Each year, thousands of people visit the "factory" of Menlo Innovations, a custom software design firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They're visiting for the same reason people flock to Zappos: People who work there simply love their work. Visitors are after a dose of the kind of unique company culture capable of producing such an emotional connection to work.
In the case of Menlo Innovations, they're after something very specific: joy.
Menlo Innovations CEO and chief storyteller Richard Sheridan recently codified "The Menlo Way" in a brand new book, Joy, Inc: How We Built a Workplace People Love.
I caught up with Sheridan recently to ask him a few questions about the business of joy and how he created a company culture that seems to make everyone happy.
You start the book with the very question I'd ask: Why joy? Sounds squishy.
Let's be completely honest here. "Joy in business" sounds worse than squishy—it sounds ridiculous. The word "joy" sat buried at the end of the Menlo Innovations' mission statement for a decade until [business innovator] Simon Sinek came along and told the world to "Start with why."
We have a minimum of one group per day touring our office, so I tried it on an unsuspecting tour group. “Welcome to Menlo. You have come to a place that has intentionally focused its culture on the business value of joy.” They asked me why I was talking about joy. I pointed back to my team and asked our visitors what they thought would happen if half my team had joy and the other half didn’t. Which half would they want me to assign to their project? They all wanted the joyful half. I then asked them why they would care and what difference joy would make. Their answers gave me all the data I needed:
“They’d be more productive.” “They’d be easier to work with.” “They’d produce higher quality.” “They’d care more about the results.” “They’d be more engaged.”
It became quite clear to me that everyone understands that there is, in fact, tangible business value to joy.
How do you know whether you've been successful in creating a culture of joy? In other words, what's the real-world measure of joy?
Anecdotally, one measure of joy is through the stories we collect. People tell us how much better their lives are now because of the software we have designed and developed.
Business-wise, we build one measure of joy right into our contracts. We always offer our clients the option to trade a significant amount of our cash receipts for upside potential in their company or the product they're asking us to help them produce. With the percentage of cash we're willing to trade away, we would be very hungry if our approach didn’t work. Thus, we only win in the business financial sense if we help our clients win market share and user adoption.
You have an interesting collaborative practice: "pairing." What is it, and why is it powerful?
Pairing is a time-honored tradition in many industries: police, fire, airlines, surgery, to name a few. Everyone who does project work for Menlo works in pairs. These pairs are assigned, and we switch at least every five working days. There are many benefits; some are obvious, others more subtle.
At Menlo, we design and develop software. Software controls our cars, our airplanes, our air traffic control systems, our bank accounts, our medical records, point of sales systems, etc. Errors can be costly and potentially even deadly. Pairing greatly increases the opportunity to catch programming errors at the time they're created. That’s an obvious and powerful benefit.
Creatively, we just innovate better when there's someone to bounce ideas off of. When we're trying to create something new and interesting, we often get stuck and stay stuck much longer than we need to. At Menlo, if I'm pairing with someone and I’m stuck, my pair partner might say, “Hey, what about this?” and voila! we're moving forward again.
This approach also helps with sustainability and scalability. If we have four people working on a project in two pairs, and suddenly the client wants us to go twice as fast, we add in four more people, adjust the pairs and assign twice as much work. No overtime, no burnout.
You had a eureka moment in your career that brought joy in business front and center.
For much of my career, I was searching for a better way to do things. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for. I was simply convinced I would know it when I saw it. In 1999, I read about Kent Beck's "extreme programming," and I saw an ABC News Nightline episode on [global design firm] IDEO called “The Deep Dive.” I saw the future, and I never looked back. In that moment, I decided that the risk of staying the same was far greater than the risk of change, and I ran toward change and away from risk.
Can you explain the what and why of "Hey, Menlo!”?
We work in one big open room with no walls, offices or cubes. I sit out in the room with everyone else. If someone needs to call an all-company meeting, they call out, “Hey, Menlo!” When I do this, the entire teams calls back in unison, “Hey, Rich!” and then they fall dead silent.
At that moment, you are in a Menlo all-company meeting! No one moves. You make whatever announcement or ask whatever question you want, thank the team, and everyone gets back to work. These meetings can occur in 60 seconds or less even if there are 50 people in the room.
We hate the traditional kind of meetings that require cc-all emails, calendar checking, room booking and ambiguous agendas, so we've pretty much eliminated them. That adds to the joy by subtracting useless unproductive misery.
What's a "High-Tech Anthropologist"?
Most people hate the software they use every day. It requires them to think like a computer rather than having the computer think like the user. How can I make such a broad assertion? Consider the origin of the term “stupid user” and the industry that gave rise to the Dummies books. We need a special kind of person to end this form of technological human suffering. Enter the Menlo High-Tech Anthropologist®.
They're highly compassionate, empathetic observers who study the people who are ultimately going to use the software we design and build. They learn about them, their goals as human beings, their goals at work, their vocabulary and their workflow, and then, through simple prototyping and an iterative approach to design, create a user experience that will delight the users and not require user manuals, help text or training classes.
It’s fair to say that no one person comes in our doors with all these talents in one neat package. That's another benefit of pairing. Each pair combination may cover almost all of these. During the pairing, in addition to doing the work, each partner can learn a little bit more about the areas they're still weak in.
What's the one thing you want readers to take away from this book?
That you can achieve joy in business. We all want joy in our work lives, in our downtime, in our kids’ schools, in our faith communities, in our families and in our nation. Humans are wired to work on things bigger than themselves, to be in community with one another. It’s why we join teams and companies, and work very hard and long to achieve a difficult and elusive shared goal. I hope to inspire others to pursue joy in their work lives.
Read more articles on company culture.