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Work Minus Intuition with Max Yoder
Leadership | 18 Sep 2018
Welcome back to WorkMinus, where we talk about what we need to drop from how we work and quick pivots you can make today to get closer to the future of work. Today our guest is Max Yoder, he’s the Co-Founder and CEO at Lessonly, and this episode is WorkMinus Intuition.Hi Max, how are you today?
I’m doing great, thanks for having me Neil.
Excellent, we’re so happy to have you on. Max, tell us a little bit about who you are briefly, and what Lessonly is.
Sure. My name is Max Yoder. I hail from Goshen, Indiana – which is about three hours north of Indianapolis, but I’ve lived in Indy for nearly a decade. I was brought here by an internship. I knew nobody in the city. And I just love it to death now. About six years ago – just over six years ago – after trying to build another company called Quipple, for about two years.
So let me backup. Eight years ago I start trying to build my first business. Didn’t work out very well. Two years after a bad start, I started Lessonly and this one had worked a lot better. We make training software at Lessonly, and we sell it to sales teams and customer service teams predominantly. The whole idea is: don’t make people guess what good work looks like, show them what it looks like. And our training software being purpose-built for sales and customer service teams helps us. I teach people what good works looks looks like, and then help them practice that good work. So if I really need to be better at stating a value proposition for a new feature, I should tell you how to do it and then I should let you practice doing it. And I can give you feedback on how you’re doing. Because I think we have a lot of expectations of people and we don’t meet those expectations by being clear with what we expect. We just harbor those expectations and never say them out loud. Training is all about getting those expectations out in the air so people can align to them and do better work.
Excellent. I hope everyone goes and checks out Lessonly and sees what it looks like for real. What I want to talk about today is this topic of intuition. Before we got on the show we were talking about some things you said, that intuition is a great way to make a mess at work. Seems like it’s a counterintuitive to the messages we usually hear, especially coming from the start-up world. So I want you to dive into that little bit more – what do you mean by that?
I’d love to. I’d love to turn that question around. When you say something like, intuition – we hear a lot about that a lot in the start-up world – what do you hear about intuition in the start-up world?
I hear: intuition – go with your guts, make big choices, just kind of off the seat of your pants because it’s going to work out in the end if you’re passionate enough about it – something like that.
I love that. I love that. And I think that is absolutely right. And there’s a lot of that that makes a ton of sense. I like to think of intuition, and where it makes a mess of things, it’s really in the interpersonal relationships that we have. That’s where I see it causing us that the most consternation. And it’s unnecessary consternation. If I want to predict where the labor market is going, because it’s really important for Lessonly to have a strong labor market, just like it is for any business to work within a strong labor market. I have to use a lot of intuition in those situations because I can’t go speak to somebody who is ‘the labor market’ and ask them questions to learn more. I can go get some data, but ultimately macro-economic things are always guessed at. You can’t just grasp them. You have to hope. You have to do your research and you have to have a strategy that ideally pans out.
But when it comes to interpersonal relationships, if I don’t quite understand where somebody’s coming from, or where they’re going, or what they need, that’s a conversation away. That’s a question away. And I find that even though it is a question away or a conversation away, we often leave things up to assumption and intuition that we don’t need to. So when I use the word intuition, I’m really just saying: save your intuition for the times that you need it. And there will be plenty of them. There will be things that are bigger than any single conversation could reveal. But when it comes to interpersonal matters, take the time to ask the extra questions and bring more clarity to the situation instead of assuming and guessing your way toward that clarity.
I need you to give us a little more personal examples of what you mean by this. Tell us what it means in the the day-to-day life of what it looks like to have that intuition, and have it wreck some personal relationships.
So I find that people will have conversations with colleagues and maybe they’ll come to me and seek some guidance on what to do. Maybe in those conversations with those colleagues they realize they’re not on the same page. And they’ll come and speak to me and they’ll say: I think he believes this and I think that he wants that. And my feedback is: well, have you asked? And often the answer is, Well no, I’m kind of guessing, but here’s a couple things that led me to to make those guesses, here’s a couple things that led me to be confident in those assumptions. To which I respond: but they’re right there. We don’t need that. We don’t need to guess where people are going. We can have open and honest conversations, and when we do that, we show thoughtfulness and respect. If I think that you expect something of me, and I’m reading between the lines on that expectation, and it frustrates me that I think you expect that thing of me – if I’m not making extra time to go, Can we talk about this? Because I get the sense that your expectation of me is this, but I want to confirm it with you. That’s just a thoughtful gesture and it’s not meant to be difficult to have that extra conversation, it’s meant to align to somebody else. I can give you more detail if that’d be helpful.
Yeah, well let’s dig in a little bit deeper. So you’re the CEO of the company. You deal with – especially in the early days – a lot of interpersonal types of things. What are the common reasons that people will come to you, to sort out a personal conflict.
They don’t know how to have a difficult conversation and they have never really flexed that muscle. I find that we don’t do a great job in our educational system, teaching conflict management. Think about how much conflict we feel all day long. Whether it’s our marriages, or our personal relationships and friendships, or it’s work. Conflict is a nature of life. You have a goal and I have a goal and sometimes parts of those goals might rub together and create some friction. And it’s not a personal thing in that case, it’s just you have an organizational responsibility, and I have a different one, and every now and then those things will have friction.
One example of that is: a finance person. They want to control spending. A marketing person is responsible for spending money. Because marketers need to spend money in order to gather attention for whatever business they’re representing. So the marketing person is at odds with the finance person, in that the finance person always wants to keep more money in the bank and the marketing person needs to pull money from the bank and spend it more. And of course there can be alignment around the finance person understanding that more spending correlates to maybe more people coming to the website, or more people buying the product. But often marketers are guessing on what to do next, and they’re testing, and through that spending of testing you can make the finance person nervous. Nobody is trying to personally offend anybody in that situation, we just have two different organizational demands. Maintain a positive amount of cash in the business versus go out there and spend money in order to attract interest. Those things can be talked through, but we’re not always taught how to talk through them.
So we practice a thing called nonviolent communication at work, which is really just a play-by-play method for being clear in your difficult conversations. And I would love to see nonviolent communication taught to kindergartners to all the way up. Just like we teach math. From the formative years, first grade on up. We don’t teach calculus to first graders but we teach the basics then we build on those basics. And I’d love to see us, conflict management-wise do better about teaching the basics. Because right now what happens is, people feel conflict and they don’t know what to do. So they tend not to hit it head on and that often creates even more conflict. So we’re not helping ourselves and I want us to help ourselves. And the more we seek to understand one another and the more we talk about the things that confuse us, the better work we’re going to do.
So if someone is coming into your company brand new, what’s something immediately they’re going to notice that’s different about how you work at Lessonly, using this nonviolent communication?
One of our values is: we have difficult conversations. So they’re going to go through, we have Lessonly lessons with our software, you build lessons and we use our software all day long. One of the lessons is: teaching the mission, the vision, and the values. And one of our core values is, we have difficult conversations. So they’re going to see right away that we’re making an agreement that you came into this business and because you came into this business and because you take a paycheck from this business and you want this business to succeed, our agreement is that you’re going to have difficult conversations when you feel like they need to be had. You’re not going to shirk that responsibility. It is not just an expectation, it is something that we agree on. You literally check a box that says: I will have difficult conversations, I will abide by these values.
People tend to get a lot of excitement around that because they worked in environments in the past where if somebody felt something, they didn’t feel comfortable saying it. Our belief is, anytime you’re inhibiting communication you’re doing a disservice to the business, by and large. We want more communication, not less. It is natural that businesses will create divisions between people and departments, and that will inhibit communication. Anytime we can put forth something that breaks down those barriers and brings more communication, the better.
So people will come in, they’ll get a book out called ‘Nonviolent Communication’ to read, in order to learn about how to communicate non-violently. We’ll highlight the first five chapters as the most important part, but whole book is really, really good. It’s by a guy named Marshall Rosenberg. And that is how they know we’re serious about it. Because if I didn’t want somebody speak more, I wouldn’t teach him how to speak up. I wouldn’t put in the extra effort to say, I need to hear from you, here’s the way I need to hear from you. I wouldn’t put any muscle behind that. So I think we’re putting our money where our mouth is, when we say, hey we’d you like to hear from you and we’re going to teach you how to talk, so that you can communicate clearly and not feel nervous about it.
I’m going to ask you a cultural question now. You’re an Indiana guy, I’m also from Indiana. I find that, after having been in other places, that in the Midwest, particularly in this part of the country, people tend to be a lot more closed off about wanting to talk about conflict. Do you find that that’s true? That in this part of the world, that we don’t open up about those things as much as other parts? Or do you feel like it’s a universal thing?
I can only speak to what I’ve experienced. My experience is right along with yours – that conflict is generally avoided. And it’s not for the betterment of any of us that it is.
Absolutely. It seems like that’s a key thing to teach people that, just talking about things with a coworker off to the side or not bringing it up out in the open, it really isn’t helping anything, like you said.
It is not. it is not. It’s the responsibility of a teammate to help improve the business. Here’s an example: I was on an airplane last week. A gentleman had his phone and was playing a video game and the music was up on his phone. He didn’t have headphones in and it was just playing in the airplane. So what naturally happens in those situations, I think, is somebody says that person’s a jerk, they must not care about everybody else’s peace of mind. But nobody says anything to the individual.
Nobody’s like, Hey sir, do you mind turning that down? So my job is to model the behaviors that I want to see. And because I’m really clear about the behaviors that I want to see, I’m held accountable to actually doing them. In this case I wasn’t at work, but I was just like, I need to live into the expectations that I set for others. So I tapped the gentleman on the shoulder and said: Hey sir, sorry to bother you, could you please turn that down? And the man was mortified that it was even loud at all. He turned to me three different times throughout that flight: Again, I’m so sorry but I didn’t even realize that the volume was up. He just wasn’t paying attention. And just by tapping him on the shoulder and letting him know, he changed his behavior.
We don’t do that a lot. We don’t show people what’s in their teeth. I call this, I want you to tell me what’s in my teeth. If we’re friends, or even if I’m in front of you, i’d want you to tell me if I have something in my teeth. A lot of times people don’t tell you what’s in your teeth, and then you get in front of a mirror later that day, and you’re like what the heck, why didn’t anybody tell me? We don’t have mirrors for our behavior like we have mirrors for our physical teeth. We can go in front of a mirror and see it, eventually. But our behavior – we don’t have mirrors. The mirrors are what other people see us do. And if they’re not helping us see what’s in our behavioral teeth, they’re not serving us. And often, if we know what’s in our behavioral teeth, we will make changes in order to be better stewards of our community or the people around us.
The problem is, people don’t talk about it. They don’t know how to talk about it. The only way they know to talk about is like, Hey dude you’re being rude, turn down your phone. Which is not the way to go about it. It’s an observation that, Hey sir, on an airplane the expectation is your volume isn’t – people can’t hear whatever it is you’re watching on your device, I’d appreciate it if you turn it down. And it’s kind of hard to argue with that, right? It is the expectation an airplane that you don’t have your boombox playing. But if we started out more violently, in which case is like, Hey sir you’re being rude – well, that’s not sending anything off on a playing field, what’s going to really encourage communication. What I’m doing is judging that person and acting as though I’ve never made a mistake myself. And of course I have. So why would I ever want to make anybody else feel that way? I’d want to treat them like I want to be treated, and assume that they don’t even realize this is happening and we should just bring it up so that they have a chance to get it out of their teeth.
Excellent. And I appreciate the boombox reference. We’ll put a picture of that for all the younger listeners who don’t know what that is.
I love boomboxes.
Another quote you gave was that, don’t assume your way to something suboptimal. Talk about this connection between intuition, assumption, and reaching something suboptimal. What you mean by that?
I want to make it clear here Neil – I used the word intuition because I understand that everybody thinks it’s a really good thing and I wanted to really think deeply about the times, when we should flex that intuition or not. So to say, don’t assume is not going to reach anyone. They’re going to go, Of course. Of course you shouldn’t just assume. Of course you should seek to understand. But when I bring up a word like intuition, I know it’s a loaded word. And I know that I am going to catch people’s attention. So really what I’m talking about here is: don’t be so assumptive. But I’m using words that ideally paint old guidance, which is ‘don’t be assumptive’ in a new way to keep it fresh.
You have mentioned the word assumption a lot, and you’re totally spot on. This is really all about assumptions. So to answer your question: I like to think about at circles. Like a Venn diagram. One of those circles is ‘what’s needed.’ In terms of, what’s needed on the team? What work are we doing that’s needed on the team? And the other circle is ‘what’s done.’ And ideally those circles have really nice overlap so what’s needed and what’s done sit right on top of one another. There’s very little lack of overlap. But as we’ve all been in businesses, we’ve probably seen that a lot of times what’s done isn’t what’s needed. And something will be rolled out, and the people who it’s rolled out to roll their eyes and they go, that’s not what we need.
The reason that ends up happening is people don’t share early and often enough in the formative stages of whatever it is that they’re doing. To continue to sanity check if what’s being done is actually what’s needed. The only way to really get those circles to have some tight overlap is to share before you’re ready. It’s as soon as you come up with something that you think needs to be worked on, you go to the individuals who it’s going to affect, and you get some guidance on your outline. You help them fill in the gaps. You co-create the goal and the plan by just seeking some feedback. You are ultimately probably going to have the vote if you’re the manager, but you should still collect the voices. The voices are not votes, but you should collect the voices so you can make a better-informed decision. If we assume our way to suboptimal results or intuit our way to suboptimal results means we’re not going out to our team members and sanity checking and reality testing on whatever it is that we’re doing. When we do more sanity checking and reality testing, the circles overlap. ‘What’s needed’ and ‘what’s done’ are more or less the same. And that’s just a really positive thing for everyone.
Absolutely. When you think about how far you’ve come as a company, to how far you’ve come as a product, what are are some of those key – if you can point back to one or two – those key conversations you had along the way where reducing these assumptions, reducing the intuition really helped you create something better than what you would have done.
You bet. So I mentioned earlier that I started a business before Lessonly. And I think that’s probably the best example. I can give you that one and I’ll give you another one that’s maybe more broadly applicable. So when it comes to the first business I started, it was called Quipple. It was ‘quick-polling’ software. And I built Quipple entirely in a vacuum. I assumed I knew exactly what Quipple should do. It was helping people create simple one-question polls, so they can embed into their blog posts or articles. So I thought that I knew how to create the software, so I stayed in a vacuum for nine months with the engineers who were helping me build it. And we perfected the minutest of work flows.
And my assumption was, I was going to nail this thing. I was a naive young man who had too much hubris. And when it came to launch day, and I hit it send. It sent Quipple to the three hundred people who were on the waiting list and said, Quipple’s here! Within three minutes I got an email back from a gentleman, and that email said, Why doesn’t Quipple do X? And X wasn’t X. X was an actual feature that isn’t really worth getting into here. But it was a great idea and in nine months I hadn’t considered it once. And in three minutes after putting Quipple in front of this person they saw something that I hadn’t seen in nine months. That was very formative for me and ultimately Quipple didn’t work out for a whole host of reasons, one of which is, I didn’t share before I was ready, I didn’t sanity check, I used way too much intuition in building the software, and ultimately that meant I spent all of my budget on software development before I even launched. And that meant I couldn’t iterate quickly post-launch on all the good feedback I was getting.
So I didn’t build something that people needed, I built something – I just got something done, but it wasn’t what was needed. And then with Lessonly, we took an opposite approach. We built the bare essentials. First we interviewed people who would ultimately be our buyers, and then we built the bare essentials, then we kept doing interviews, and then as customers came on, we listened, and we listened and we listened. And we challenged and we listened, and we challenged and we listened. And we built slowly but surely and iteratively. That was a dramatic difference. I think that Lessonly has worked for a whole lot of reasons, but I think that put us on a really good at starting point. We got out of that vacuum fast and we asked for feedback.
To give you a more tangible example – sharing before ready is always challenging because it really challenges ego. It puts you in a position of: I’m nervous, I’m going to look silly if this is wrong. When I put it in front of somebody I don’t want to look silly. So I’m just going to stay in my vacuum and I’m going to try to perfect in my vacuum and I’m going to hope that I get it right and fingers crossed I nail it. We don’t share because of fear and ego, and I find myself constantly having to fight fear and ego. One of the ways I made a mistake in the past that I think is really applicable to a lot of folks is, I was building a PowerPoint presentation for an investor deck, and I really wanted to tell a story and I perfected the details of those slides. One of the slides I remember working on for three hours, being like this is so important, I’ve got to dial this in. I’ve got to make sure the corners are rounded, pixel-perfect. I’ve got to make sure the words and phrases on that on that page are a perfect. And then I put it in front of a group after all those hours and said, Hey guys, what do you think? And within minutes we deleted that slide that I worked so hard on. I just didn’t flow. And I could have saved myself all that trouble. So I like to tell people: when you’re in the clay stages, get a lot of feedback. Don’t wait till you’ve bronzed something, cast it in bronze, to go get feedback. Get feedback when you’re still able to mold. Because it’s really debilitating to hear feedback on something you worked really hard on. Going back and working hard on that thing again with the new feedback is really discouraging. So just avoid that altogether.
Excellent. Max, tell us a little bit about what you think the world of work-minus-intuition would look like if more companies adopted this.
It’s be a lot more people asking interesting – tell me why you asked that. Little extra questions to statements or answers. So if somebody says, I don’t think it’s going to work – we don’t just go: okay! Brian doesn’t think it’s going to to work. We go, hey Brian tell us what you think will work about it. And that’s sounds incredibly obvious but it doesn’t happen all the time. Another example would be: somebody says, Hey can you get that done quickly? And somebody tries to be less intuitive and responds and says, Hey, I will totally do my best – can you let me know what you mean by quickly? When do you need it done, and can you let me know what’s driving the urgency so I can prioritize appropriately? That’s a world with less intuition and more clarity.
Awesome, I love it. Max thanks so much for being on the show we appreciate it and thank you for being part of WorkMinus.
Neil, I love, I love this theme. WorkMinus is such a great theme. I appreciate you have me on and I appreciate you conversing with me.
Thanks a lot.