- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Portfolio; Reprint edition (January 27, 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1591847125
- ISBN-13: 978-1591847120
- Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.7 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 112 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #44,229 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love Paperback – January 27, 2015
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“Joy Inc. is about a way of organizing work so logical, so effective, and so rewarding that you have to wonder why everyone doesn’t do it.”
—Bo Burlingham, author, Small Giants
About the Author
Richard Sheridan is CEO and cofounder of Menlo Innovations, which has won the Alfred P. Sloan Award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility for six straight years and five revenue awards from Inc. magazine. He frequently speaks at business conferences and to major corporations such as Mercedes-Benz, Nike, and 3M. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
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For me, the power of this book is that it starts with a core of wanting to create a company to end human suffering with regards to software - that includes both the usage of it and the construction of it. The practices are the results of experiments to produce this thing. As such, the book tightly weaves together a lot of things that are missing in conversations in the Lean and Agile software communities, which tend to center heavily on practices, but unfortunately not so much about why someone might (or might not) adopt a given practice, or why anyone would even want to do this in the first place.
As the author recommends, he starts with WHY. The practices and the culture emerged in the pursuit of that goal of joyful software development and usage. You couldn't just drop those practices onto another dev shop and expect magic to happen, not without a serious re-examining of why that shop exists and what it believes.
This book got me inspired again about software development and business in a way I haven't been for a while, and it is prompting deep conversations within my own company about our ideas and values that I am certain will alter our business model. If this book gives you a blueprint for anything, it's how to create a company around your reason for existence and your shared beliefs. It could, with some careful thought and discussions, help any business in any vertical in this way.
The one thing you don't get a lot of in this particular book is a lot of information on the slogs that got them to this point. This is not completely absent from the book; it's just not the book's purpose and, therefore, you don't see a lot of it. You don't get a lot of narrative on the struggles Menlo went through to get the ship sailing or the various failed experiments along the way. The book focuses far more on the lessons reaped from those mistakes, as it should. I only point this out because I can see companies or teams within companies trying to transform themselves along lines inspired by the book and becoming discouraged when the road gets rough because the book doesn't explicitly go into those times in detail.
But what the book does, it does very well. I can't imagine someone reading this book and not being inspired to approach their business is new ways.
Richard’s Back Story
The book follows the author’s journey from “youthful joy to deep disillusionment to endless optimism.” Richard Sheridan got his first job as a computer programmer before he could drive. He knew at age thirteen that he was going to be designing software because it brought him joy. “I was excited both about my own future and the world’s; the computer was going to change everything, and software was the magic that made it all work.” Early in his career, his enthusiasm and talent brought him raises, promotions, stock options and the promise of great things to come.
I was excited both about my own future and the world’s; the computer was going to change everything, and software was the magic that made it all work.
Sheridan thought he had it made until he realized software developers were just cranking out buggy software and letting the public sort it out. Everything crashed. To keep up with customer promises, programmers worked nights, weekends and sacrificed holidays. The author resolved to either abandon his career or find another way to create software. Luckily he chose the latter.
After reading Extreme Programming by Kent Beck and watching a Nightline episode about IDEO, Sheridan had proof there was another way. He enticed his small band of software engineers to try a new way of programming by luring them with Java — the new, hot programming language — and promising the experiment would last only 5 days. The result was excitement, fun, pride, productivity and lots of learning. He never looked back.
The Myth of Introverts
When people think of programmers they imagine tech geniuses staring at their screens in insulated privacy. This is upended at Menlo. The company is one big room where everyone can see and hear each other. There are no cubicles. Most workplaces dedicate time and thought to things like: Who gets an office? Who gets the biggest office, who gets the corner office? And oh yeah, where should we put the new hires? With offices are generally based on seniority, one classic improvement effort is to fix the resulting layouts since colleagues are spread far and wide.
The Menlo offices lack cubicles and all the computers sit on tables. They can reconfigure the space on a dime and pull tables together when people are on the same project. Sometimes they rearrange the tables just to “shake things up.” With programmers in a wide open space, “there was less I and a lot more we. Suddenly, when someone was in trouble or stuck, help arrived without even asking.”
With programmers in a wide open space, “there was less I and a lot more we. Suddenly, when someone was in trouble or stuck, help arrived without even asking.”
The results of the open space run counter to more traditional office setups. It’s not uncommon for people to call into meetings remotely even when they are a few feet away in a cubicle. Since 80% of communication is nonverbal, that lack of interaction has an immeasurable impact on company culture. Menlo, in contrast, doesn’t even allow earbuds. The human connection is sacred and part of creating “flow.” They use a technique called “High-Speed Voice Technology” — meaning they have actual conversations while looking at each other.
They use a technique called “High-Speed Voice Technology” — meaning they have actual conversations while looking at each other.
Not only do they not mind the noise — the sound of people working — their culture fosters innovation. Their workspace is reminiscent of MIT’s Building 20 which was known as the “Magical Incubator.” It was home to laboratories involved in some of the most groundbreaking developments in science and technology because people were free to poke holes, knock down walls, talk to each other and shake things up. Menlo has created a similar learning environment and the faster teams learn, the more competitive they are.
Two by Two
One of the problems software development companies face is the creation of “Towers of Knowledge.” This happens when a lone employee masters a critical technology and the company can’t survive without them. Menlo solved this problem by having programmers work in pairs.
It took a second to understand that pairing not only meant people always work in teams of two — it meant that two people shared one computer and only one of them accessed the keyboard at a time. It’s intensely counterintuitive and transformative. “Pairing is one of the most potent managerial tools I have ever discovered because of all the traditional problems it helps solve.”
Pairing is one of the most potent managerial tools I have ever discovered because of all the traditional problems it helps solve.
Changing It Up
They change pairs every week. They swap partners on the same project, and they swap people between projects. This sounds disruptive and challenging for knowledge management, but just the opposite is true. This is one of the purest forms of what thought leader Peter Senge called “The Learning Organization.” The result is a solid competitive advantage. It solved a host of problems:
Eliminates “knowledge hoarding” and losing critical expertise due to turnover
Prevents people from being “stuck” with a team member they don’t feel compatible with
Prevents cliques from forming since there’s not enough time
Dispels misconceptions about others since you get to know everyone
Creates a safe space to test new technologies together
If you get to tour the Menlo office, you might witness their daily standup meeting. At 10:00 am every morning the entire company stands in a circle to report what they’re working on and whether or not they need help. Due to their ”High-Speed Voice Technology” this takes under 15 minutes even with over 75 people. Each software pair holds on to the two horns of a plastic Viking helmet as they address the group and then they pass it along.
Sandbagging and Rework
Most organizations struggle with forecasts and estimates. By definition they’re inaccurate. For a software development company they’re critical. Clients need to know how long it will take and how much it will cost. Since the programmers are closest to the work, they’re the best source of estimation. At Menlo, leadership commits to supporting their estimates — they are trusted regardless of whether or not they’re right.
Consider what happens in less-evolved cultures. If programmers underestimate, there are late deliveries, cost overruns and unhappy clients. Fear of being blamed for mistakes leads to sandbagging. But if they overestimate, the client balks at the price. Neither of these is good for the customer, the business or the employee.
At Menlo, if the estimates are wrong, then they just relay that to the client. Either work moves up and gets done faster, or they agree it’s going to take longer and cost more — end of story. Since programmers are not penalized for wrong estimates they take total control of setting and working toward aggressive milestones without fear of retribution. Clients get products faster as long as they’re okay with adjusting when the numbers are off.
Since programmers are not penalized for wrong estimates they take total control of setting and working toward aggressive milestones without fear of retribution.
Driving Fear out of the Culture
“Fear is one of the biggest killers of joy,” so one of Richard’s main responsibilities as leader is to drive out fear. He realized that if his employees felt safe to make mistakes then they’d be willing to take risks. In order to innovate and grow, his people have to feel free to try things out without waiting for permission. It seems to have worked since “one of the most common phrases you’ll hear at Menlo is ‘Let’s run the experiment.’”
He realized that if his employees felt safe to make mistakes then they’d be willing to take risks. In order to innovate and grow, his people have to feel free to try things out without waiting for permission.
In spite of the fact that technology is the product, the surroundings are dominated by paper, cardboard, thumb tacks and string. They conduct a “Planning Game” on a big table where a sheet of paper represents one week of work. Customers and project managers map out what work will be done based on what literally “fits” in each week.
Once the work is planned and agreed to, it goes on the Work Authorization Board. This wall displays the tasks due each day along with the pairs is responsible. Sticky dots represent status reports and a horizontal piece of string indicates the current day so observers can see whether or not they’re on track. No mystery about the work in progress.
They also have boards on the wall representing revenue, expenses and profits. One board represents the salary and position of each employee. Other walls are decorated with hand-crafted posters that say things like, “Make Mistakes Faster.” The visuals and transparency combat the fog and inaction that result from the more typical “out of sight, out of mind” reality of organizational information.
Who Works at Menlo?
For most organizations, the hiring process is a crapshoot. The main tool is the job interview but, quoting Richard Sheridan, that’s “two people in a room lying to each other for 2 hours.” The interview has never been a reliable way to find out if someone is a good fit. Menlo scrapped it completely.
They designed their own activity-based process focused entirely on cultural fit. Of course, programmers need to know how to program, but since it’s truly a learning organization, people can always pick up the skills they need. The result resembles “high-speed dating” but with proctors and evaluations. They bring about 50 job candidates in as a group. They pair them up with each other and assign each pair a Menlo observer.
They designed their own activity-based process focused entirely on cultural fit. Of course, programmers need to know how to program, but since it’s truly a learning organization, people can always pick up the skills they need.
Pairs are given one pencil, one sheet of paper and a problem to solve while observers sit and watch what happens. Observers watch their assigned pairs while asking themselves a series of questions:
“Would I like to pair with this person for a week?”
“Would I feel supported if I were struggling?”
“Would I be able to support them and would they listen if I did?”
“Would I learn something from this person?”
“Would they help me grow?”
They pair off the candidates 3 times, always with a new observer. After they leave, the observers discuss the group. This leads to a vote on who gets invited back for Round 2. It all hinges on whether the potential hiree would play well with others, share and be respectful. Do they have good “kindergarten skills?” Beyond that they’re just looking for “able learners with curiosity” since teaching them skills is the easy part.
Menlo works with their clients, but they also venture into the world to better understand the end users. They dedicate an entire role to this process called the “High-Tech Anthropologist.” This group watches people use and interact with software and prototypes. Their one one guideline — “observation without interruption.” In one case they saw a user wearing rubber gloves while handling a prototype due to their proximity to toxins. The intended touch screen would not work with gloves. Without this discovery, the client would have paid for the development of useless software.
More Customer Interaction
In addition to spending time with end-users, Menlo hosts a weekly show-and-tell session with their client sponsors. In a reversal, it’s the customers who “show” the staff how they use the software. Programmers sit and watch as the clients demonstrate and “tell” them how it feels. Once again, “Menlonians” observe and learn.
There is no discernable hierarchy at Menlo. They have no formal reporting relationships, but they encourage people to become leaders. They find that those who are “gentle, empathetic, and trusting teachers” naturally grow into leaders. Another extension of this organic approach is that it’s up to the employees to award raises and promotions. Employees are judged by their peers.
Routine and Discipline
Beneath the organic leadership, the “high-speed voice technology,” the viking helmet and the focus on joy, there are clearly defined, rigorous systems. What might seem like anarchy to some has a deceptively strong set of rules. The paired programming, the lack of walls, the weekly estimates and the Work Authorization Board are non-negotiable. And those who make it through their speed-date end up working harder than they ever have in their lives.
“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.”
Learning From Menlo
This is an extraordinary culture to read about. Even for those not in the software development industry it’s instructive and aspirational. But, just as you cannot simply copy the Lean culture of Toyota, you cannot copy what Menlo has done. But — you can get a lot of great ideas and experiment! The good news for everyone is that this masterful storyteller is writing another book titled, Chief Joy Officer: How Great Leaders Elevate Human Energy and Eliminate Fear. Watch for it on November 13, 2018.
The author describes a false economy of "fake actuals" provided by the lowest-price competitor. Furthermore, this data becomes the basis for useless "future planning." The passages here and elsewhere pass a routine smell test. Moreover, I appreciate the readability and analysis the author provides.
Will this book make a difference in the modern workplace? While I am skeptical about these methods being broadly adopted in the US, this book offers premium differentiators for employers in service, knowledge work, and high-skill industries. Joy may bring dollars, and these dollars may bring more Joy and justification.
I found this book to be a delightful reconsideration of standard workforce methods that sap Joy. I wish the monolithic defense contractor where I was previously employed worked differently. Kudos.