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Deadlines might be the best productivity tool invented to date. But what are other ways to motivate your team? This week Paul and Rich grapple with how to operationalize work processes without exerting too much power. They also give cheeky tips for employees to navigate deadlines with their bosses.


Paul Ford To bring that back as a metaphor, don’t let the spatula break off in the rice krispie treats.

Rich Ziade Oh my god. [music ramps up, plays alone, fades out]

PF Richard. 

RZ Hey Paul!

PF How you doing?

RZ I’m doing well. How are you doing?

PF Just fine. Enjoying my role as co-founder. Working on a memo.

RZ Ohhhh!

PF Helpin’ drive opportunity into Postlight. That’s how I organize my thoughts. You know, it’s funny. People talk to me about note taking systems, working backwards from the memo, like executive summary, what is the opportunity? What are we going to do? It sort of formalizes it. And then you know, it’s funny as you hear—this not what we’re talking about on the podcast today—but you hear…

RZ Well, it can be.

PF Someone will mention something and then the next time you read the paper, not that we read the paper anymore, next time you check your RSSL newsfeed at you see that thing that you just heard about everywhere.

RZ Isn’t that the weirdest thing?

PF Because you didn’t have the pattern in mind, it was there. 

RZ It was always there. 

PF But now you can see it.

RZ Right. I’m surrounded by Toyota camrys. But if I bought one for myself, I’ll see them everywhere. 

PF Exactly. Exactly. Nissan Rogue for us. And so like—

RZ Oh, a little name dropping, but go ahead. 

PF It’s not really much of a brag. [Rich laughs] The 2014 Nissan Rogue that we drive for about two hours a year? No. So it’s for me, the system that works is you start to document and you keep, you keep the focus and the heat on the one document. And then you just keep piling everything you see into it. Rather than trying to build towards it. You work backwards from the thing needing to be done.

RZ At this altitude. 

PF Uh huh. 

RZ Or someone hasn’t told you ‘listen, I need these three dozen widgets packed and ready to ship.’

PF Yeah, yeah, yeah.

RZ Just so clarifying. Wonderfully clarify.

PF You know, to the hell with it, we had this whole other subject about leadership and enterprises. Let’s talk about this instead.

RZ Let’s talk about this. That’s what makes this podcast exceptional.

PF It’s exceptionally spontaneous.

RZ There is something satisfying, motivating, it just makes you feel good, to set up a Wi Fi home mesh network.

PF Oh, does it. You know, I need to buy one more satellite to get this kind of a dead spot upstairs. 

RZ You always do.

PF Outside is good. 

RZ Yeah. Okay. Good corner in your house. Now you’re bragging again.

PF No, I took the old router. And the old Wi Fi router and I’m like, let’s just drop this in here. And I tried to like get it all synched up and have them link up. No dice.

RZ Yeah. What I’m getting at here. And it could be anything is there is this world that is disassembled in front of you. And you’re going to put it together. And once you do, once you plug that last, those last two pieces in, it lights up. And there’s this feeling of satisfaction, that is very meaningful. And that could be a project by the way, it could be a piece of code that you swear you’re going to refactor right finally, this time, you’re going to redo it. It’s gonna take a day.

PF Well, you’re one project away from happiness always.

RZ I mean, I, you know, recently I did a side project because I wanted to kind of get back into things a little bit. And it was deeply satisfying. The frustration, there was a direct correlation, frustration, dissatisfaction as I was, like, kind of figuring things out, solving them. 

PF Nobody else was involved.

RZ Well, there’s that. That’s real. 

PF That’s right. It’s your little pocket world.

RZ That’s right. As you go up, and as you find yourself trying to essentially transfer that kind of intent and motivation to other people. There are a couple ways to do it.

PF It’s hard to do it. Alright. So let’s let’s actually, we’ve been talking in a very abstract way, let’s try to focus this. Because I’m talking about like, getting my memo done, you’re talking about getting your project done, or your side project, we’re inside of the organization, the things that you do. So for me, here’s what I know. Here’s what I’m doing right now. I have a memo, it’s opened in a text editor. I’m reading and researching, talking to people listening to people, doing market analysis going on crunchbase and making lists of companies, all these things. Now what I know is that along the way, probably three or four times I’m going to present where I’m at to you and you’re going to beat me too hard with a stick that I cry in the corner. And we need that, like that has to happen.

RZ We want that.

PF You know, but I’ve learned I’ve learned to appreciate it in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome way. And like, then comes the great simplification in which I boil this down. Then I present outward. I tell people outside of the company inside of the company. Here’s what I’m thinking. I’m talking about doing more work related to climate change inside of Postlight. Like there’s no, it’s not big secret, just it’s a lot of work to figure out where we live.

RZ It’s worth saying out loud that this is reciprocal. I do the same thing with you. 

PF Oh god, yeah. Hey, we just went out to lunch and I started to poke and poke, I will poke. Yeah, I’m a gentler poker than you. But I will, I will eventually form a series of thoughts in very, very intense and unmovable judgments about your decision making. That’s our friendship. [Paul laughs]

RZ That is our friendship. And I value it. 

PF Me too, me too, my god.

RZ I think what is so valuable about this process is that once the thing is in a good place, it provides, hopefully, a true instruction manual that once you go through that instruction manual, the toy will light up.

PF This is where this was the big lesson for me, in my last, let’s say, five or six years, is that I always assumed and this is, as a writer and a journalist, I would write things out in the world, and people would respond to them. And tell me that was interesting. And I learned these three things. And I assumed that that was in some ways enough, that you could just kind of like organize your thoughts, share them with people, and people would internalize your thinking, yeah. And then they would act based on that. And it was actually, you know, in a funny way writer to entrepreneur, that was a devastating thing to learn, because he thought, and it wasn’t devastating disappointment, it was that I’d kind of fooled myself.

RZ Into?

PF Believing that just saying it was enough, that you didn’t have to operationalize it.

RZ It’s never enough. 

PF It’s never enough, you have to get done. And that’s why Amazon aside, everybody sits down and reads their two page memos. That is why decks work, right? Because you go in and you say, I know, this is reductive. I know it is too simple. You’re gonna give a presentation on Monday to our senior leadership. I’ve seen it, it has Legos in it.

RZ Yes.

PF  And because it’s actually it’s you saying like, this is how simple we’re going to be for this part of the business. It’s about finances, and we’re just we’re gonna use this, we’re gonna we’re gonna communicate financial data inside of this work at the level of Duplo blocks.

RZ That is the, that is the motivator. 

PF And we’re very clear about it. It’s a way to communicate, you’re not being patronizing, you’re actually saying like, this is as simple as it needs to be for us all to come into agreement and talk about various aspects of this company.

RZ Yes, I want to take it even further and dive into that deck for a second. Very often, very often, the deck is saying, here’s what I’m observing in the world. Right? In the consulting world, it’s the findings, right? It’s the observations.

PF One chart, and the chart can either be a chart where the line goes around, or could maybe be the four quadrant.

RZ Whatever. You know, what, however way you want to put those boxes on top of each other, knock yourself out. But it is essentially—

PF You can’t be a consultant with one quadrant, Rich. You need four quadrants.

RZ That’s fair. That’s fair. I think about the Mayo Clinic website. There’s that first, the first part of any condition has the symptoms.

PF Mild itchiness.

RZ Malaise is another favorite of mine.

PF Malaise. Ennui.  

RZ Yeah. What you’re doing there is you’re saying, okay, do you have these factors before you move forward? 

PF That’s right. 

RZ Okay. And you may or may not. Medicines, a very big sprawling world. Let’s not get into that. But what it’s doing first is saying, look, before you start taking meds and doing things to yourself, let’s make sure you are in this current state.

PF Do you have this? Let’s identify the symptoms.

RZ Identify the symptoms, to then draw a clear, bright line to the cause. 

PF But sort of, because 90% of the time they’ll be like, oh, tongue hurts? You need to see a doctor. [Rich laughs]

RZ Well, a lot of times it draws lines to 10 different possible causes, right? And it gets grin. When you go keep going down the list of causes. 

PF Mayo Clinic is good though. We actually have rules in the house that you’re not allowed to look at any medical website, except the Mayo Clinic website.

RZ It really is.

PF Because WebMD is like, oof, boy, you sprained your nose? Well, that’s cancer.

RZ Yeah, WebMD is a crime. Let’s just put it out there.

PF It’s not good for society. 

RZ It’s not good for society. The Mayo Clinic, I think it’s kind of gotten the status of like Wikipedia, almost as public service.

PF If just feels like doctors were involved. Yeah.

RZ But then, let’s go back to the deck, we’ve pinpointed the symptoms. And we’ve drawn a fairly clear line to the cause. In fact, we ran a couple of tests. We know the cause. And now we have to move on to treatment. Right. Treatment, or in the business world, or in the agency world or in any business, really, the mandate or, you know, set of actions are a tricky thing today. And here’s why I say that if the boxes are laid out everywhere in the warehouse, and the foreman comes in and says, I need these stacked in order from largest to smallest by five o’clock today. When they stroll by at around 3—

PF They want to see progress on those boxes.

RZ Well, five o’clock is a gift. That person who’s going to put those boxes on top of each other. You’ve given them two gifts. One five o’clock, is a gift. Okay, other is he didn’t say, create some art out of these boxes. He said pile them up. That’s a clear goal. And there’s some constraints that have been put in place, right?

PF We’re stacking boxes, I want to we have to make some software, set up a new part of the company, organize a new discipline, you can’t give me a deadline. [Paul laughs]

RZ This is something that hardens you inside of the agency world, because then deadlines are our defense mechanism, right? They’re actually really necessary so that everybody’s on the same page. Because when there’s ambiguity, it’s our fault. The agency’s fault.

PF It is true, we are always to blame.

RZ So the doctor could tell you, you know what, Rich, maybe you should eat so many cupcakes.

PF Yeah. You go to tell doctor. [Rich laughs]

RZ Or he could tell you, I’m gonna put you on a nutrition plan. And we’re gonna check every four weeks, and we’re gonna make sure you do this. And you got to get this much exercise. 

PF And there’s no doctor doing that anymore. That’s not. Yeah. You know, I love those like new medical centers, but no doctor, they’re just literally like, you gotta stop with the frickin cupcakes, man.

RZ Yeah, sometimes, it’s just that.

PF Unless you’re like, 15. But now they’re just like, come on. Let me give you a pamphlet. [Rich laughs] So one of the things we do as leaders, and one of the things we actually have often trained other leaders to do, is to put those tangible instructions forward. And work culture has changed a lot over the years.

PF Telling people to do things is no longer appropriate. 

RZ I don’t want to go that far.

PF No, no, I’m kidding.

RZI see what you’re saying. But look, we are actually incredibly collaborative at Postlight.

PF I can simplify this for you. When I started having more and more of a leadership position, I assumed that I would be able to delegate, say what needs to happen and that people would then execute on that and report back. And that is not actually how anything gets done. 

RZ That’s right.

PF You create a space and you create a set of goals. And people align with those goals, and they move forward. Now you can say, look, I need this by Thursday, and it has to be two pages long. And somebody will write it up for you like that’s, that’s not what I’m talking about. 

RZ You’re a write. Have you ever been—has anybody ever put artificial deadlines on you?

PF That’s the only way.

RZ There are no actual deadline? [Rich laughs] They’re all artificial. 

PF Oh, yeah, dude, no editor gives a real deadline to a writer. No but here’s the thing. This is what’s funny, because I am now—writers are all procrastinators. There are a few who aren’t. But literally, it’s the stereotype of the writer. And it’s true. And so there’s a whole lot of structures around this, what you see. And I see this, especially with people who are a little bit younger, they look for the tools and solutions to get rid of distractions in order to actually get their writing done. Like they’re going to focus this time. They’re going to use Notion.

RZ It’s like that whole category of apps that like—

PF Just one cursor?

RZ That screen, it kind of turns white. And there’s a sort of a there’s like a flutter of snow in the background. And there’s only a cursor, and it’s auto saving. So you’d have to do that part of it. 

PF And then what you do is you spend all the time configuring the environment. [Rich laughs]

RZ It’s so true!

PF Once I get my Zen Garden just right, I’m gonna really enjoy being out there. We just love that. That’s who we are, right? So like, the only technology because I’ve been in these conversations, literally my entire career, like, you know, productivity tools, and how to get things done, and so forth. And I’ve never, I’ve always been a procrastinator. That’s just, I’m a I’m an archetypal writer in a lot of ways, like any editor who works with me and just kind of laughs because it’s all very familiar, right? Yeah. But I’m also really collaborative. I do get my stuff in. And I’m a very fast re-writer. So it’s usually that like, they know I’m going to be a little late to turn it in. But then I’ll turn it around really quickly. So as I build relationships with editors, that’s what they know. Anyway, backing that out. All I’m saying is that like over and over my life, people have said, you know, what’s the right environment for writing, especially because I published a national magazines and something like that. I’m like, the absolute best tool that you can get in order to really meet all your deadlines. The best outlining and productivity system is deadlines. Like, that’s all. And that is the least popular thing I have ever said in my life. No one wants to hear that.

RZ It aligns you. It clarifies and aligns you.

PF It’s the only thing that gets writers to get stuff done.

RZ Look, I know enough about tech to scope tech. I know enough about design and design is trickier to scope, actually, because you want to go round and round a few more times to get it perfect, right? I’ve done it. 

PF You know, it’s not just you know, it’s not just the deadline. It’s not just the artificial date. It’s actually providing insight and clarity into what doesn’t work if it doesn’t happen, right. So it’s like, you have to give somebody a little bit of insight into the workflow. And here’s what happened. Let’s say I’m really late. Like sometimes we had a really busy week at Postlight and I’m filing my Wired column. And it’s Wednesday instead of Tuesday, the editor will say these words, “Paul, we have to close that, the issue is going to close.” And what that means is the issue has to get done. It’s not just that, if I’m I’m adding friction to the system, and that feels really bad, because what has to happen—

RZ They’re telling you—

PF Whole thing has to get together, become a PDF and go to the publisher. If it doesn’t, I know for a fact I won’t have this position, you pay 1000s of dollars in penalties. 

RZ At the printer.

PF Yeah, because they’re like, they got to mail it out. They have to move faster. So they’ve created incentive system. 

RZ Interesting. So I don’t use this tactic.

PF Well, because digital stuff, this is a monthly magazine is a fascinating study. But listen, digital stuff doesn’t have that forcing function, the monthly magazine physically has to go into people’s mailbox.

RZ Right, physics is involved.

PF There’s a penalty system that starts from that moment, and backs all the way down to how we’re planning the issue months ahead.

RZ Yes. But you’re highlighting something here that I am not going to tell the person on a project that the revenue implications of us being late for anything.

PF Okay.

RZ I’m not going to do that.