What every business can learn from the brilliant Menlo Innovations.
Since I finished reading Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love, I’ve been bouncing back and forth between feeling happy and jealous. The book, to be published next month, is by Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations. All Inc. writers can name a few companies of which they are particularly fond, and I’ve had a mad crush on Menlo for years. So I’m happy Rich is telling Menlo’s story at length. I’m jealous because I’ve only been able to tell pieces of it: a short feature back in 2009 (with an accompanying slide show on Inc.com) and a squib in this year’s Most Audacious Companies package . If ever a business deserved full-out exegesis, it’s Menlo.
Menlo, a 50-employee custom-software business, came to my attention when it applied for an award from Winning Workplaces, a not-for-profit with which Inc. once partnered. Rich did a crap job filling out the application, so initially I wasn’t impressed. But I called him for a ten-minute followup--which turned into a two-hour conversation, which led to my spending a revelatory day at the company, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
That day started--as do many at Menlo--with Rich leading a tour for outsiders. Those outsiders include potential customers, college students, aspiring employees, and, increasingly, curious pilgrims from companies all over the world. Post-tour, the staff formed a circle in Menlo’s wide-open office space with its ever-morphing floor plan. They passed around a Viking helmet, whose horns represent the company’s foundational principal of pairing. The influential book Extreme Programming Explained dictates that programmers work in pairs--sitting at a single computer, passing the mouse back and forth, frequently changing partners to perpetuate learning and keep things fresh. Menlo goes further: pairing up and rotating employees within virtually all functions. As the Viking helmet circulated that day, each pair member grasped a horn and updated the team on their status.
Because Menlo employees do everything in pairs, the company hires for sandbox skills. Twice a year, Menlo stages a mass interview/audition, during which several dozen job candidates pair up and work together on tasks while current employees observe how well they collaborate. Candidates are told their goal is to get the other person hired. I ended my day watching the entire staff vote on which applicants would move on to the next step in the hiring process.
Almost everything Menlo does is interesting--from the peer feedback lunches to the babies in the office to how people communicate by yelling at each other across the room. (To convene an all-hand’s meeting Rich stands up and hollers, “Hey, Menlo!”) Clients, who visit the office regularly, prioritize project features using bits of folded up paper, like origami. Rather than sit passively while an employee demonstrates the latest iteration of a project, a client navigates through the software on his or her own, explaining it step by step to the employee.
The whole operation is designed so people work 40-hour weeks and take regular, unburdened vacations. Want to see what life’s like at another company or travel the world for a while? No problem. Give Menlo a call if you want to come back. Telecommuting isn’t a thing here. (Rich has Marissa Mayer’s back on that one.) Still, Menlo nailed the Alfred P. Sloan Award for Workplace Flexibility last year.
I’ll stop myself because I feel that urge again to write a book, and someone else got there first. Joy, Inc. (available in December) delves deep into Menlo’s idiosyncratic culture, which I now know was inspired, in part, by the television series M*A*S*H. The book also lays out the business principles--at once practical and humane--that underlie Menlo’s practices. Rich doesn’t expect other companies to replicate his model but suggests parts of it would work elsewhere. He believes every company can achieve its own version of joy, defined as creating compelling products that are used and appreciated by those for whom they are intended, while elevating the spirits and well-being of a hard-working team.
To quote Hemingway: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
This is a great book and Menlo is a great company and I want Rich to be right. But inherent in his model is a lovely sort of intimacy. And intimacy, by definition, doesn’t scale. As companies grow, more people interact with more people, a circumstance that either weakens bonds or causes cliques to develop. An environment designed to thrive on noise grows cacophonous. Democracy becomes at once more important and messier. Then there are trust issues. For example, at Menlo, employees often help look after the babies that accompany new parents to the office. That may work with 50 people. At 250, as a mother I would start to get nervous.
More important than challenges of scale are challenges of leadership. In much the way that dogs come to look like their owners, companies come to look like their leaders. Menlo looks a lot like Rich: wide open, optimistic, generous, a bear-hugger of life. Other CEOs require more control, are less trusting, and are more willing to sacrifice employees’ happiness to stoke growth. These leaders aren’t bad or mean or even wrong. They just lack the core competency for joy.
So read Joy, Inc., by all means. While you’re at it, check out Extreme Programming Explained, which is among the books Rich passes out to job candidates who write to him with their thoughts about the interview process. The values expressed by author Kent Beck could anchor the culture and mission of any joy-seeking business. They are communication, respect, feedback, simplicity and--wonderfully--courage, which Beck defines as “effective action in the face of fear.”
I wish the world were full of joyful companies. Personally, I’d settle for decent ones. But joy is aspirational. Add it to the mission statement, by all means. Then sit down and have a good, hard think about what joy means for you.
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