We’re taking our productivity tips to the next level with the latest episode of Workpuls Productivity Talks. Bill Grundfest, the co-founder of the Comedy Cellar, has joined us to discuss behavioral tips for managers who want to increase productivity at work!
Workpuls: Hi everyone, and welcome to another episode of Workpuls Productivity Talks! My name is Bojana, I'll be your host. And today I’m here with Bill Grundfest who is the founder of the iconic New York City Comedy Cellar, as well as a Golden Globe…. I messed that one up.
Bill Grundfest: Yeah, mess up the important stuff. Let me try it for you, the Golden Globe winning writer/producer of many television projects over the last many decades. Which involved using productivity and innovation tips in leading rather unproductive groups of humans, who are extremely innovative but not that productive, unless, you can coral and channel their inner angels.
Workpuls: Okay. Let’s start off with the basics – how would you define productivity? What would you say that productivity actually is?
Bill Grundfest: Well, productivity I think is rather objectively described as the amount that you produce in relationship to the amount of time in which it's produced; so time is really a crucial denominator in this. And in terms of what you produce? Well that’s an interesting question and I think a lot of people, maybe that’s the first step, is to be clear about what your goal is. To be clear about what it is you want to produce and have a clear vision in your mind as the leader of other human beings. If you can imagine what your preferred outcome is, you'll increase the likelihood of getting there.
Workpuls: Okay, and do you think that it can be measured? Now, obviously depends on what exactly is that you are doing but generally speaking – can productivity be measured and how it can be measured?
Bill Grundfest: Well, in my world of comedy and television comedy it can be measured. And I support the idea of measuring it and giving your team an objective metric so that they know: Are we getting closer? Are we getting further? Are we going in the right direction? So for instance when you are running a television series, there is a certain number of scripts that need to be written. A certain number of episodes that need to be produced based on those scripts. So if you don’t have a script that’s ready by the time the actors are on the stage and the cameras have been rented and everything is ticking, tick, tick and it’s expensive then you are not being as productive as you could be. In television series you can measure it in terms of number of scripts that you have written, number of episodes you have produced to the extent that you can do that. That’s hardly recommended. In the comedy club business you've shows to put on. Let’s say each comic in a show, Comedy Cellar has a showcase format which means everybody does about the same amount of time. No headliner that does an hour preceded by a middle act who does 20 minutes and the MC that does 10, everybody does, let’s say 15 minutes. So whether you are Dave Chappelle or you are someone we've never heard of, everybody is supposed to do, let’s say 15 minutes of the show, so you can measure productivity that way also. You can also measure productivity… In comedy it’s extremely objective. People say comedy is subjective in the eye of the beholder – no. Humor, humor is subjective. Comedy can actually be measured in decibels, if the audience is laughing you can measure the decibels, the volume of those laughs. You can measure the time in which that laugh occurs. And you do, you don’t need to do it with a machine. When you are in the comedy business you know, “Oh, that was a big laugh. That was a small laugh. That was a pity laugh. That was a laugh that was undeserved, the material didn’t deserve it but he sold it really well,” and you learn to listen through all of that for your productivity metrics. So if there is a comic for instance who did great but it’s the wrong kind of material for the audience that you are curating... Because you are curating two things at the same time – you are curating a product and you are curating your customers. Then that’s a comic that you don’t book again because they might be great with different context, but not in terms of your room. So to the extent that you can make productivity clear, even in something as allegedly mushy and subjective as comedy, even that can be made really quite specific.
Workpuls: Okay. It’s interesting to hear your point of view because I haven’t had a chance, we haven’t had a chance to talk with people from your industry, from the entertainment industry. It’s usually people from marketing backgrounds and things like that, so it’s really interesting to hear how the other people are doing it, how other industries are doing it and are trying.
Bill Grundfest: People in show business are the other people? There’s the normal people. And then there’s the other people, the crazy people that we leave in the back, in the backyard because there is a virus and let’s leave him out in the backyard with the livestock. I am not saying that’s what’s happening to me, I am not saying that. Not saying that I have got two teenagers at home and one has commandeered my office for the online schooling, and the other is in the living with his online schooling, and my wife is in the bedroom suite. And the garage is full of laundry and I am out here with the chicken, because I have seven animals, and so why not put dad for the big productivity call. Put him out the back with the chickens. Why don’t you, seems right? I am sorry you are saying…
Workpuls: I was saying it’s just interesting to hear… I didn’t mean other people like “these other people”... I meant people from different industries, from all over the place. Everybody has something different but at the same time there are a lot of commonalities, they are just applied differently throughout the industries. But you initially shared with me some really cool tips that are not necessarily related to the way we work but the way we behave towards other people that are working with us, so can we discuss that a bit?
Bill Grundfest: No. No, I mean yes, yes, absolutely of course, that’s why we are here, right? By the way these tips that you have framed as not necessarily being productivity tips, I with all deference, I say, these are the heart of productivity. If you do these things, I'll give you specific bullet points, you have my specific bullet points. If you simply do these things, a lot of other problems just will never happen, you won’t have to solve things because they won’t occur. So, they are really at the heart of productivity issues, because when you are dealing with productivity you are dealing with human beings. And human beings, while not easy, are really simply; they are not complex. So go ahead shoot, ask your questions and I will show you how these allegedly mushy none-productivity issues are actually at the heart and soul of it, no matter what you said.
Workpuls: Yeah, I didn’t mean it that way. I meant it more like technical productivity tips, I guess like time management tips and things like that. You shared bullet points with me, the first one on your list is kindness, actually radical kindness.
Bill Grundfest: Radical kindness. Radical kindness, yes. I fear that most organizations whether it’s a macro level large company or a small business such as the Comedy Cellar would be considered a small business or down to the level of family, do not run on the engine of kindness. They run on other systems, sometimes the system is fear. People are afraid of losing their jobs. Not the most productive way to get productivity and innovation from a human being. Fear will make them show up on time. It will make them clock-in in and out on time. It will not capture their hearts and minds, they won’t be thinking about the solution that you need for your business while they’re in the shower, which by the way I offer this productivity tip, I suggest people go take a shower because that’s where many many good ideas are found. I don’t know why, they are always in there. Whether it’s a business, whether it’s a school, whether it’s a family, whether it’s a large or small business, driving by radical kindness will get you better results than an attitude of, “Well, I am paying them. They are supposed to.” If your reaction to the idea, and I will get into what the application of radical kindness looks like, because there are a lot of thought leaders (and I am sure my wife will be very amuse to hear me say, the words 'thought leaders' in regards to any thing approaching me, because I am out here with a chicken.) Thought leadership is one thing, action leadership is a different thing. So I am going to be very specific about what I have done and what you might be able to take from that. So for instance in the comedy business, in the stand up comedy business, this is the most cut throat competitive business going. And when I started the Comedy Cellar, it was built on a DNA of radical kindness. The exact opposite of what every other comedy club in the city, in the world, was working on at that time. I started life as a stand up comic in my early 20’s and the experience there was one of utter disrespect and utter lack of kindness. You go to a comedy club and they would treat you as if they are doing you a favor by giving you stage time, which you need in order to develop as a comic and then you would be able to order on the menu, you get one drink ticket and you be able to order on the menu something on the lower left hand 1/64th of the menu there. And show up at midnight and then try to get on by 2:00 o'clock in the morning. That was a New York comedian's life. When I started the Comedy Cellar I took the exact opposite approach. I said, “Look, we can’t pay you what you're worth, but we can pay you more than the uptown clubs are paying you. And when you come whether you are working or you are not, come, drink what you want, eat what you want, hang out.” And right there just that blew people’s mind. Now, even if I was not a devotee of radical kindness, even though I was going to be cynical. What did that do to the quality of my product? It grows instantly. Now, the best comics in town wanted to be in that place where, “Hey, you can drink, and eat and everything you want, for free.” And then we created a little space in the back of the upstairs restaurant called the Comedian’s Table, and I will talk about how we created that and why. But it became a club house, so we were giving them a social circle. We were asking ourselves, “What does our team need?” And these people in this case we’re solo practitioners, lone wolves, spend all day by themselves, work by themselves; it’s a very solo kind of life. And we created a place where family, a de facto family could occur. I told them, “Look, you don’t have to do your A material every time because how are you going to grow if all you do is your absolute best 20 minutes?” So, we believe in you. It’s okay to fail, a little, not all the time every time, we don’t believe in you that much because we have a business to run. The people have come to see a show, they are expecting a certain quality. But they haven’t come to see a big concert starring a big star, granted we have big stars, but they didn’t come to see them, they came to see the brand, the Comedy Cellar brand, and who we’ve curated for that show. So we make it safe for people to try to fail. It's no criticism. It's a no criticism zone. And if you do just those things that I've just now said, stop criticizing, don't run on fear. Ask yourself, what do the humans in your team want? And typically it boils down to things like being heard, respect, acknowledgement. That stuff will retain your good employees longer than a paycheck. And that's not my opinion, all the data shows that the reason people stay or leave has a lot to do with their relationship with who they report to. Their relationship with their colleagues. So if your attitude in productivity is, “Well, I am paying them so they better.” Well, good luck competing because who your competition is, might have seen this Zoom call and said, “You know, we're going to try that.” And their people are going to stay longer, you're not going to have to recruit new ones. You're not going to have to retrain people. You're going to get people who want to succeed, who want to be productive, who want to be innovative, and they're going to be thinking about it when they're in the shower, when they're going to sleep. And when they dream, they're going to wake up with the solution to the problem that you want them to have. But you can't demand it, you have to allow it.
Workpuls: Yeah, that's true. Based on my personal experience, I would definitely agree with that. Even just a little bit of kindness goes a very long way, a very long way, even in, it’s not just like that in the entertainment industry. It's like that everywhere, in our everyday lives, and everyday relationships that we have with people around us.
Bill Grundfest: And yet, how many of us go, not even out of our way – but how many of us have the consciousness that when somebody does something, you not only say thank you with those two words, but maybe a sentence or a paragraph on what it is you notice about what they did, and what it is you appreciate about what they did? And in terms of the kind of positivity, positive reinforcement versus negative reinforcement of fear and obligation, “I'm paying you and you'll lose your job if you don't.” The way you shape behavior... I was a psychology major so I am an expert at these things. The way you shape behavior of humans, or of rats or pigeons. It doesn't matter. The way you shape behavior for long term impact, not for short term not for getting to jump through a hoop now. But for long term impact, the way you shape behavior, the way you get productivity and innovation is to praise and positively reinforce those aspects of what the person has done that you want more of. Praise what you want more of and then ignore, give no energy on the stuff that you have a tremendous urge to criticize. It's not a perfect system, you're not going to be able to do it 100% of the time, but lean towards that. And you'll shape a person's behavior so that the stuff that you want, the behavior you want them to exhibit, that you want, will occur more of the time and the negative stuff will occur less of the time, and eventually the good will crowd out the bad.
Workpuls: Okay, sounds good, actually. You mentioned a couple of things that... I'm just looking at the bullet point list. So yeah, you mentioned eliminating criticism. You mentioned acknowledging explicitly, thanking people for their work. Also making it safe to fail or redefining failure. What do you mean exactly by redefining failure?
Bill Grundfest: My father used to say, before he died, because after he died...
Workpuls: Didn’t talk much.
Bill Grundfest: Didn’t talk much, had nothing to say. My father used to say that the difference between a great idea and a stupid idea is often one millimeter. And that has stayed with me for a long time because many of my ideas, my ideas and the ideas that I am around, many of them, start out as demonstrably stupid. I mean ridiculous. Because I'm in a business where people stare at a blank screen and out of nothing create something. I don't know who does. The actors don't do that. The actors interpret what you've written. The directors interpret what you've written, they don't start from zero. You've given them a whole blueprint, of course, and you have to argue with them about why the way you want them to do it is different, but then sometimes if you just shut up and let them do what they do, it comes out even better than what you wrote. And then the trick is just shut up and take credit, even though you don't deserve credit. Which by the way, credit is another thing that my dad used to say. He used to say, “It's amazing what a team can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit.” So to the extent that you can shift credit to others, they know, they know what you're doing. And you will get their hearts and minds even more in support of you. The bird needs the wind beneath the wings, and that's your team.
So, now I've gone off the rails. The question was…
Workpuls: How would you define redefining failure?
Bill Grundfest: Yeah, failure.
Workpuls: What exactly do you think?
Bill Grundfest: You can be objective and say, “Well, we needed a script by Monday morning’s table read. If we don't have that, we have failed.” So yeah, and I would agree with that. There's no excuse for that. But on the way there, when you're in the creative meetings, if you can redefine failure, it has to do with lack of criticism. So if you welcome all ideas, and if you don't swat down ideas, but you look for, “Oh, what is good about that idea,” and focus on that. And sometimes what I used to do is, is play dumbest idea in the room and I would go first, and I, as leader of the team would pitch an idea that was the dumbest idea, so that nobody else would have to feel bad that their idea was going to be the worst idea of the meeting. I already put a flag in that, I got the dumbest idea, “Okay, who wants to go next?”
So I think that failure is felt by humans in terms of criticism. As long as you don't run on critique and criticism and diminishing people, then it's going to be very hard for failure to be felt. And success will be more likely, not guaranteed but more likely. So I think that the question of redefining failing comes down to eliminating criticism to the extent possible.
Workpuls: It seems that somehow we, as humans, are always more hit with the criticism than we feel good when somebody gives us some praise. We're going to remember that criticism more and we're going to feel like a failure longer than we did feel good when that person told us that we did a good job. It's just something that hits us harder, I guess.
Bill Grundfest: Yeah, and there's a reason for that. There's a psychological reason and there's an evolutionary reason if you'd like, I'll be happy to, to share my views on that as well.
Workpuls: Yeah, please do.
Bill Grundfest: Okay. I'm married 21 years so I always ask permission to express an opinion. The evolutionary reason is that back in caveman days being right was a question of surviving. Being right about where's that noise coming from? Is it a bear? Or is it a rabbit? So being bright, was a matter of survival and I think that's hotwired into us evolutionarily. So even though the stakes now in being right are not survival, it’s still, it amplifies that flight or fight response. It amplifies that survival mechanism so that we internally overreact, “Oh, that feels terrible!” Compared to the rather small stakes that are involved. So there's the evolutionary reason, there's also a psychic reason, which is, a lot of people have a little voice in their head that says, “You are not enough.” They've been told this since they were kids, teachers, parents, media, just surrounds everybody with the idea, “You are not enough.” So whenever somebody is told, rather explicitly, you are not enough, you're not good enough. It really pounds that button, it really presses that button and you shut that person down for a long time. And thirdly, behaviorally psychologically, they've shown that if you say one negative thing to a person, you have to say 20, 20 positive things to undo the impact of that one negative statement. So if you want to be productive, be as productive as a leader as possible. And you don't want to have to make 20 statements to somebody, just avoid making the one negative statement you'll save yourself 20 statements. So that's three reasons why. Stop with your criticism, for God sake.
Workpuls: It’s a good explanation. I'm just checking to see what else we have in this: Eliminated criticism, watching and acknowledging, and occasionally showing interest in people as human beings, not just employees.
Bill Grundfest: Yeah, that's a good one too. It helps if you actually mean it. It helps because people can kind of tell the authenticity of the interest. But even if you don't actually care about these people that are on your team and who are making your life successful or not successful, even if you don't care, faking it shows at least you're putting in the effort, and at least that will be appreciated. So if you ask people, “Hey, you know, how was that ballgame? Or what did you do? or how are the kids? or what's going on with your dog or whatever?”
A) it will make them feel human, which is… See, All the productivity tips and the time management skills, only work if people want them to work. They have to want to employ these various techniques and time management tips. If they don't actually want it to work, it's not going to work. It'll work for a week. It's like a diet. Yeah, three days and then you're back to ice-cream. So, asking people, being interested in your team, A) will increase their productivity. B) it'll give you an insight into how to shape the way you approach them. “Oh, this person is motivated by X, Y or Z. This person is next negatively affected by X, Y and Z.” So the next time you have an interaction with them, you can shape it for that audience. And I say that audience because again, in show business, you're all about the audience. Some people are such great artists, that they don't have to care about the audience. They do their art, and the audience and it's so great, it happens to be universally wonderful. For those of us mortals, who are not absolute geniuses, I really recommend being audience centric. And that means putting your customer first what their needs are, asking yourself, “What would make this experience the absolute best?” And then delivering that value. And sometimes your audience is a person that you're meeting with, a superior, a colleague, somebody who reports to you. Now, they’re your audience. So before you go into that meeting, into that conversation, ask yourself, “What’s my goal? What do I want? How do I define success? Is it to get them to agree to what I want them to do? Is it to get them to come up with a solution on their own? What's the goal?”
And then understanding what your audience, that person, wants, and see if you can frame your conversation so that it's designed to give them what they want. So if they want, if people want a lot of acknowledgement, which many people do, make sure that you check in with them in the conversation. “Okay, Dave, so what you're saying is, I hear you correctly, you're saying you'd like us to solve X, Y and Z? Is that right?”
“Yeah, that's right.”
“Okay.” So now the person knows they've been heard and at least there's commonality there. Simply being heard is tremendously productive.
Workpuls: Interesting, it kind of rolls back to being kind.
Bill Grundfest: It all rolls back to being kind. All of this, if all I could say to people was radical kindness, and then they would know how that radiates out. Because people look at business leaders, family leaders, government leaders. They look at a wheel, and there's a hub of the wheel and there are all these spokes that come out of the hub of the wheel, and they treat the spokes as discrete issues, discrete problems, discrete silos. Don’t get me started about silos. There's no silos people, there's no silos. The boat floats or the boat sinks, there's no silos. Okay, certain companies that I'm not going to mention, one particular, Cupertino perhaps does silos. So if you're as good as Apple, go ahead. It's kind of like, “Well, you know, John Stewart and Dave Chappelle function in a certain way, they don't necessarily think about the audience. They're not necessarily audience centric.”
Yeah, sure. If you're Jon Stewart and Dave Chappelle, go ahead and do whatever you want. But if you're slightly short of immortal, try this. No silos. Everybody can talk to everybody. The spokes that come out of the hub of the wheel are often treated as discrete problems but they're not. They're all emanations of the hub. So, it all boils down to, it doesn't just roll back to. It all emanates from the idea of radical kindness. And if you change what's going on the hub, then all the spokes will appear differently.
Workpuls: Perfect. That's a perfect analogy.
Bill Grundfest: I am getting a little misty, now. I'm getting a little teary. I'm getting a little clumped.
Workpuls: I love that. Do you have any other tips to share besides these that we already talked about?
Bill Grundfest: Overpay your people, overpay them. It is the cheapest ROI you will ever get. You don't have to overpay them by… Listen when I started the Comedy Cellar on the weekends. The uptown club were paying comics and by comics, this is those, the pre-star. This is the early 1980s, 1981, 82, 83. Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Jon Stewart, and Ray Romano. Those guys were getting 25 bucks a set for 20 minutes set at the Uptown clubs. I gave them 35. And I said to them, “Look, you guys are a million dollar show. I can't afford to pay you what you're actually worth to do 20 minutes, but I can pay you more than the other guys paid you.”
What does that do? It's more than I absolutely had to pay. But what did it do? It immediately showed respect, acknowledgement, affection because I had great affection for these guys and still do. It's a tremendous creative, smart, verbal group of human beings who are so damaged, Oh my God. And I come from them and I love them all and that shows in the DNA of the Comedy Cellar which is now 39 years old and has four locations. We started in one basement. So the way you do that is overpay people. They will come to you. They will stay with you for years. Our relationships with these very talented people who are stars and who could go anywhere. Our relationships are decades old, because right from the beginning we supported them in every possible way that we could because we wanted to. It turns out, that's good business too. So overpaying your people, it will avoid churn and how much that costs to lose somebody who knows what they're doing, then have to find somebody. And the amount of time before you find somebody, the lost productivity in that amount of time. The lost productivity before you get that person trained and up to the same level, if that's possible, of the great person that you lost. How much productivity are you losing there? I think you're losing a lot more than overpaying your team, it boils down to. So, yeah, that would be my last thing. Radical kindness demands overpaying people, not only because you're some good human beings, it's the cheapest ROI out there.
Workpuls: Okay, sounds like a good set of tips. I’d like to thank you really for taking the time from your backyard to talk to me today. It was lovely meeting you and lovely talking to you. And I hope all the viewers enjoy it. Thank you so much for watching.
Workpuls Productivity Talks is a podcast about productivity brought to you by everyone’s favorite time tracker software - Workpuls. With every interview we’re bringing you new tips from people who are experts on productivity, but also from managers and founders who have found a way to really master productivity in their teams.