Joy Inc. How We Built a Workplace People Love

by Richard Sheridan

Posted by Anton Katunin on 19 June 2020
Tags: books, 4 stars

This book is a simple description how fairly successful consultancy company called Menlo works. The book is obviously promoting their process and culture, but it’s not encouraging you to follow it. That makes it smooth to read and allows you to make your own conclusion.

Menlo is a consultancy and not a product company. That defines their culture and processes. Looks like a lot of processes were solidified when the company was founded in 2000s. Nothing wrong with that, it just feels dated at times.

Below are my highlights and comments

1. My Journey to Joy

Put me in a room full of manure and I will keep digging until I find the pony.

If the change is to stick, you must quickly replace the old rewards with new rewards of equal or greater value (and remember, most treasured rewards are not monetary). Failure to establish new rewards will cause the team to revert to old forms and old rewards the first chance they get.

2. Space and Noise

One of our few rules is that we ban earbuds. If you need earbuds to get into your state of flow, you’re not the right fit for Menlo.

Menlo is all about open office and noisy environment. They don’t respect individual focus. Shouting across the room is a norm. You signup to this conditions from day one and if you don’t like it, you are not a good fit.

The advantage that leads to open information and collaborative culture. Author claims noisy environments bring joy.

3. Freedom to Learn

In the long run, the only sustainable source of competitive advantage is your organization’s ability to learn faster than your competition.

— Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

She [Menlo’s employee] respectfully offered that she thought it was strange that they defined themselves by a piece of technology.

The simple answer Menlo is a consultancy, their solution depends on client’s projects. In 2000s it might totally worked because technology was very simple. However in 2020 technology is much more extensive and I bet they are mediocre in all those languages.

Pairing is the foundation of our work style and our learning system.

Learning to Get Along

Assigning pairs and switching them each week helps avoid a variety of typical team ills that could interfere with learning outcomes. For example, it prevents team members from feeling alienated by another team member who may not have a particularly outgoing personality. It may not be a personality problem at all, just normal human shyness. We avoid cliques forming, as everyone gets a chance to work with one another.

Watch Productivity Rise

Of course, there is no real loss, but tremendous gains as learning goes faster.

Can We Really Afford All This Learning?

If this traditional thinking persists, we are likely not a good fit for the client.

I think the above phase highlights the bias in their clients. I would attribute their success to the amazing sales skills. Being that picky and stay in business that’s trully impressive.

Tear Down Towers of Knowledge

He [tower of knowledge employee] becomes the bottleneck of the entire organization.

Pairing Pushes Personal Growth

The Lunch ’n Learn

At least once a week we host an organized “Lunch ’n Learn. …​ What we discovered back then is that important learning happens in the pairs rather quickly, but the knowledge transfer to the rest of the team can be slow. To facilitate team learning, we bring in lunch and grab a corner of the factory, typically at noon, to hold deeper teaching sessions.

Teach the World Your Culture

Being an active learning organization strengthens our team and makes them more valuable to Menlo and to our clients.

To mention, Menlo does regular tours about their work process.

4. Conversations, Rituals, and Artifacts

The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.

— John Naisbitt, Megatrends

The Daily Standup

“Hey, Menlo!”

We’ve developed a far more efficient method of communication that we call High-Speed Voice Technology.

I just call out, “Hey, Menlo!”

Rituals Provide a Safe Environment for Building Skills

Our rituals ensure that all team members, at one time or another, will present in front of a group. It would be easy to simply rely on the same people every time, or always pick the most seasoned and polished presenters, but we switch it around so everyone has a chance to practice. Menlonians present to one another in weekly kickoff meetings and to customers at weekly Show & Tells; they present at local conferences on subjects of interest to them and the audience; they lead tours of our factory.

Show & Tell: Where Rubber Meets Road

Show & Tell is a critical interaction. The client gets to discuss the project with the people who actually did the work.

The Work Authorization Board: Freedom Through Tyranny

Aka Scrum board

Sticky Dots: A Real-Time Status Report

However, they all know the real goal is to produce the best possible result for the upcoming client Show & Tell.

Visible Artifacts Encourage Cooperation

Make Mistakes Faster!

5. Interviewing, Hiring, and Onboarding

Superstars Need Not Apply

Saying no to lone-wolf superstars is an important part of our defining a joyful culture.

Hire Humans, Not Polished Résumés

We rewarded staff for referrals—something I’ve since learned is one of the most terrible HR tactics ever invented if you want an intentionally joyful culture.

No one ever got into a field of work to keep doing the same thing over and over again for their entire career.

You shouldn’t interact with your potential hires differently than you do with your team.

Cast a Wide Net

Our first interview is a mass interview of thirty to fifty people at the same time.

First Round: Simulate the Work

We start the interview process by telling the candidates that they are going to pair with one another.

What becomes quite clear is that people quickly revert to their natural style, even if it doesn’t benefit them in this process.

We also offer the interviewees an opportunity to send me e-mail feedback about their experience. The reward for that extra follow-up effort is that I’ll send a book of their choice to their home from a list of our recommendations.

Let the Team Build the Team

As CEO and cofounder, I do get a vote and an opinion, but it’s not given any greater weight than anyone else’s.

Second Round: Do Real Work

We bill the work to the client, who is informed of this ahead of time, at a lower rate.

Wow. Just wow. That goes to my previous comment about how much depends on your client.

She asks them a critical question: would you like to pair with this person again? If the feedback from the team is positive, then we invite the person in for a three-week trial.

Don’t Delay in Making Hiring Decisions

A Birdcage Without Bars

if it didn’t work out this time, for whatever reason, you can try again. We are a birdcage without bars.

6. The Power of Observation

A company doesn’t exist to serve its own people; a company exists to serve the needs of the people who use its products or services.

Anthropology is the link. We need to study people in their native environment to figure out how to bring them utility and joy.

High-Tech Anthropologists Are Good for Business

Hand-Drawn Mock-Ups: The Artifacts of the HTAs

Design for Living

To succeed in design, a company must define its target audience and be very specific.

7. Fight Fear, Embrace Change

Fear is the mind-killer.

— Bene Gesserit, “Litany Against Fear” from Frank Herbert’s Dune

Make Mistakes Faster

If a make mistakes faster culture is going to survive and thrive, you must establish a standard of fast, frequent, and inexpensive experimentation.

look for success and failure rates to be about even. If the percentage of failures started dropping, we’d become concerned that fear had crept into the room and that people weren’t taking those important risks.

Avoid the Deadly Paralysis of Sunk-Cost Thinking

Sunk-cost thinking is one of the most insidious obstacles to change in business today.

sunk-cost thinking paralyzes organizations into making really big mistakes very slowly. They attempt to avoid bad news by pretending it doesn’t exist.

The Cost of Artificial Fear

The fear and the associated hidden sunk cost just go underground and pollute the groundwater of the organization’s cultural and financial ecosystems.

For a 'make mistakes faster' culture to thrive, you must remove manufactured fear as a management tool.

Incrementally Change a Current Process and Give It Time

Experiment: International Interns

When the new interns arrived, we were forced to practice onboarding new people even when the economy had slowed down.

Experiment: Menlo Babies

Here? You’ll never hear it. It’s like a noisy restaurant all day.

The Reward Is in the Attempt

8. Growing Leaders, Not Bosses

A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

— Lao-Tzu

Let Your Team Lead Without You

Be Vulnerable

The hardest part of leadership is remembering that you are just as fallible as anyone else in the organization.

If the vision isn’t shared, then no one has a chance of learning whether he or she fits or not. Drilling down on your vision also gives others a chance to respond and participate in improving it. During this period, the personal vision of an individual evolves into the shared vision of a team.

Encourage New Leaders

9. End Chaos, Eliminate Ambiguity

Do the simplest thing that can possibly work.

— Kent Beck, Extreme Programming Explained

Write It Down

No Work Without Estimation

Declare What You Are Doing and Not Doing

Record Your Decisions

Unambiguously Assign Work

Hot Pink Decisions

Cool idea to make tech debt work visible. Use pink cards so it’s easy to see how much capacity it takes in a cycle.

10. Rigor, Discipline, Quality

The rigor and discipline that exist just an inch below the surface of what you see at Menlo has led to unprecedented quality in our products.

Heroes Rely on Risky Heroics, Great Teams Rely on Discipline

Deliver Tangible Results Frequently

Rigor and discipline and the quality that results reinforce your organization’s definition of “why” you exist, a concept so elegantly explored by Simon Sinek in his book Start with Why.

11. Sustainability and Flexibility

sustaining the humans who work for us

What Most Count as Workplace Flexibility Is Inhumane

making your staff ask permission for time off creates fear-based guilt, and employees use this option less than they would if they were managing it themselves.

Honor People Over Process

James and I often shock our team members by reminding them we will help them find work elsewhere should they ever feel the desire to leave Menlo.

Some of the worst cultures I have come to know are those from which no one ever leaves. Low attrition is not a sign of a healthy culture.

Ironically, in low-attrition cultures, the highest-paid people are likely the ones who tried to leave and were walled in with a counteroffer they couldn’t refuse. They are still trapped. Higher pay doesn’t erase that feeling.

A team member with an unfulfilled dream, always wondering what could have been.

A Ready State for Starting

Embrace change.

Vision Is Key


Flexibility Produces Capacity That Is Ready When You Need It

If you aren’t systematically adding capacity to your team, then when new unexpected business needs arise, overtime is the only option for additional capacity. Hiring is usually not an option because there is no capacity to quickly onboard new people in most organizations.

Too often, businesses go to the same people every time to do the same work, all the while never building capacity for unexpected needs. In our world, pairing is a central element in building this capacity.

12. Scalability

Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.

— Brooks’s Law

If a business can’t scale, it is probably an indication of faulty “systems.”

Practice Scaling

Cockpit resource management. By switching pairs every week, we practice onboarding a new team member into a project even if the project stays the same size.

True Scalability Works in Both Directions (scale up and scale down)

Build in Slack to Handle Scaling

Link Scalability with Sustainability

  • If you scale and destroy quality in the process, have you really scaled?

  • If you scale and destroy your team’s morale, spirit, and energy, have you really scaled?

  • If you scale and threaten people’s lives in the process, have you really scaled?

  • If you scale and are defeated in the marketplace by superior products, have you really scaled?

  • If you can scale up but can’t scale down, can you really say you are able to scale at all?

13. Accountability and Results

As CEO, I shouldn’t expect any greater commitment from my team than I am willing to offer in return.

You don’t get the estimate you want; you get the estimate you need to produce a quality software product.

This system produces the results everyone is seeking. Having removed fear from estimation, the team estimates more aggressively. Knowing they are working toward a goal they set for themselves, a pair of workers will push to hit their own estimate. The client will actually get more work done in less time, as long as they are willing to acknowledge that, sometimes, an estimate will be wrong. Add to this that quality will not be compromised, and you now have the results most teams can only dream about.

What is you force the first estimate? "They’d start to pad their estimates," he said. “The project managers would catch this and start trimming estimates based on this padding. The team would start lying about actually being done, and then quality would start to go down the drain. Suddenly, we’d have all kinds of support problems and a demoralized team where no one trusted anyone.

Predictable Structures Hold Everyone Accountable

Nobody gets exception and everybody must go through the same process. Including CEO.

Showcasing Your Work Is Accountability in Action

Actual Actuals

All time spent on a client project is logged in on a weekly time sheet, and team members record their time against each story card that is worked on.

Get Results by Giving Your Team a Chance to Get Things Done

The one that resonates most with me for long-lasting team engagement is the ability to go to work and get meaningful things done.

Done releases endorphins, the body’s natural opiate, and it’s addictive. Done, when it really means done and behind you, leads to the joy of knowing that a hard day of work produced a valuable and valued accomplishment.

14. Alignment

15. Problems

What kinds of problems am I referring to? You know the list: a new hire who isn’t adapting to our culture; gossip; not closing a deal; a philosophical difference between pair partners about how a feature should be implemented; a team member who moves faster than a pair partner; a pair partner who moves slower; a team member who dominates conversations; team members who are almost always silent even when they are concerned; those who think they should get raises just because they’ve been with us for a long time; those who should be getting raises but aren’t because they have somehow slipped through the cracks in our feedback system.

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