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Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview

Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love by Richard Sheridan

Joy, Inc.Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love by Richard Sheridan. Portfolio Hardcover. 288 pages. 2013 Audiobook read by Tim Andres Pabon.

You may have heard of “The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. If not, you can read about it here: How I came about reading this book reminded me a bit of “the six degrees”.

Twice over a period of a few weeks my wife Tammy mentioned that she had heard Glenn Beck recommend the book Leaders Eat Last Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t by Simon Sinek. Then, Sinek was a guest on Dave Ramsey’s EntreLeadership podcast (listen to it here – When I read the book, Sinek talked about Bob Chapman and what he had done with the culture of his organization. As a result, I signed up for his blog. In one of his blogs he wrote about Joy, Inc. by Richard Sheridan, and I immediately decided to read the book.

Sheridan is the CEO of Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Here’s a link to their website:

Menlo was founded in 2001. They have received many awards, and people from all over the world visit their organization to learn from them. Menlo designs, builds and launches software. They have developed lessons that can be used by any organization. Their mission is to end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology. The book includes many examples from Sheridan’s 40-year journey to creating joy in the workplace.

Sheridan writes that happiness and joy are not the same. Joy is deeper. He also states that IT is one of most broken industries on earth.

Sheridan takes the reader on his journey to joy. His first love was for a computer at age 13, when he started building software, his first being a fantasy baseball program.

Sheridan talks a lot about the physical environment of Menlo. He writes that most workplaces zap creativity. They are bland, quiet and lifeless. Menlo calls their work environment a big open “factory” – a Java Factory, which is noisy and has energy. Here are a few things that make it distinctive:

• They use a collaborative environment. With few exceptions, there are no cubicles, offices or doors. It is an open, mobile and flexible workspace. This arrangement surprisingly works well for introverts, which most “Menloites” are.
• The CEO (Sheridan) sits with the rest of the team. This eliminates barriers to communication.
• Dogs and babies are permitted in the workplace, which has concrete floors.
• Earbuds are not permitted.
• For internal communications they use “high speed voice technology” (verbal communication) – no email, IM, etc.

Learning is a key attribute at Menlo. Here are a few things about their learning organization:

• Programmers work in pairs, sharing a computer. Pairing eliminates knowledge hording. Pairs are switched every week.
• Weekly “Lunch and Learns” are held.
• They teach formal classes to others, including their competitors.

At 3:00pm each day a daily “Walkie” takes place.

Sheridan describes their project management rituals. They include:

• In place of traditional weekly status meetings, Menlo has a daily standup meeting lasting thirteen minutes or less.
• All project estimates come from the team that will be doing the work.
• Show and Tell. The client gets to interact with those who did the work.
• Work Authorization Board. Index cards are used on a corkboard wall.
• Real time status reporting

The hiring process is unique at Menlo. Here are some unique things about their hiring process:

• They start with a group interview of about 20 candidates. Fifteen team members are involved in the process and they get to vote on the candidates.
• If the candidates make it past the first group interview they are invited to work for one day. If that goes well they come in for a three week contract. If that goes well they are hired.

Menlo operates with clarity, simplicity and predictability. Some things I found of interest about their projects:

• Story Cards – Nothing gets done unless it is written down on an index card.
• The story cards are given to Project Managers. This eliminates what Sheridan refers to as “hallway project management”.
• No work is done without estimating.
• The client prioritizes the work and puts the card(s) on a planning sheet. The cards are logged onto an Excel spreadsheet.

Other points of interest from the book are:

• Menlo is looks for able learners with curiosity. They aren’t afraid to let someone go if they don’t fit into their culture, which they refer to as a “birdcage without bars”.
• They aim to design and build software that is easy to use without manuals. Menlo wants to keep the end user always present. They found that the “missing link” was anthropology. They wanted to study people in their native environment.
• They use a persona map, which is a prime artifact for their design map.
• They are a software development company that relies much on uncomplicated paper based tools.
• In their environment they want to remove fear and let people make mistakes faster.
• They offer solutions to eliminate “scope creep” in their projects.
• They make effective use of interns, including international students.
• They use “experiments”.
• The author speaks of the importance of humility and vulnerability in the Menlo leaders.
• Sheridan writes that Menlo’s pairing increases quality. Their discipline and rigor also contribute to quality, as does their automated testing framework. The client is involved with testing and integration.
• Menlo believes in sustaining the people who work for them through true work/life balance. Employees work a 40 hour week, and no weekends. They do not take their laptops with them on vacations. They are able to effectively do this because of their pairing concept. On the other hand, they do not support remote working, except in special circumstances for a short period of time.
• Flexibility and scalability (up and down as necessary) is very important to the Menlo culture. If they need to get more done, they add people.
• Accountability starts with estimating (story cards). They have accountability without fear, ambiguity or intimidation.
• The book includes a look at some of their problems, such as the impact of illness within a collaborative work environment and employee promotions.
• Sheridan suggests that organizations wanting to build a culture of joy start with small experiments, such as their seating arrangement. Many who visit Menlo are surprised that the CEO sits with the rest of the team in an open environment. He also suggests that they visit Menlo in Ann Arbor.

In the Epilogue, Sheridan shares the inspiration for Menlo (Edison’s Menlo Park, New Jersey lab (invention factory).

He closes with a list of recommended books and talks that have been popular with Menlo employees. If a book or talk has a significant impact on an employee, they are encouraged to share with others in “Lunch and Learn” sessions.

The book does not include any explicit Christian content, but joy is listed among the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, so I think Christians would be interested in trying to create a culture of joy.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

To summarize (from their website), the The Menlo WayTM is defined by JOY through the following practices:
• Pairing; no one works alone
• High-Tech Anthropology
• Open and collaborative workspace
• High speed voice technology
• Daily stand up
• 40 hour work weeks
• Pets and babies at work
• Making mistakes faster
• Doing the simplest thing that could possibly work
• Origami project management
• Work authorization boards; story cards, yarn, and stickers
• Estimation without fear
• Integrated quality advocacy
• Test-driven development

If you would like to find out more about the organizational culture at Menlo Innovations, you can check out this interview with Richard Sheridan:

As well as this article from NPR, which includes photos of their workplace:

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