had done that they had set a good meeting, I understand what you were trying to do. And you did it. You know, it’s not this naked manipulation or anything. I’m literally like, I want to show you this because I want you to succeed. And I think this is good for your mission. And what they picked up from that is, Paul has internalized our mission. He takes our work very seriously. He saw a better way and he wanted to communicate that to us now. It’s their decision as to how they move forward, obviously, but they saw that commitment. And on the other side of that is a sense of just genuine work satisfaction, like I did my job real good. And I think you and I know, we don’t have jobs. So you don’t get that feeling very often. So just this moment of like, to those two, I blew it up and did something different. And we grounded out until there was no longer any we were one collective human mass instead of any difference between us.
RZ The summit meeting. The off site. Classic off site. And the other is, is the telling a story. I mean, in a way, how do you get people inspired and excited?
PF Getting out of agenda and going to story.
RZ Like an alarm goes off two thirds of the way into any of our podcasts where it’s like, well, can we give people something to take away? Right? And if there’s one thing to take away, it’s that what you just said. How do I get you out of bullet points and drawn in to a story, right? And and if you can do that—
PF Start with the bullet points, have the agenda because people need to see the agenda. Let me throw that back to you. So you know how I would do it, which is I really think about it. And I’m looking and really for me, it’s like aligned with the mission and the things that they care about every day. And then show them, I literally was like, I’ll give you a specific there was a data set we’d been talking about. I’m like, I don’t care too much about this, but I do care about these things. So I’m going to use that data instead. Right? And just like make yourself the user show how how you actually believe and boy that people listen, they perk up, you don’t have to give them just what they asked for, show them possibility. Yeah, I mean, what about you like cuz you’re, you’re right, right? Like, like, like, let’s getting off of the agenda, what is the best way to do it?
RZ I like being in a setting where the outcome is uncertain.
PF I got great news for you about climate change, by the way, anyways, keep going.
RZ You know, meetings that are just sort of ritual and this sort of are just part of process are fine. But when you are trying to get someone to a place, and it’s not clear if they’re ever going to go there, and your job is to get them there, that is way more interesting to me than conveying some information.
PF Because that’s the way I think progress is better than process.
RZ Progress is better. And to me, humans, I like to code because it’s I find it very soothing and relaxing, because the outputs are so tidy and clear, right? And it either works or it doesn’t. But when you’ve got like four people in a room, and you’re trying to get them somewhere, and you’re just looking at body language, and you’re letting them talk first so you can then like I edit the script, as they’re telling me where they are and what they care about. Right? Yeah. And then now my game, I’m in it, I’m playing a game, right? Like, there’s a game where I could lose. And God that’s more interesting to me. That’s, I think part of my personality is part of it. But I love the idea. I mean, you called it which is like, how do I get you not just, I don’t want to just persuade you. I want to get you somehow emotionally connecting to the most boring shit otherwise, like, how do I get you interested in motivated in any other setting? If I showed you the PowerPoint, you’d be like, oh, this is dry? How am I gonna get you excited?
PF This is the superpower of the agency right? And I feel that like we don’t talk about this enough, being genuinely excited about stuff that everyone else finds excruciatingly boring is an actual superpower.
RZ Absolutely, absolutely. And look at that word agency. But I got to tell you, if you’re talking to the VP of X, or the VP of Y, that’s down the hall. It’s the same challenge. The starting point is they don’t really care too much about your perspective. And so how are you going to get them to care? Right? How are you going to, like that is fun. That’s just fun, right? Because you’re now selling right? You can call it selling, even if it’s in the side of your own company. Taking up from from an agenda to a story is probably some of the best advice you could give anyone who’s trying to get ahead. I think, you know, I’m more often the recipient of someone trying to persuade me to do something I might not otherwise do these days.
PF Yeah, I think that’s, that’s very true. That’s, I mean, just kind of constantly, right?
RZ We all sit on both sides, right? We all sit on, we both perform and get performed to write. And I think what the pandemics done in remote work is done is it is really amplified that dynamic, and taken a lot of oxygen away from many of the other dynamics that I think make it great to work with other people. I know the world has changed and probably won’t go back to the way it was. I recognize all of it. And we’ve got some great leaders that are remote, but as someone that values, the ad hoc sparring that can really light sparks. I missed that probably more than anything else.
PF Let me actually frame this for people listening, right, which is, here’s what incredibly tricky rates are and this is if I was listening to this podcast, and I was looking for career advice, and I was thinking to myself, yeah, but you can do remote work just fine. So all of its true, everything’s true, every single thing is true, except certain kinds of communication styles. And certain kinds of leaders really want to be in that room. Because that is how they do their craft. That is how they do their communication. That’s how they do their delegation. That doesn’t mean that you have to move to New York City tomorrow, none of that, like there is a tremendous amount of flexibility, and our organization wants that. But what is tricky is that there is this fundamental reality, which is just like, there’s a thing and a skill and a set of things that you like to do. And sometimes me too, I’m more fluid about it, but ultimately, me as well, where boy, it’s gonna be a lot easier this way. Because no, you get tired of the struggle, you get tired of like, I’m gonna have to fit the agenda points, 20, people aren’t going to be paying attention. Like I just like, the good examples, that summit, people needed to get on the plane or a train. And they have to come in, and they got to sit there for two days. Because you got to get off your phone, you got to eat, there can’t be an escape, right? Because that’s the whole point. The whole point is we acknowledge there’s no escape from each other, and we need to work together.
RZ That’s real, right? Because I mean, let’s face it, nobody’s giving you your whole their whole screen right when they’re on that video call.
PF When started working out of the office, again, especially the fruitless I was early, so I bring up the screen, I’m alone in the office, and I’m wearing shoes, and you know, reasonable jeans and a shirt. And I’m looking at people. And I’m going to tell you two days ago, I wouldn’t have noticed sitting in the office looking at them on the screen, they look bananas, they’re closer, they’re staring 50 different directions, Slack is going off continually. If they don’t look distracted, I don’t feel offended, I actually feel concern for them, because their brains are obviously overwhelmed. And they’re not able to have normal interactions with the person who is very present and very here right now.
RZ I want to close this podcast with a habit that my wife pointed out, my mouse is being moved around. And I’m clicking constantly.
PF Constantly, constantly.
RZ But I’m not clicking on anything. Sometimes I’m clicking on my hand is moving the mouse pointer around. And I’m clicking and she’s just hearing click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click. And she’s like, what the hell is, what are you doing? And she asked us for sit and there was slight concern in her voice. She’s like, what are you doing? And I didn’t know what I was doing!
PF Full presence. And it can be remote, actually. But full presence is the most valuable asset it’s very hard to achieve. When everything is blinking. I think that remote work could be really different if people could go into a little their little remote working shed and not have a computer in front of them. It’s the competition and there’s kind of no way to undo that because of the way that we do work digitally. That presence man, and it’s like you’re as I’m talking to you are in Lebanon, and it’s seven hours difference. And you know, I miss you, I miss working with you. Because there’s a lot for us to do right now.
RZ There’s a lot to do.
PF You know, we don’t have right now to we take the train home, like I’m a little further out in Brooklyn in New York. So it’s like, but we get that 20 minutes, frankly, then you get off and I’m like, oh, man, I can listen to my music now. But it’s both are really valuable. Like I need I get my I get my Rich conversation. And then I get my Spotify.
RZ This is how we should close the podcast right here. That ride home. Sometimes we take a car and share it. Sometimes we take a train. It’s a non meeting. There is no subject line for that ride home. It is a non meeting, and you can’t walk away. your computer’s put away. We rarely take out our phones. Sometimes we do. But we just talk and we talk about the day and its agenda lists. And we share observations and sometimes conclusions even surface in those conversations.
PF Oh, no, very often we have a plan. And then the next day we review the plan and then we it but it’s not formal. Like that’s not like, hey, here’s next day’s plan.
RZ That free space, can you schedule the meeting and talk about whatever, because I actually think some of those conversations are meaningful.
PF They’re meaningful, and they have a different form. It’s just impossible for technology to simulate that. So you have to go out of your way to build the relationship in other ways. [music fades in] But that’s energy and work to its energy and work to come into the office and be present its energy and work to build relationships in other directions. We’re going to have a big mix of all of it going forward. I think that people keep choosing sides, right? And it’s more like what are the applications of humans in the space right now? Like what how do I want to be?
RZ Paul, my co-founder and dear friend. We are the founders of Postlight.
PF Our titles are changing a little bit. We’re going to talk about that in a future podcast.
RZ Yes, they are. And we will talk about that in future podcast. But check us out strategists, product designers, etc. I don’t have to tell you just check out postlight.com man, just the proof is in the pudding which is a ridiculous phrase but are putting is high end technology development.
PF Maybe that’s about like alcohol being in pudding, like that you pour booze in puddings. I don’t know, I’m making things up.
RZ Look it up, Paul. Hello@postlight.com. We love questions, give us podcast suggestions. Reach out. We’d love to talk. Alright, everyone. Have a lovely week. Take care of yourselves. Bye!
PF Bye! [music ramps up, plays alone, ends]