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Episode 147 December 11, 2018 | 23min

Meeting the First Promise

Showing value is your most effective political tool.

Show Notes

Why Do People Want To See Others Fail? This week on Track Changes, we take a look at the power dynamics that play out when we go into big companies to solve problems and ship software. What happens when organizations show that they don’t want our help after they’ve brought us on? Why are people resistant to scaling? Is it because we’re taking all the cool jobs?

There are three ways to overcome that: Firstly, use your advocate. Let them lead. Somebody brought you here. Your failure is their failure; your success is their success. Second, establish your mandate and keep it brief. Memorize it! This is your best defense against tweaks, delays, and edge cases. Lastly, meet your first promise. Ship early, ship often, and show value. There’s a currency exchange from great design to political capital.

Rich values this advice at $720,000. All listeners will be invoiced.

Rich Ziade [Crosstalk] Exactly.

Paul Ford [Crosstalk] Here’s your tips.

RZ Free tips!

PF Tips, tips.

RZ Five tips!

PF Maybe we could get a little tip jingle? [Sings] Doo doo doo.

RZ Yeah.

PF [Sings] Here’s your tip.

RZ Maybe we could do like videos that give people advice but are like fast motion like those cooking videos.

PF Oh! That’s right. [Rich laughs] Dealing with covert intrigue.

RZ [Laughing] Just have people scurrying around real fast.

PF Cut to a guillotine.

RZ Hah! [Music plays for 18 seconds, ramps down]. Paul.

PF Yes, Rich.

RZ We’re in software.

PF We’re inside of software right now. In fact, many people do think the world is a simulation run inside of a giant computer.

RZ That shit makes me anxious when people say that.

PF Well, it’s—it’s—you know, the thing is [music fades out] very hard to disprove.

RZ What I’m about to sa—ask you. I’m gonna pose it as a question.

PF Ok.

RZ It goes beyond software.

[0:56]

PF Ok.

RZ Why do people—

PF Fall in love. Well, I haven’t—

RZ—not want to see other people . . . do well?

PF [Clears throat] Boy! That’s hard—this is a real one. My son and daughter are seven and they love each other but some days they don’t wanna see each other do well.

RZ Beautiful twins.

PF Beautiful twins. Uh some days my daughter gets very jealous that my son is reading really quickly.

RZ You complimented her drawing a lot [oh] and Abe, your son, is just sitting there watching.

PF He’s a little more distracted. He doesn’t get jealous in the same way. She worries about someone else getting something and he’s just kinda in his own world but every now and then he gets really jealous. And, you know, she’s a very well behaved kid and he is a ball of energy and so [yeah] like he’s very aware of that. So there’s that, right? There’s the kind of like sibling rivalry, “Am I ok? Am I getting what I need?”

RZ Totally normal.

PF Right?

RZ It’s every sibling, right?

PF I think it really is. Now, there’s also the kind of bad corporate jealousy.

RZ Yeah, let’s dial it back a bit, ok? This makes it sound like people are mean and evil. And they’re not. It is fairly safe to say if you put a collection of people inside of a sandbox, that is a corporation or that is a government or that is a non-profit, then people—while there is structure that’s usually introduced [mm hmm]; there is a hierarchy that is introduced where essentially power dynamics playout. There is a lot of room still to run around. You’re not told that you may only speak to your manager if you have an opinion. People talk to each other, right?

PF Mm hmm.

[2:37]

RZ People want to communicate and show what they know and actually have motivations but more than anything else, many, many people have ambition.

PF That’s right. And there’s a thing that happens, right? Which is that you get a lot of people together, right? [Uh huh] I mean let’s just say a room [mm hmm] and you say, “We’re gonna do something,” and immediately they look around and they go, “Well you know what? You know who should do this? Me. Because everyone around me is just gonna screw it up.”

RZ There’s a lot of that.

PF I had that thought when I was like 23. You know, I had that thought—you know you just, you go and you’re like, “These people don’t know what they’re doing.”

RZ Right.

PF And you—you perceive the vacuum and you’re pretty sure that unless you fill it that everything’s gonna fall apart. So there’s that—it’s very well intentioned.

RZ I think it’s norm—exactly! It’s not evil.

PF It’s a kind of organic narcissism where you’re like, “Ah! Well, my God! I can’t let these idiots do it.”

RZ Right.

PF And what I love about being a boss is that sometimes it’s so clear that I’m the idiot [laughs].

RZ I mean you don’t even have to be a boss to [laughs]—to [no, I know that’s right] make that determination.

PF It also happens in my marriage and with my children [Rich laughs]. Um and when I walk down the street and when just about anybody talks to me. No, but there is that, right? Like people definitely look at you and go like, “Oh come on! Come on!”

RZ And it’s because, “Oh I’ve rendered judgement that you are stupid.” It’s that, you have now— implicit in being the person that’s decided they’re gonna get the thing done; or they’re gonna initiate; or they’re gonna drive a project is that you have power [mm hmm] and that you have more—like power, because the organization has decided to support your mission.

PF Can I tell you my secret theory of Powerpoint?

[4:13]

RZ Ok.

PF Powerpoint exists and thrives not because it’s a good way to communicate information. In fact, we all kinda know it’s not the best way to communicate information [yup]. It exists and thrives because it creates a demilitarized zone where the total—it’s offensive! That one person gets up and tells everyone else what to do.

RZ Ok?

PF And it creates this neutral thing.

RZ It’s offensive, you’re saying.

PF It’s offensive that like—

RZ It’s insulting, right?

PF It’s insulting. “What am I? I’m a person. Why would someone be able to get up in front of a room?”

RZ Why are you up with a clicker?

PF That’s right! And that person can point to this kind of demilitarized zone, this document, and we’re all lookin’ at that. So it gets—

RZ It’s not the person.

PF It gets away from the primate dynamics, right? [Yeah] And so actually work, a lot of work, and a lot of things that you do are about creating these little spaces where the power dynamics can be asserted but there’s a little room to talk and wiggle around. Because if [right] I came in today—first of all, I don’t think people listening to this podcast know how rarely you and I issue anything that sounds like a direct order in this organization.

RZ That’s very true.

PF And I—I really thought, when we started this company that there’d be more of that, that I’d be able to turn to somebody and say, “Hey, I need that on my desk by Wednesday.”

RZ Yeah.

[5:22]

PF But for the most part, you cannot have smart people who are delegated and can act independently and then just also say, “I want that on my desk by Wednesday.” That’s not how it works because it doesn’t scale. Cuz then what they do is they wait, and they say, “Do I need do that or not? He didn’t say Wednesday. I guess I’m fine.”

RZ Let’s—let’s . . . draw a line . . . We have gone into projects, pretty large scale ones, and the existing team oftentimes we’re not coming into a void where there’s no engineering and no design and no product. We’re coming in . . . to essentially a status quo that exists.

PF Well there are—there are two kinds of projects. There are, “We’re gonna build something from scratch [yup] and we don’t have the people to do it, therefore we’re gonna work with your agency,” and then we have, “We have the people but for whatever reason—”

RZ “We tripped up.”

PF Or they could be too busy.

RZ Yes. They—yeah. True. Either.

PF “And we need you to supplement us.” Frankly, the difference between they’re too busy and they tripped up is minimal for us. Nobody wants to see the agency on the first day.

RZ They react the same way.

PF Yeah, it’s just like, “Guys, why are you here? You’re a pain in my ass.”

RZ They want it to be known that this was a terrible mistake to bring us in.

PF That’s real.

RZ Well, is this that different than department A wanting to see department B fail?

PF But one of the reasons they want us to fail is they’re worried we’ll take their jobs.

RZ That’s part of it but there are also times we’re going in for the next generation thing. It’s like, “Why would you hire them? I could’ve given you the next generation thing.”

PF So now start—oh no, it’s even worse, right? We took the cool work away from them.

RZ We took the cool work away from them—

[6:59]

PF Let’s focus on the dynamics. Everybody understands this situation.

RZ Everybody knows this situation. So what can you do?

PF First you have to diagnose. Here’s the behaviors: can I get that database information dumped into a file for me? “Oh I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do that for you.”

RZ So this is before we’re getting them in the room? We’re not there yet.

PF Even when you get in the room, getting access to the assets, the information—

RZ Oh! Oh! Oh! Blocking.

PF This is the blocking cuz—

RZ They’re blocking.

PF—it’s all very subtle, right? [Yeah] It’s not—no one can say, “I don’t want you here. You’re gonna fail. I want you to fail.”

RZ No. No, no, no. Yeah.

PF K? But what they can do is not give you the login information.

RZ Which is shit.

PF Not—not get you access to GitHub, not let you see the source code. And then you can do a thing on the other side which is start looking at things, and looking at the artifacts that are available and asking questions.

RZ So it’s incredibly subtle and it can be very tricky and sometimes demoralizing. I—I—we’ve had a situation where there was a key piece of architecture. This thing was getting pieced together and coded and tested and it was pushed in. And three days later it was thrown out of GitHub. Literally taken out and we’re like, “What are you doing? You can’t just put code in.”

PF Yeah that’s right.

RZ And it was just terrifying, I think, you know, for various reasons. And so these dynamics are pretty normal. They’re actually—and this sounds vendor-client but it’s really not vendor-client. It’s pretty normal.

PF Oh it can be new team, it can be—but it is sort of team to team. New comer might have to prove themself but eventually they’ll get absorbed.

[8:28]

RZ It is. It’s truly tribal, isn’t it?

PF It’s very tribal. It’s very sort of like their little community is being challenged and your little [yes] community seems to be on the up. And also it’s weird with agencies cuz agencies are mercenary. We are: you hire us, you give us money, and we’re not aligned with every value and every historical aspect of the firm. We’re coming in to solve a specific problem and we’ve made a strong case that we can do it really well.

RZ That’s part of—part of the reason come to an agency is um they uh we don’t carry the political baggage that often is in place—we just don’t care.

PF Well we don’t care. They come to us. That’s one of the reasons people hire us: we’re good, and we don’t care, and so we—they come to us and they—we [chuckles] care about the software but we don’t care that Mike has been running the Windows registry server for 22 years. The goal is to just, you know, they’re giving us money to do a thing, it’s supposed to be additive. Just let us be additive.

RZ Yup.

PF But that can be really hard. That can be really hard. And so how do you overcome that?

RZ One uh key piece of advice, by the way we’re gonna give a few tips here [yeah] on how to counter this—

PF That’s why people listen to Track Changes.

RZ Yeah, you don’t wanna hear us bitch for two hours.

PF No, [chuckles] I know. They’re coming for tips!

RZ So, who’s your advocate? Somebody hired us.

PF Yes.

RZ Somebody decided that we were the right move and that person didn’t just hire us, by the way, they stuck their necks out, and our failure and success is their failure and success.

PF Well and they went and got budget. And they knew—

[9:51]

RZ And they went and got budget!

PF They knew about the challenges we’re just about to face here.

RZ Exactly! So, you could argue that it wasn’t a great move to go right to the floor. It could’ve been a better move to start with your advocate and say, “Here are the eight things I’m gonna need, go knock these down. I need ‘em.”

PF You know it’s real though. They’ll do it. They get it. They’ll send the email. It’ll come from the CEO. They’ll go talk to everybody, then you’ll go in there and they’ll say, “No problem, Mike’s gonna get you that database.” Mike won’t get you the database.

RZ Ultimately all that indirect pressure finally does [yeah]—does turn it, right? Like—

PF Yeah, but I mean that’s the thing there’s no—you think that a human being is the key that’s gonna unlock this across the organization [yeah]. You’re still gonna have to go do the leg work and get the stuff.

RZ You—you are. Alright, so, what else is gonna come at us? Alright, so, there is the—you’ve got these review meetings, right? And there’s a couple of people in the room that just keep movin’ it around [mm]. Like you can’t just—you can’t just build that. Like there’s [Paul crosstalks] an—

PF We wanna show you where we’re at. Yeah, “We’re gonna bring the wireframes in on Tuesday.”

RZ Yes.

PF Ok? And—and, “We gotta build in six months.” And now it show it to—here—here’s—

RZ Stakeholders!

PF Danger sign one is that there’s more than two people in the room, from the other side.

RZ Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

PF Yeah, sometimes that—they’ll be—I swear to God they’ll be 35 people.

RZ I’ve had like 15.

PF Yeah.

[11:12]

RZ And it’s something.

PF Yeah, I mean when they have to line—when there’s no table anymore but they have to line everybody up in rows—

RZ Yup, that’s right.

PF—and it’s tricky if you’re not building time and materials, you’re watching the whole thing fall apart.

RZ Yup. Very dangerous. Right? Cuz they’re gonna pelt you with all kinds of things, and all kinds of edge cases, and all kinds of—

PF Oh and they’re gonna take out—and this happens a lot—they’re gonna take out all the problems in the organization on the new, exciting punching bag that showed up.

RZ Oh! For sure!

PF Because it’s like, “I don’t—you know, I’ve never been able to get access to GitHub!”

RZ Honestly it’s therapeutic for a lot of people.

PF That’s right.

RZ They haven’t had the chance to complain for years.

PF Oh that’s it.

RZ And finally it’s time, right?

PF Yeah, this is impossible. Technology doesn’t work.

RZ Exactly.

PF That’s really what they wanna tell you.

RZ Exactly.

PF “Everything that you said is gonna fix it [music fading in] will never fix it cuz we’re so broken.”

RZ That’s right. That’s right [music ramps up, plays alone for six seconds, ramps down].

[12:04]

PF Rich, let’s interrupt this ad to put another ad in the middle [music fades out].

RZ Inside. Insert the ad in the ad. Paul, we’re a—a digital products studio based here in New York City. We like to go into big companies, build new things, solve big problems, ship big software. We’re an amazing team of designers, engineers, and product leads. And where are we at—what’s our address, Paul? You haven’t done that in a while.

PF You know, increasingly it doesn’t matter as much where we are [I know]. When we moved into 101 5th Avenue!

RZ Yeah, it was really—

PF I loved it because it—it—it was a brand.

RZ We’re like Bergdorf.

PF Yeah it was brand. It was just like 101 5th Ave—what a great address!

RZ Yeah, we don’t say it as much.

PF Now I don’t because Postlight’s just Postlight. And—

RZ We are here in New York City which is the greatest city in the world, so.

PF And there’s—there’s no denying that New York City is what makes us and we like to make New York City too. It’s pretty good. We have a lot of events and meetups and things like that. So you should check us out and if you wanna [music fades in] come by and visit that’s a good way to check out the firm.

RZ Or reach out: [email protected]

PF Exactly [music plays alone for six seconds, ramps down].

RZ So another key tool to arm [music fades out] yourself with is the sorta one paragraph mandate. If you don’t have that thing [oh yeah] that is the sort of static representation of what you’re about to do that you can keep calling back on, and keep going back to, and really tie to some goal, some tangible six month deliverable or whatever it may be, you will get yanked and pulled in 28 directions and it will—it will just dilute it down and all the momentum will get—will get affected.

[13:41]

PF Can I give you my somewhat cynical thesis of leadership?

RZ Uh oh.

PF As you emerge as an executive leader, you become better and better at saying the exact same thing, over and over.

RZ Oh! 100 percent.

PF And you get very conservative into what new information or ideas you allow in [yes] because it’s just danger.

RZ It’s danger.

PF Right? Cuz someone will be like, “Hey, what about purple’s fawn 4000 [13:58] ? We should get five of those and put them in the control room!” And you’re like, “What?! You just—I’m gonna have to hire people.”

RZ Right.

PF “Don’t do that to me.”

RZ Yeah, and you’re right it can feel robotic, too after a while. That same phrase after a while but that mandate, that sentence, is really going to be one of your most important defense mechanisms against all of that yanking and pulling and compromising and adding on and, “Could you sneak this one thing in for me, please? I can’t work without this one thing.”

PF Mm mm.

RZ And—

PF New feature.

RZ You’re gonna have to defend against that.

PF New feature PET technology or, you know, “Karl really needs to be involved in this part of the project, he’s [that’s right]—he’s our guy.”

RZ Alright, so you navigate through this.

PF Yup. Let’s give people an example of a mission. I think this is key, right? Like what’s a—what’s a good mission here? Let’s say I’m trying to create an ecommerce site to sell raisin bagels.

[14:48]

RZ Yeah, um let’s make the mission we have to now accept Paypal and the site’s getting redesigned and we need a better way to manage inventory of what’s available.

PF I think that’s right—

RZ There’s like a couple of requirements.

PF And I think you lead with, “Our competitors are really outshining us and they’re moving very quickly.”

RZ “They’re email marketing is kicking our asses.”

PF That’s right.

RZ So it’s a—it’s a real revenge.

PF Comma! “So we need to.” Right?

RZ “So we need to—it’s time.”

PF And what you do is when people are throwing up those walls and saying, “I don’t know,” and, you know, “I can’t get you the data.” You kind of robotically repeat that mission statement.

RZ Again and again and the timeframe is actually your alley because you’re saying, “Great ideas, really, but we’re shipping.” In March ‘19 we’re shipping. One way or the other [that’s right] we’re gonna—we’re gonna work back from what we can ship on March ‘19. That is your alley. It sounds like a—a source of pressure but it’s actually your alley.

PF Well the tricky thing is is if you truly use the technology well,  you can get a lot done in a short amount of time unless you inherit the complexity of the organization, at which point three months becomes 12 months. And that’s the delta. It’s not like three months becomes four months.

RZ Yes.

PF Three months becomes 12. So you kinda—you don’t have a chance unless you say, “I’m gonna ship quickly and then we’ll figure it out.”

[16:03]

RZ Yes. And you’re touching on what I think is the most important piece of advice I would give anyone . . . that is driving an effort like this that’s kind of disruptive and the like um is do not disappear.

PF Yeah.

RZ Do not hole up and say, “We’ll see you in five months with the thing.”

PF No.

RZ If you do that, no news is awful news. Even if you give updates—

PF It doesn’t matter.

RZ—on progress, that’s not enough. Release things that are gonna get people excited along the way because what that is it actually get—there’s—there’s a currency exchange from that great design that you finally shared to political capital [that’s right]. It actually translates into um addition—uh it becomes more defensible and it’s harder to bang away at it and—and raise uncertainties around it. It is absolutely key. If you think you can disappear and just talk to people as they complain to you about where the thing is and what’s going on, you’re in for a bad, bad story. Uh you have to start to deliver value and that could be designs; that could be an early cut of whatever you’re producing. One of the things we do at Postlight, we ship fast and we ship a lot.

PF Well this is—this is key, right? Something working inside of a browser or a prototype app or whatever creates an unbelievable amount of gravity. Like people just cannot—suddenly all the arguments go away. You know there’s the—the Mike Tyson quote which is, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the fa—in the face.”

RZ That’s a great quote.

PF Everybody has a reason why not until the software ships and then suddenly they go, “Oh. Ok.”

RZ Right. And—and that’s—that’s about the only way, especially if you’re—if you’re—where we’ve gone into organizations where they’re in a hole [yeah], they’ve actually lost a lot of good will, and it’s like, “Ok we can’t hide for another nine months. That’s not possible. What are we gonna be able to do in the near term to start to get people more comfortable?”

[18:07]

PF And God bless! This is normal. Nor—you walk up the chain with the bad news and people are like, “Well, at least I know.” Everybody knows—

RZ It’s so funny, isn’t it?

PF—software projects go bad.

RZ Yeah, exactly.

PF And everybody knows that like some of the software projects around them are having a lot of trouble and the more you try to hide it, the more freaked out they get [yeah]. If you go up and you’re like, “There are three or four things that have bit us terribly on the ass and we brought in Postlight and we’re gonna get this fixed up and here’s this guy.” And then they introduce you or they introduce me and they introduce, you know, someone from product and we go, “Here’s what we’re gonna do.” Everybody calms right down. And then the next thing you have to do is actually meet that first promise. If you don’t meet the first promise, the entire thing catches fire and it’s terrible.

RZ I think that’s exactly right. When you layout that roadmap make sure you—you come out of the hole and show everything. And do it often.

PF And that doesn’t mean—that doesn’t mean burn the world down and get it done. It means actually make a reasonable first promise. Nobody wants to hear, “I’ll get everything you ever wanted in two weeks.” They wanna hear, “I will get one good pixel on the screen and it will be green and you will—it will be real and you’ll be able to touch it and a face’ll pop up.”

RZ Yeah.

PF And if you can do that for them in those two weeks then you’ve kept your promise and then you make another promise, and then as time goes on you’re gonna have situations where you go, “We said this could be next Thurs—the two Thursdays from now but the reality is it’s just gonna take another couple of weeks. We gotta—we gotta just move a few things around.” And they’ll go, “Ok.”

RZ Yeah, exactly. Well and you’re—you’re an alley now in getting it done.

PF They know you’re workin’.

RZ Yup.

PF I mean that’s a big—it’s like contractors in your house.

RZ Yeah.

[19:39]

PF You know? You just—if you know they’re in there workin’ and they, you know, they got the one wall up by the time they say—if they say like, “[Sigh] We’re gonna need an extra week on the bathroom.” You go, “Yeah, I get it. It’s ok.”

RZ Yeah, and they’ve done good work so far.

PF Yeah, yeah.

RZ I think we’ve given some good advice. I think we should recap it cuz we were all over the map.

PF Let’s leave people with the three points.

RZ Number one: use your advocate.

PF That’s right. Talk to the people in charge and let them lead.

RZ Let them lead and let them go kind of untangle the hairy stuff.

PF Right. Be mindful that if you go talk to Sam, he might go talk to Susie and say, “Hey, big change is comin’,” and suddenly there’s a lot of drama that you’re advocate has to fight back.

RZ And anxiety. Yes.

PF Let them run the show. Number two.

RZ Establish your mandate, keep it brief, and use it—

PF Memorize it.

RZ Use it as a defense. Memorize it because you’re gonna get pelted with all kinds of asks and tweaks and needs and things we forgot to put in and edge cases. You know when I think of edge cases, I think of cutting my finger.

PF That’s right. That’s right.

RZ Use that mandate!

[20:35]

PF This is the thing: the difference is not between a three month project and a four month project, the difference is between a three month project that’s on rails and a 12 month project that tries to keep everybody happy.

RZ Exactly.

PF And number three.

RZ Ship early, ship often, show value. It is your most powerful political tool.

PF Keep your first promise.

RZ Establish that first promise, don’t wait too long, and keep it.

PF That’s right. And keep it reasonable. Don’t—don’t be a hero. Just be good.

RZ Those three tools, dude, that’s—that’s worth like 720,000 dollars.

PF It’s true.

RZ In services. So whoever’s listening to this, you’re about to get invoiced.

PF Yeah, if you can get that going, you will have a successful career in software. You should also know something about software.

RZ [Laughs] There’s that.

PF Ok.

RZ So, Paul, we’ve written a che—a cheatsheet. And we’ve told people about it before. It’s called “Upgrade”. You can find it on the website.

PF That’s right.

RZ It’s not a lot of words; it’s not dense; it’s actually, literally, a cheatsheet for human beings.

PF It’s a fun thing for us to riff off because it’s owning the human part of this is really important for a tech company because it’d be very easy for us to say [in high pitched, geeky voice], “We deliver superior platform services to seven different industry sectors.”

RZ “An Oracle Partner.”

[21:47]

PF Yeah we’re an Oracle partner or we’re Sitecore or whatever. And those are all great things and God bless. But humans make tech—technology is just a pile of increasingly terrible human decisions [laughs] and God bless it; I love it; I—I can’t get enough of it but that’s all you’re doing—

RZ It is what it is.

PF You’re wading into a huge pile of culture when you do tech and everybody like to act like they’re a scientist.

RZ Right.

PF They might be.

RZ Right.

PF But it’s—it is culture. And so that’s what we’re trying to just . . . stay connected to that in a really strong way as a firm and not, not promise some sort of pure machine learning, super duper Bitcoin solution but just say, “We’re willing to wade into the big human mess with you and we will help everybody clean it up and—” And the reality is this is—this is a world that’s growing. Even when the world’s having a hard time, tech is growing, and everybody can succeed. You can get everybody in a room and you can help them get to like a next step with this. That’s the part of love [music fades in].

RZ I mean that’s the most satisfying bit of it, right? Cuz it’s not just, “Oh we—we launched the software.” We just made a lot of people successful.

PF That’s right. There’s is a—there’s success that comes with really good software that launches that tons of people can share and that can be NGOs and that can be ecommerce and that can be giant banks.

RZ Sure.

PF So, that’s—that’s the part that we like. Anyway, download “Upgrade”. If you need us, [email protected] and uh we’re here for you. Just let us know.

RZ Have a good week [music ramps up, plays alone for five seconds, fades out to end].