From kid programmer in 1971 to Forbes cover story in 2003, Richard Sheridan has never shied from challenges, opportunities nor the limelight. While his focus has always been around technology, his passion is actually process, teamwork and organizational design, with one inordinately popular goal: the business value of joy! Sheridan, who is also an Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at U-M, is an avid reader and historian, and his software design and development team at Menlo Innovations didn’t invent a new culture, but copied an old one – Edison’s Menlo Park New Jersey lab. Henry Ford’s recreation of the Menlo Park Lab in Greenfield Village was a childhood inspiration. Some call it agile, some call it lean. Sheridan and his team call it joyful. And it produces results; business and otherwise. Six Inc. magazine revenue growth awards, invites to the White House, speaking engagements around the world, numerous articles and culture awards and so much interest they are doing more than a tour a day of the Menlo Software Factory. Portfolio at Penguin Random House released Rich’s book “Joy, Inc. – How We Built a Workplace People Love” and Inc. magazine named Menlo Innovations “The Most Joyful Company in America.”
Why does the world need a work revolution? (In other words: the way we’re working isn’t working. Why not?)
We are living in an ironic time. While nations fret about their economy, and high unemployment, companies are in a war for talent. Executives everywhere are complaining they can’t find the talent they need.
This competitive landscape pushes us into a “purpose-driven” economy where highly sought talent, particularly millennial talent doesn’t have to settle for a job, or an offer. They are seeking companies with purpose, mission and vision. If this talent thinks they find it, but it turns out to be a false promise, they are not afraid to leave and find “it” elsewhere.
Traditional, hierarchical, fear-based, command & control organizations do not align well with this purpose-driven pursuit in the eyes of the talent they are trying to attract. It becomes a downward spiral of morale and human energy without those companies as they face a triple threat:
1. They cannot attract the talent they seek. (And the transparency offered by the web gives everyone a pretty realistic view of the inside reality of these tired organizations).
2. They cannot keep the talent they land. Those they most want to keep, leave, and those who give up and declare “you know, it’s just a job, I’ll put in my hours and find my joy elsewhere” stay. This is not a formula for creativity, innovation, imagination and invention.
3. Their customers begin to notice the malaise and seek their competitors. Think about Borders, K-mart, Sears, Best Buy, and so many others that have gone before them or are limping along being disrupted by their energized competition.
The business-as-usual attitude leads to a death spiral.
How are you or your organization reinventing work in some way (big or small)?
As Simon Sinek reminds us… no one buys what you do, they buy “why” you do it. This is true both for your customers and your team. So our first focus, is on our “why” and that “why” is external to our company. Our intentional culture centers on what we call “the business value of joy” and we do this by building a shared belief system whose attention and energy is laser-beam focused on “ending human suffering in the world as it relates to technology.”
Everyone wants to work on something “bigger than themselves” and we have chosen a BIG target. Now we must craft EVERYTHING we do, and everything about HOW we do it, to achieve this mission. In doing so, we changed everything about the way software is designed and developed. Some samples:
1. Changed the interview process from the tradition of “two people lying to each other for a couple of hours” to an experiential audition where both sides get to see what it is really like to work together. Our interviews include no questions, and don’t look at resumes. You’d be amazed at how this changes the talent equation. Inc. magazine found this so compelling, they made it their cover story in June, 2011.
2. Added a group to our team that we call High-tech Anthropologists® who job it is to go out into the world and study the people we are serving, the ultimate end users of the software we are designing and building, with the singular intention of delighting them with the software they one day will use. We want people to LOVE the software we are creating. Traditionally, users are the “lost tribe” of technology. Our entire industry has learned to call the people we serve “stupid users” and then we write Dummies book for these poor people. We fundamentally believe this is the exact wrong approach. We must honor the people we are serving by getting computers to thing like humans, rather than get humans to think like computers.
3. We work in a complete open floor plan space where everyone is working two people to one computer, all day long. This pair is working on the same task at the same time. The pairs are assigned and we switch them every five days. The human energy that results, along with the learning, increases the speed of problem solving by an order of magnitude.
4. We have no hierarchy. There are no bosses. The team makes the decisions on who we hire, who we promote, and who we let go. The team cares for the team. The team nurtures the team.
Why do you do what you do?
I believed in the earliest days of my career that software was the ultimate artistic material. I still believe that. I also believed this was a profession that could carry me my entire career, and that I would be excited to be in it everyday. I quickly fell into a trough of disillusionment as traditional efforts stalled, poor quality was delivered, deadlines were missed, users were frustrated and most projects I worked on never saw the light of day. At first, I thought it was me, then as I looked around, I realized this was endemic to our entire industry. The only companies who were winning were monopolies that could force people to use their crappy software and put up with it because they had no choice. (Think yourself of how many “blue screens of death” and weekends spent re-installing operating systems on you home computer you put up with.) In short, the sheen wore off for me very quickly and I realized I couldn’t do this the rest of my career and survive emotionally.
I decided I was either going to get out or do my best to change the entire industry by setting an example of a new way of doing things.
16 years ago, I started a bunch of radical experiments with my co-founder James Goebel, and I’m happy to report that the joy of my profession is back for me.
So, I suppose, my ultimate “why I chose to do this” was selfish. I wanted to build the company that I wanted to work at everyday.
What kind of art (any kind) do you like and why? Any recommendations we should know about?
My favorite art is the “art of storytelling”. Whether verbally (think great TED talks), written (think inspirational books), or movies. Storytelling is the way we have preserved civilization (think of the Irish hedgerow scholars of the Dark Ages). It is also they way we honor history (think songs, anthems, totems, campfire chats) and propel our way forward.
I find science fiction particularly compelling as it uses storytelling to paint a picture of the future. Star Trek, the original series, was inspirational for me on so many different levels.
Karen Dietz of “Just Story It” is doing a wonderful job at promoting this idea of Chief Storyteller as a critical role inside of organizations.
What is one specific thing your company does that makes your culture unique and/or different?
We hate meetings at Menlo. We think of them as mind-numbing, spirit-sucking, energy-draining tools of traditional management. So we’ve pretty much eliminated them. We’ve also eschewed electronic communication for internal company communication. We traded it for what we humorously refer to as “High-speed Voice Technology.” 🙂 We talk to one another. (Radical, I know).
So if someone wants to call an “all-company” meeting, they shout out “Hey Menlo” and the team stops working, doesn’t move and calls back “Hey Josh!” And then it becomes perfectly quiet for you to start the meeting. You talk, ask a question, interact with the team, and then thank them and they go right back to work. No CC-all emails, no calendar checking, no booking the conference room, no 15 minute meeting dance before the meeting begins. In fact, no one moved from their chairs. These type of meetings typically last less than 15 seconds and then everyone is back to work.
What is one discipline/industry totally different from your own that has inspired you? How does it impact your work?
We were inspired by the Menlo Park New Jersey lab of Thomas Edison. If you haven’t studied the history of that place (and we have extensively), you might believe the lore that Edison was a “lone genius”. What Edison believed in was a fun, open & collaborative space with the serendipity of people over-hearing the ideas of others as a way to propel creativity and energy.
We have become close friends with the world’s foremost historians on Edison (like Paul Israel who heads Rutger’s Edison Papers effort) and all of them have confirmed that we have captured the magic of Edison’s Menlo Park lab.
What’s one tangible and concrete technique other organizations should use if they want to create a more human and/or meaningful place to work?
We as leaders must work as hard as we can to pump fear out of the room. We cannot use fear as a motivational tool. It just doesn’t work.
If we are successful in keeping fear at bay, then the team begins to feel safe. If they feel safe, they begin to trust one another, and then teamwork begins to form. Suddenly you get creativity, energy, imagination and invention … which is what every company on the planet is seeking right now.
As the opening lines of Patrick Lencioni’s famous book Five Dysfunctions of a Team says: “Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.”
What is one surprising thing we should know about you?
I LOVE winter. The bigger the snowfall, the colder the temps, the better!
What does your preferred work environment look like?
One big open room. No walls, offices, or doors. A flexible space that can change at the whim of the people working in it. The leaders sit in the same space as the rest of the team. No gifted C-suite, no special tables.
What do you do for fun?
I particularly enjoy the playful applications of physics: Skiing in the winter, golf in the summer.
What time of the day do you do your best work?
I am a morning person. Up by 5:30am at the latest!
What is “required reading” or “required viewing” for people who want to understand what makes you tick?
Where in the world are you?
We sit in the basement of the Liberty Square Parking Structure in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan, nestled right up against the campus of my alma mater, the University of Michigan. Go Blue!
How can people connect with you?
If you want to learn loads more about us just Google “Sheridan Joy Menlo” and you’ll have your pick of articles, videos, etc. And perhaps the deepest dive comes from reading the book, Joy Inc. – How We Built a Workplace People Love.
You can also come visit Menlo. We host 1 to 3 tours a day. in 2015, we hosted over 3,200 visitors who came from around the planet to visit us and spend anywhere from 2 hours to 5 days peeking into our culture.
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