Write like a caveman: This week on Track Changes, Paul and Rich are joined by Gina Trapani, a managing partner at Postlight, to talk about statements of work (SOWs). We chat about Postlight’s unique SOW process: Why we base our approach on trust and relationships rather than just time and money. We also discuss managing risk, what to do when someone oversteps their original demands, and how to make the SOW writing process easier. (Hint: Write like a caveman.)
Rich Ziade What a great way—
Paul Ford [Crosstalking] [Like a caveman] “Gina made me feel good about job” [Gina and Rich laugh boisterously, music plays alone for 18 seconds, ramps down]. Hey, everybody.
Gina Trapani Hey, Paul.
RZ Oooooh! Somebody’s . . . in the mix.
GT I just jump right in there. You don’t have to introduce me.
PF No, that’s the thing. It’s a normal thing. Gina Trapani’s here on the podcast with us.
RZ Hi, Gina.
PF Hi, Gina.
GT Nice to be here.
PF I’m Paul Ford [music fades out], I’m the cofounder; Rich is a cofounder; Gina’s a managing partner; and we’re gonna talk—I have an idea. There’s a thing I wanna talk about.
GT I’m excited about this.
PF For some reason we do the best when we talk about the most boring possible thing and how we actually deal with it.
PF Ok? S-O-Ws.
RZ What is an S-O-W?
GT Yeah let’s say what that is.
PF So it’s a Statement of Work and—so, first of all, there’s like a contract and usually when you’re a services firm like us and you have a contract, you have a services agreement, and it’s kinda broad. It’s like, you know, “We’re gonna have a relationship and Postlight is the name of the company and Your Co. is the name of your company and we’re gonna work together and we’re gonna communicate this way and if there’s a lot of changes, it might happen this way. And you’re gonna pay us at a certain time and we’re gonna deliver things and so on.” But it’s pretty—it’s not specific about what’s getting done. It’s specific to the relationship. Now, to have a really good contract, you gotta say what you’re gonna do.
RZ What is your work commitment?
PF That’s right. That is the Statement of Work. Now the Statement of Work is also kind of the more flexible part of the contract. It usually comes as kind of like an appendix or an exhibition added to the end. And—
RZ And exhibit.
PF An exhibit. That’s the word! That’s the word, thank you. You’re a lawyer.
PF And let me tell you how the law works though—
RZ Yeah, it’s usually actually not—oftentimes, Statements of Work are not flexible. They’re oftentimes, especially when you get into big, big organizations and government, the Statement of Work can be hundreds of pages long because it actually has to be down to the screws of exactly what you’re committing to.
PF “I’m gonna deliver you a battleship.”
PF Software’s really tricky, right? Cuz if I’m delivering you a battleship, it’s gotta float, it’s gonna be in the water, it’s gonna displace a certain amount of tonnage.
RZ They can be massive. Oftentimes, it goes to a spreadsheet. The Statement of Work.
GT But that’s not how we do.
RZ That’s not how we do. We have this belief . . . we have this—I wouldn’t call it a belief. We just have this acknowledgement that the software process is very fluid and that decisions are going to get made along the way. In fact, many agencies love the really, really long complex Statement of Work because what it implies is that it’s complete. And when changes happen, they actually charge more money. It’s usually called the Change Order.
GT Right they issue a Change Order. There’s a written amendment.
RZ That’s right which leads to more revenue, more dollars for the agency because it’s more work. We actually flipped it on its head and what we do is we say, “We’re gonna follow this north star and this is the goal in the broadest sense but we also are both acknowledging that we’re gonna make decisions along the way that are gonna fall within the parameters of this goal. And the dollars around this acknowledge that. And in fact, to this day, I don’t think we’ve ever written a Change Order. I don’t we’ve ever put one out.
GT I don’t think so. We’ve done extension—like there’s new work.
RZ New work. Correct.
GT This is a subtle difference, but a difference. And I would say one of my most terrifying moments at Postlight was—so, you know, I was an engineer, I was an individual contributor. I’d be on project teams, and I’d be working on a project, and I didn’t have this visibility in the SOW. I wasn’t writing SOW. There was a point at which I moved into sales and I started looking—you know, understanding SOWs, started writing SOWs but there was a point where I said to Rich, I was like, “Hey Rich, I’m really—you know, we’re starting off this new project, I shared the SOW with the entire team, I wanted everyone to be on the same page about exactly what it is that we’re doing.” And Rich looked at me and said, “Yeah. The minute that the SOW’s written it’s pretty much outta date.” [Rich laughs boisterously] And I was—I panicked.
PF No this is real. Nobody—
GT I remember just feeling [stammering]—I was like, “What do you mean it’s outta date?!?! What do you mean?!?” And you really have to let go a little bit.
PF The whole point of it—
GT And be like—let go of the letter of the agreement and just be like, “This is a software effort. Things are gonna come up. We can’t anticipate them, and we’re gonna handle them using our best judgement and having a conversation.”
RZ In good faith.
GT In good faith, in good faith.
RZ That’s right.
PF And this is what’s tricky cuz we’re not building a house, we’re not putting cabinets in, we’re not like—There’s no sequence where you can go, like, “This will absolutely guarantee you the software outcome that you want.”
PF Instead you’re basically entering into this consulting relationship of trust where we’re like, “We’re gonna listen to you and we’re gonna do the absolute best we can to get a real, working piece of software across the line.” And honestly everything, everything after that . . . is speculative.
RZ It really is. What’s—what’s interesting about this approach is that it actually empowers us, the agency, in an unusual way in that we are able to say, “I know you’re really excited about this addition that you wanna make but it’s gonna put things in jeopardy.” And that—oftentimes, a client—first—usually their first reaction is sort of, kind of to seize up and say, “Awk, I’m the client. What’s going on?”
PF It’s not just that, they’re worried that they’re getting their value, right?
PF Like, they’re gonna give us all this money and are they getting—did we just take their money?
RZ That’s right.
PF And that’s a very—we’re—We live with that with every relationship.
RZ Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, I renovated my house a couple of years ago and it was supposed to be a thousand dollars and it ended up being 4,000 dollars. I’m using different numbers, just to give you a sense of scale. And the reason was every time they opened a wall in my hundred year old building, they said, “You’re not gonna believe this, Rich! [Paul whistles in disbelief] There is—”
PF “This is held up by rat skeletons.”
RZ “There is a small family living inside your wall that we’re gonna have to deal with.”
PF “First of all, you can’t just evict them.”
RZ [Laughs wheezily] That uncertainty is what often leads agencies—other agency executives, people who run businesses have told me: “You’re crazy. That is absolutely suicidal. You are going to kill yourself. You’re gonna really harm the agency one day by having that kind of open endedness.”
PF Then the years go by!
GT I mean this is the commonly accepted thing amongst sort of freelancers and small agencies is that you spell out exactly what you wanna do—
RZ Protect yourself!
GT You manage expectations; you lay out those expectations, and [absolutely] if something changes then you have to renegotiate that relationship.
GT That was what my understanding of how, you know, agencies and freelancers worked.
RZ It’s not an unreasonable one, right? But one of the things that is implicit in our approach is that we believe that humans are decent and in good faith good things can happen which is not how the law works.
GT It’s incredibly [laughing] optimistic.
RZ It’s incredibly optimistic but in fact, you know, an agreement is a rule book for when things go wrong. That’s what agreements are. You go back to them—when you’re going back to them—when they paste—Lawyers know this move.
PF Oh when you’re—
RZ When you’re pasting out of the contract into an email—
GT Oh you know that you’re in a bad place.
PF You never wanna see that contract again.
RZ You never wanna see that contract again, right? And I don’t know if I can fully articulate why we found that sweet spot, that formula. I think it’s because we do spend a lot of time building that trust with that partner before an agreement even comes together.
PF You know we don’t sell a platform. You don’t go—you don’t come to Postlight and go, “I’m gonna buy the Postlight thingamajig that does x, y, and z. The Postlight marketing platform or [yeah] the Postlight advertising solution.” So, as a result, you kinda need to know what you’re buying. Like there’s no situation in which you can buy our services without knowing what you’re getting.
RZ What do you mean?
PF Well, if you go, and somebody says, “I have an all-in-one marketing solution for you [mm hmm]. You need to market your product online, well I have analytics and content management and it’ll make a podcast for you.” Those are things the salesperson is gonna say. Now the company’s on the hook to deliver and deliver custom services around it.
RZ Yes. Yes.
PF Ok. So the SOW’s gonna outline that stuff. But really the priority of the firm is to keep developing their platform. Not to solve everybody’s problem but to solve as many problems as they need to in order to sell—
RZ Cuz they have a product.
PF—sell more and more of the product.
PF That is when you enter—and most services orgs have products that they—
RZ Are building on top of.
PF Yeah, right?
RZ They’re building on top of, yeah.
PF And I see that what happens is like your SOW for your custom CMS blah blah blah connected to your marketing platform. Those get really long. They get really detailed. Whereas, you come to us because you’re like, “I gotta get my thing done. And, you know, it needs to integrate with these things, and it should be—We kinda like React Native cuz it works on iOS and Android.” And that’s not quite the same as rallying around the flag of the platform. It’s like a little more—
RZ No, but [sighs] focus on the question! This question—which is: why hasn’t this blown up in our faces . . . a few times?
PF Not every relationship is great. There are some bad days and some good days [mm hmm]. So it’s not like—we’re not perfect.
RZ We are vulnerable but we believe in the relationship. That’s how we’re able to, I think, avoid the conflict because we are exposed. I’m a lawyer and I handle the agreements for Postlight and I know—our agreement is three pa—is four pages.
GT It was so hard for me to get my head around the idea that you were a lawyer and that you were willing to go with that sort of what I felt like was ambiguity but what I came to understand later is that the relationship is more important. The agreement is a byproduct of the relationship [I think that’s right] and it’s not the agreements defines the relationship.
RZ I think that’s right.
GT It’s relationship first and it’s so interesting, I had a—you know, I wrote an SOW recently with a client that we have worked with and we have, you know, done really well for and shipped software for. And the SOW was like, “We might work on these things. We’re gonna work together to prioritize these things. Like, let’s go.” And there was a tremendous amount of trust that was required there to get that through legal, and she had it on us cuz we had proven it and it was a good relationship.
PF That’s the thing. You will find that with mature council on the other side, they’re often way more fluid. Like they don’t need to see everything. They’re like, “Yeah, ok, this articulates a pretty clear relationship,” and then they go talk to their people, their stakeholders, and they’re like, “You’re feeling good about this?” And they’re like, “Yeah, they’re gonna get it—they’ve already done work with us.” And the lawyers go, “Ok.”
RZ Yeah. If there’s a relationship already in place, the temperature’s way, way, way, way, way down.
PF This is real but giant legal teams on the other side are like, “Ok. We get it.”
RZ I mean, look, we’re not trying to shit on—what often is the driver or the agenda around larger consulting firms but let’s face it, larger consulting firms sell humans and time and we oftentimes do not. We oftentimes sell the end goal, the end result. It’s a different model. It’s, frankly, a much more profitable model and it’s a model that I think has trickled down to the culture at Postlight. Like Postlight doesn’t do timesheets. It’s not time driven.
PF There’s a flipside here too. There’s a really important thing . . . that we leave out—and it’s gonna sound self-promoting to talk about it but it actually isn’t—let’s say something’s gone a little wrong. There’s been miscommunication or some missteps or something’s off. I’ve sat in the room that we’re recording this podcast and you and I—it’s one of the reasons I think we work well together—Like we try to optimize the firm to be profitable, you know, pay good salaries, have a nice New York office and so on. But one of the flipsides of this whole deliverable-based thing is somebody comes in and is like, “I have a problem. I needed this to be this and it’s this today. We’re hearing this and people are talking to us and there’s a lot of negotiation and who’s responsible and whatever.” We have the right and that we feel the responsibility to kind of pull a card and go—we’ll ship something really good, fix it, and make it good. Now if the client is just like asking for things they never asked for before at the last minute or whatever we’ll push back on that but if they have a case, and they do sometimes, you go, “Ok,” make it right.
RZ We’ve gone over in terms of time or people. Sometimes we’ve brought more resources to bear without bringing up the conversation because things—
PF Bring in someone senior.
RZ Bring in someone senior. There’s more help that’s needed here or there and we’ve done it. And, frankly, I don’t feel like going back and forth for another two weeks with legal to modify the agreement around that. You know—
PF I also—I like taking responsibility and going, “Let’s get this for you.” I don’t wanna negotiate as to—like, “Ok, maybe this is a bad situation, maybe we’re to blame, maybe not.” You know there were a few times—I will defend the firm but I don’t wanna dig in my heels on the project. I’m just like, “Let’s get it done.”
RZ Sometimes they come to you and it’s, “Look: I know this is not in scope but I need a win. Like I just had a really bad meeting. And I need a win and I need to show them something next week.” We’ll work with that. Again, there is—sometimes if it’s in bad faith and it’s just an aggressive actor that just is viewing us, as I like to say, wedding caterers. No offence to anybody who caters a wedding. It’s a very complicated, big, important event for people but—
PF That’s the whole point: it’s really hard to cater a wedding, and then customers can be awful.
RZ They can be awful! And one of the things we’ve tried to project, even from the first minute you meet us, is we are not commoditized labor that you’re hiring. We are your partner. We’re here to give you advice. We actually give you advice for even the stakeholders that you are answering to. And that hopefully sets the dynamic up differently, and that we avoid that. So, Paul, I’ve been hearing about [Paul chuckles] this thing. What is it called again?
PF Alright so I’ve been writing more and more SOWs because I’m running sales.
RZ Which you are enjoying immensely.
PF Some days I enjoy it [Rich laughs]. No, I enjoy sales. But I’ll tell ya, really actually, I hate writing SOWs.
PF It’s just a block—now it’s real and now I have to do this one kinda clerical thing and I gotta get it all broken down and it’s gotta—it has to get reviewed by people. It’s just like a lot of process cuz it’s going to lawyers and there’s a lot of people involved and it’s just—it’s not a pleasant, fun task.
RZ No, it’s paperwork.
PF I know myself very well at this point. Faced with a task like that, I will often procrastinate and the way out of the procrastination is to have a set of [?] that I can apply. And literally like, if I write a recipe for how to do something I will then do it and I’m less anxious and less likely to not do it. So I wrote—I have a full 30 step SOW completion recipe.
PF Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, absolutely.
GT Just in Org-mode?
PF Yeah, it’s in Emacs Org-mode. I cut and paste, I have little templates for each chunk of text, and so on.
RZ Oh my God!
PF Ok, no, it’s just literally, like, “Goes to our head of ops,” “Goes to Rich for review,” “Here is the—” Like literally if I have to remember the piece of text that is like, “Postlight will perform the following blah blah blah blah,” you know, there’s like 30 things that you have to say.
PF And I need that all there for me because if I have to go shopping for it I will find myself on Twitter. So somebody wrote me—somebody who has a smaller agency and occasionally asks for advice. And he was like, “Hey, can you share any SOWs? We’re getting bigger.” I’m like, “No, I can’t really do that. I don’t wanna give you my paperwork.”
PF “But I will give you this piece of advice which is that write an SOW like you’re a caveman. So I’ll give you an example. Postlight will—let’s say we’re just building a website. Ok? So, “Postlight will build Client Co. website.” That is literally a line in the SOW.
PF So—And now let me say it as a caveman: “Postlight build Client Co. website.” Ok? What I didn’t say—here’s what I didn’t say: [Rich and Gina laughing] “Postlight will build a dynamic, interactive website that is responsive for Client Co.”
PF I didn’t say—I stopped all selling.
PF I stopped all speculation. So, “Client Co. website will include pages: [says, ‘colon’] homepage; about us; team; news.”
PF You know, verticals. Sports, local, travel, pets, templates, page, article, blog post. “Website will integrate with Google Analytics.” There’s no speculation and then—
RZ Well, you glossed over this. You close deals at Postlight, you’re in sales and you’re still selling, like, it’s done. It’s now time for the paperwork.
PF It’s incredibly hard to stop selling [Rich laughs boisterously].
GT I mean [stammers and chuckles] I would love with the SOW you’re speaking reality—you’re saying the words cuz it’s gonna happen. As the copy editor in me I’m like, “Yes, present tense, active verbs with, you know, few adjectives and clear statements with, you know, the object, the verb and—
PF And don’t even do Postlight, so it’s like, “Postlight—so Postlight will release website to public.” [Others laugh boisterously] “Paul release website to public.” [Others laugh again] Ok? Now, notice what a caveman doesn’t say is: “Paul will ensure that website is released in timely manner by sched—”
RZ Yeah. Sure.
PF And Postlight doesn’t say—I’m not saying, like, “I’m your friend.” I’m not saying, “I’m gonna get every little detail here.”
PF I’m saying, “Here is the thing that we are going to agree upon. And we are going to get these things done.” Everything else is speculation.
RZ I mean, this is actually pretty much in the spirit of how we approach legal documents at Postlight. I mean there’s the complex, verbose, sort of legalistic type of language and then there’s, you know, what actually lawyers call sort of a plain English style of writing agreements and laws and things like that. And this is—in the spirit of that, the truth is those words, it is a tool for interpretation. The thing, right? And you’re eliminating all of those weird ambiguities and adjectives and things that can actually confuse people.
PF Mm hmm.
RZ Again, hopefully you don’t go back to it. We rarely go back. We rarely get it waved in our faces. But I think it’s useful as a communication tool because anybody should be able to read it. It shouldn’t feel complicated.
PF Specify like a caveman. That’s what I’m telling everybody. [Yup, yeah] Like just say the thing that you’re gonna do. And it turns out these are—people see them and they go, “Great. Signing it.” [Yup] And there—When I first wrote them and you started editing them, we would have to cut 70 percent.
PF I was making promises without even knowing I was making promises. [Yup, yeah] And if you just like do this formulation: Paul will make website. And it sounds really dumb but you gotta keep it that simple because that’s what people can agree upon. The trickiest thing for people—someone like me. I think Gina too, right? Is like not trained as lawyers, is that to desire to please and communicate.
PF When you’re writing that SOW.
RZ Interesting, interesting.
PF That’s not what—
RZ Which is often sales.
PF Right but that’s not what this document is.
RZ Not at all.
GT Right, “I want you to feel good about what you bought—” No, it’s true. Hard to sell—
RZ You think a product of your backgrounds and just—
PF Contracts are weird. You’re literally not—it’s not a—it’s a negotiation in which you’re trying to respectfully say as little as possible and they’re gonna—
RZ It’s in fact not a negotiation. It’s the outcome. It’s the byproduct of a negotiation.
PF Right and so it’s like, the goal is to have as much clarity and as little that is optimistic, right?
PF Contracts are not supposed to be optimistic documents.
PF They’re supposed to be factual. And they’re supposed to be logical about time and space and resources and so on.
RZ That’s right.
PF Every project that starts has a kind of speculative, joyful aspect to it. Like, “This time’s gonna be different.”
PF Contracts are the opposite.
GT We also have those safety net phrases . . . at the bottom. The asterisks or the little note that’s like, “Assuming dependencies land, changes will be mutually agreed upon.”
RZ Assumptions. Yes.
GT Like there’s also like that language! Which I think is—I mean, “assuming dependencies land,” is pretty optimistic but also protects us, right?
GT Because we’re in situations where dependencies from other vendors or the client themselves keeps us from being able to do our work, right?
RZ 100%. You know, you put that in agreements. You just touched on the other key clause which is this is not everything. Any detail that’s not here has to be mutually agreed upon by both parties. Because a lot of time when they say—in the SOW it says there will be signup and sign on functionality and that gets interpreted as, “But that means it’ll work with Google Login and Facebook Login and maybe a couple of others.
GT Twitter, Github, LinkedIn—
RZ “I mean, I should be able to sign in with any of those, right?”
GT “A magic link that I don’t need to login.” Yeah [laughs].
PF “Postlight build login.” [Laughs and Gina laughs.]
RZ No, but! I mean, this is the thing: it sounds like you’re bringing clarity and you are but there is always ambiguity.
PF Mm hmm!
RZ Ambiguity is still there and a client understanding that . . . boundaries have been placed on this thing. There is a trust here. There’s like, “Look, this is six months. We’re gonna give you these things,” and when they come back and say, “It’s gotta auth in through these eight services.” We have to come back and say, “This is a six month project, it’s gotta fit inside this,” right?
PF Yeah, login’s gonna be there.
RZ Login’s gonna be there, right?
PF We said we would.
RZ We’ve had that impasse, it’s happened where people are like, “Oh c’mon, guys. You gotta be kidding me! You have to include this! You can’t not include that!” And that’s a dialogue that has to happen, right?
RZ Because there are probably other line items that they thought were 50 pounds and actually ended up being 5. So it might work itself out.
PF We try—we usually get there or pretty close. You know the other point to make here is you might be talking a big contract: lots of people, you know, very large sums of money—2 page SOW.
RZ Let’s call this for what it is: some contracts give us a longer runway if things don’t go well than others but nobody has committed to keeping us around for years and years.
RZ With no out clause.
PF No, that’s right.
RZ That is a reality! That is a reality of every agency. There’s usually with cause and—
PF Yeah, we exist at the pleasure of the client.
RZ [Stammers] I mean it will continue on if we are doing good work and they trust us and they rely on us.
PF And it’s also they can dismiss because they want to dismiss us. Like it’s—like there’s no recourse there. If they’re like, “Hey, 30 days! Goodbye!”
RZ Yup, and that’s happened. I mean it’s happened sometimes because the advocate’s gone. The person that was like the advocate for the deal is gone and then we’re sort of flailing.
PF Well they cancel the project.
RZ Or they cancel a project. I mean there’s any number of things that can happen. So, ultimately, it is about the relationship. We had one engagement, it was a smaller one, this is early days for Postlight. And it wasn’t going great; the stakeholder came in really sitting upright and had two pages of notes.
PF Mm hmm!
RZ And it was essentially an attack plan. And I wasn’t on the project but I came into the meeting because of the stress of it.
PF I remember this. Well and also I was on vacation.
RZ You were on vacation.
PF And this was my baby and you were like, “Lemme jump in.”
RZ And she started going through the bullets and there was just tension in the room and I stopped her at bullet four or five. And I said, “What do you need?” And, by the way, she was holding money. They owed us money and the culmination of these 18 bullets was, “Until you fix these things, we’re not gonna pay you.” And I said, “You know, Ms. X you’re not happy right now. This isn’t going well right now. You don’t need to go through your list. The goal here is for you to feel good about what we’re handing over to you. And so, let’s instead talk about how we get there.” And it completely threw her off. She thought it was gonna be throwdown fight and—
GT She was ready to go through a laundry list and catch you back on your heels on x, y—
RZ On every one! She thought each one would take eight minutes.
RZ It would take three hours to go through this list. And I didn’t wanna go through a list. I think there’s been hiccups on both sides. I said, “Let’s pause here and fix it.” This is another thing and this is a hard thing for agency leaders to learn is you gotta know when to walk, and oftentimes, in my experience, if you give them the opportunity to transition away, they don’t take it. If you’re that open to fixing it and it’s like, “Look, if you’re hellbent on not working with us anymore, then—”
PF “We’ll find a path.”
RZ “We’ll find a path.” They don’t take it.
RZ They rarely take it.
PF No, no, no.
RZ Because you’ve essentially said, “I want this to work and I want you to be happy. If you don’t think there’s a path to getting happy then let us help you find someone else that’ll make you happy.” It’s like, “Ok, I guess I was here for a fight but we’re having tea now.” And then the temperature came down and it became a constructive—
PF Well, let’s be real: if someone is in a place to get a plan B, they’ve already got a plan B. Like they’ll be like, “I wanna talk with you about winding down.” When they’re upset, that actually—it’s hard cuz it’s an opportunity. The big lesson for me with that is never to dig in my heels, just let ‘em talk for 20 minutes.
RZ Yeah, and that’s fine. Look, as long as respect is maintained.
RZ The red line I would draw is if our people are feeling like shit.
PF We’ve had a few of those.
RZ If people are feeling like shit, it’s just because it’s not a warm environment or not a collaborative environment, it’s almost unsustainable. Also, all we have is our people.
PF It depends on the person, sometimes you just have to switch that team off and let someone who is utterly fine with somewhat shitty people [chuckling] to just come in [yeah, yeah,yeah]. Like there are certain people who are like, “This client doesn’t even register for me. I don’t—She asks a lot of questions, it’s ok.”
RZ You know what it is? They don’t internalize it. They’re like, “This is what this is. We didn’t come here to play tennis.”
GT Yeah, “This is our life.” Right, right. “This is what the job is.”
PF There are two kinds of agency employees: those who care deeply and are able to transfer that care from client to client and just emotionally engage over and over and over again and those who could give a shit and are just like, “I can’t believe what this person is doing. I’m gonna just get this done.”
GT You know recently I was talking to a client of ours. Great relationship. Great project. Rock and rollin’. About to ship. And she kinda from outta left field, from my perspective, out of left field comes at me with a task that is not in the project plan, not on my radar at all, and in the spirit of like [sing-songy] wanting to protect the team! And like protect the effort, and wanna ship, I was like, “You know this feels out of scope.” And she said something to me that really made an impression to me [sic], she said, “This is absolutely in the spirit of our agreement.” [Paul laughs] And it was that phrase: “in the spirit”—
PF That’s a leader right there!
GT That is a leader, right? Because she couldn’t point to the paragraph in the exhibit that said we were gonna do this task. Because it wasn’t there! And this is part of the reason why I was pushing back.
RZ That’s right.
GT But when she said [Paul laughing in distance], “This is in the spirit of our agreement,” I went right back on my heels!
RZ It’s like the two fingers to the Adam’s apple that will knock you [Paul makes sound as if he got knocked in the throat] unconscious or whatever it is.
GT It was amazing! Because I couldn’t argue with her. And there’s a calculus! Right? There’s a calculus. That’s when I went back to you, Rich, I was like, “This isn’t in scope but what should we do?” Right? [Yeah] And like in that situation there’s a calculus: this is a good relationship, we’re shipping, we want this person to feel like we have their back, we’re her partner, this kind of is broadly in the spirit of our shared goals. Like it was a back and forth and it was a debate.
RZ I mean, yeah—finish your thought.
GT No, I mean that “in the spirit of the agreement” was very much a lesson to me of like this isn’t about relationships and it’s not necessarily about the SOW but is it a continual conversation [yeah] and negotiation of that relationship: understanding what are shared goals and does this fall under.
PF She needs to get her thing done!
GT She needs to get her thing done and it was also the kind of relationship where I could say to her, “I can give this to you but it means that other things are gonna get bumped.” And that also is a continual negotiation. So.
RZ Yeah but you’ve also—I’ve also had interactions with you where I siad, “Enough.”
RZ And I said, “This is not gonna be fun for you, Gina.”
GT I was like, “God, Rich, you’re gonna make me give bad news.”
GT “You’re killing me right now.”
RZ “But this is it.” And a lot of times I’ll say, “Put it on me or put it on someone else or you’re only just delivering the message.”
RZ But we reached that point and we said, “No, I’m sorry.” It’s shocking because you are, I mean, you are a . . . ninja when it comes to getting the client to absolutely fall deep into the relationship. You’re about as good as it gets because you care so deeply about the relationship.
GT I want them to succeed! Their success is our success. I mean that’s the basis of it, right?
RZ That’s right, that’s right. But! It is not a bottomless well. Like, that’s a thing. That leaves you with a bit of a vulnerability so when you do have that conversation, like, “I’m really sorry, we can’t do this for you.” It’s almost shocking to them.
GT Yeah, that’s tough—yeah, that’s tough—
RZ It’s a shocking thing to them. I’m much more comfortable with that because I take a different approach than you do. You’re more about, “I am here to protect you.” I’m more about, “Don’t make silly mistakes.”
PF If you want to give off the signal of true executive leader—
GT Oh boy.
PF Ok? I’ve noticed this. You just talk nonstop about risk. There is nothing else. There’s no engagement, there’s no project, there’s no people. There’s just risk. [Rich and Gina laughing] And so what you do is you swoop in and you go, “You’ve introduced a lot of risk to the situation, how do you wanna handle it?”
GT Ooooh! [Laughs]
PF And they look at you and they go, “Well, no, no, I don’t want any risk. I really need to ship this.” And you’re like, “Ok, I get it. I get it but you need to see—do you feel the hot fire that is touching your feet?” [Gina laughs]
RZ This is a great—whether you are an agency talking to a client or you are a middle manager talking to an executive, the best Judo move in business is drawing a picture of them standing in a fire of failure.
PF Oh yeah!
RZ I had a meeting recently with a group of executives and essentially the upshot was we were telling them that their partner was not working out for them . . . was the message. And one of the executives turned to me and asked, he said, “Well how do we communicate this to them so it doesn’t hit them so hard and hurt them so much?” And I paused for a moment and I said to them, “Just tell them it’s really bad for you. Like this isn’t about them. This is about you.”
RZ And you are an executive. You hold the keys to your own organization and to the interests of your own organization. I have to think your partner will get that. Right?
PF They’re gonna have a bad day.
RZ They’re gonna have a bad day.
PF You made a choice between you having bad days or them having bad days and you came down for them.
RZ It sounds manipulative, it’s really not. It’s just you telling them, “Look, this is—could be a really bad outcome. You committed to March 28th or whatever, you’re gonna blow that out,” and then they pause and they run that nightmare scenario in their heads and they usually come off it. Just to clarify what I’m saying here: this is not about pushing forward a false narrative. You should still be honest and transparent about what you’re saying. It should not be about this will fall on your face if it won’t. Don’t do that. Like, there’s no need to do that. But oftentimes people overreach. Everybody wants to do more. Everybody wants the bigger thing. Right? And so don’t do it as a manipulation or to mislead people, but it is a better way to craft that message.
PF Well, like, we’re building a sales culture at Postlight that is about transparency and consulting and advisory and honesty. And I know that that is absolute marketing to say that and maybe you believe it or maybe you don’t but, you know, if you’re a big org, test us!
RZ I think you’re nailin’ it. A lot of the big shops, they sell very complicated products that nobody understands and they put a huge sticker price on them.
PF No, they sell platforms and cross-your-fingers.
GT This is why I think writing statements of work—it’s magical. I love the idea that you can write a simple document with simple words and short sentences that you can clearly reason about how a big, complicated piece of software like comes into being.
RZ It brings you clarity.
GT I mean, yeah, I’ve worked in this industry for decades. I still think that software is unbelievably magical. And the idea that we have, you know, a papertrail of some of the things that we built which turned out to be amazing. That was like, “Postlight build website.” Like started there. I think it’s an incredibly just form of intention and of agreement and of like—it’s a representation of shared goals, right? Cuz like software is a manifestation of one’s hopes and dreams, about their business, and about enabling their customers or enabling their users, and like being able to express that in two pages, the start to that. It’s a privilege! Not to get all weird and starry eyed about this but like it’s a particular genre of writing.
RZ What a great way to reframe a Statement of Work which is—
RZ It’s this expression of shared goals versus a list of contractual commitments. Right? And that’s what it is.
PF Listen, people—people roll their eyes—
GT Well, the spirit of the agreement. Right? [Laughing] Yeah, yeah.
RZ The spirit of the agreement.
PF Look, people roll their eyes, I used to roll my eyes at all the artefacts that you make when you’re trying to get work done because it’s, I dunno, it’s not a poem, it’s not a novel.
PF But the reality is like this is the shared reality, this is how we communicate, get things done, and create stability and calm so we can do the work. And they really matter and they’re important and you can approach them with respect. And think like, “Wow! What could a really good SOW be in this context?” It’s certainly not as much fun as writing, you know, a spec script for a great sitcom. Like, I mean, it’s not like—[Rich and Gina laugh] You know, it’s not—they’re never gonna take our SOWs and turn them into an HBO series.
PF But! Then again, they provide stability and order to our business.
GT Even if they fall outta date immediately. They’re still a statement of like original intention. Like, “This is how we started this thing together.”
RZ “An expression of shared goals,” like you said.
RZ I mean that’s exactly what it is and to use that—she can only use that card a couple of times [Gina laughs]. She can use it, she’s allowed to use it, sometimes it can be an overreach.
GT [Stammers] I understood this relationship to be this: “We’re a partnership and you have my back and I have yours and we’re gonna help one another out and we’re gonna do this thing together.” Right?
PF I’ve drank a lot of coffee with you, Gina.
GT [Laughs] A lot of coffees. And drinks.
RZ And look, as long as you’ve got a reasonable actor that’s not lookin’ to abuse it then fine.
GT And it’s pretty clear when you do have that and when you don’t.
GT I mean it becomes pretty clear pretty [music fades in] quickly.
PF Listen, we’re the vendor, a little abuse is just [Gina laughs] par for—
GT It’s part of the job. Part of the job.
RZ There’s some calluses on the hands. That’s fine.
PF If you’re not ready for a little lesson in humility on a regular basis, you just definitely not work at an agency.
GT I mean, listen, it’s a tradeoff, I get to come to 101 5th Avenue everyday, put on my headphones, type a little bit and once in a while take a little abuse from a client [laughs].
PF That’s right. And isn’t that great? Alright, so Postlight good company. Postlight write SOW.
RZ We don’t even need to pitch Postlight for this one.
PF No, I mean—
RZ Reach out to us: firstname.lastname@example.org. I gotta say our agreements are as airtight as our code.
RZ You like that? Is that strong?
PF That’s good, that’s good. Yeah.
RZ [Laughs] Gina, it’s always a pleasure to have you on this podcast.
GT Thanks for having me. This is a lot of fun. I love that I walked in here and said, “I have no idea what we’re gonna talk about,” and conversation ensued.
PF Yeah well now you’re leadership, you know, it’s—[laughs and Gina laughs]. Alright friends get in touch. If you want that SOW just show up. We’ll make it happen.
RZ Enter coupon code—[laughs]
PF That’s right [chuckles].
GT SOW. Easy SOW. Postlight caveman.
PF We’re ready for you. Get in touch. email@example.com Let’s go!
RZ Have a great week! [Music plays alone for three seconds, fades out to end].