Thinker in Residence: A Q&A with Richard Sheridan

Sally Haldorson

January 16, 2014


I also came to an important realization: I wasn’t running towards risk by making these changes, I was running away from risk. What was at risk was me. I was around 40 years old at the time I started down this path.


I also came to an important realization: I wasn't running towards risk by making these changes, I was running away from risk. What was at risk was me. I was around 40 years old at the time I started down this path. I had looked ahead and decided I didn't want to work the way I had been for the next 25 years of my life. I couldn't do it. I had to either choose leaving the profession or changing the industry. I chose change!

~Richard Sheridan

Q&A with Richard Sheridan on Joy Inc. Q: For Menlo, you define Joy as "designing and building something that actually sees the light of day and is enjoyably used and widely adopted in large numbers by the people for whom it was intended." Typically when focusing on organizational change, companies start from within. Why start with customer joy in this definition? RS: My experience in leading people tells me that everyone wants to work on something bigger than themselves. This is where people derive the majority of their intrinsic motivation. If Menlo focused its cultural goal internally, then it will just be about making our space fun, our titles goofy, our processes comical and entertaining. I don't believe there is lasting value in that approach. By choosing an external goal, we change our focus from happiness to joy, which in my definition is a longer term, higher value proposition that allows us to work hard to achieve great results. There is nothing wrong with happiness at work, it would just be unrealistic to expect that we would be happy every minute of every day. The question left to those that think about culture is: How do we create a culture that thrives even when we aren't happy at the moment. Q: Some people think organizational culture is just a branding experiment. How do you make it authentic and integrated? RS: I think culture is actually a part of branding. Brands can either be authentic or inauthentic. Most people have a keen sense of smell for authenticity or lack of it. My belief about authentic brands is that they thrive when three points are aligned: the world's outside perception of your company, your company's inside reality, and the heart of the visionary leaders of the organization. If you develop a culture and a brand where all of those things are in alignment, you achieve a great efficiency in your organization because you don't have to lie to anybody about anything. The story you tell yourself, your staff, your customers and the world can all be the same story. Q: Why do so many change initiatives fail, while you succeeded in introducing such an unusual physical change to the way your team worked? RS: Most change initiatives are about "being safe". In a being safe mindset, you will try things you know are going to work. The other significant impediment to long lasting change is the idea that everyone needs to change, including you. When I speak with people about the kind of change we've made at Menlo and they ask me to speak to their team about it, I can hear the implication in everyone's questions: "how do I get them to change?" It's not about them, It's about you. I had to change. I also came to an important realization: I wasn't running towards risk by making these changes, I was running away from risk. What was at risk was me. I was around 40 years old at the time I started down this path. I had looked ahead and decided I didn't want to work the way I had been for the next 25 years of my life. I couldn't do it. I had to either choose leaving the profession or changing the industry. I chose change! Q: How did employees adapt to mobile workstations, since 'staking out one's own territory' is sometimes thought of as an inalienable right? RS: Whenever you take away a "reward" such as personal space, you must quickly replace it with a reward of equal of greater value or people will eventually retreat to the old reward system the first chance they get. A fun example I see all the time at Menlo, is that you don't have a cube or office wall to post pictures of your children. If you want to see your children while you are working, bring them to work! We have raised 8 Menlo babies at Menlo in the last seven years. There are many other rewards my team receives in our flexible office environment. The reward of feeling safe because your teammates are right there with help when you need it. The reward of not having to email your peers when you need a question answered. The reward of eliminating mind-numbing meetings. Q: Tell us about pairing. And why it is the answer to the Tower of Knowledge problem? RS: All project work at Menlo is done in pairs. Programming, design, QA, project management. The pairs are assigned and for the most part, switched every five working days. There are many, many benefits to this approach. One of them is the elimination of the "towers of knowledge" problem, where only one person on the team knows some part of a critical system that no one else knows. That kind of bottleneck used to cripple projects that I managed in my old life. There was always more to do than the "tower" could do in a given work week, so the entire project suffered. We have never had that problem at Menlo and in 12 years can claim something I don't believe any other company in the history of our industry can claim. 40 hour work weeks, every week. We've never had to deny a vacation request in 12 years. We have not built a singular dependence of an individual. While some may consider their own personal "tower" a piece of important job security, most will readily admit it begins to feel like a prison they cannot escape from. Q: There are plenty of current business books that eschew the effectiveness of meetings, and yet you value such get-togethers as "Show & Tell," "daily stand-up meetings," "Planning Games," "Hey, Menlo's" and "Lunch & Learns." How do you ensure that these meetings are effective and useful for all attendees? RS: In our view, meetings are mind-numbing, spirit-draining, energy sucking events where little value is created or delivered. How do we know? Look at most business meetings: within minutes of starting, the staff in attendance are opening up their laptops, pulling out their handheld devices doing "other work" while the meeting is going on? Why? Because they don't need to be there, they are not getting any value from being there. They are trapped, so they try to make their time productive by doing other things. Our rituals are very structured and purposeful. They are accompanied by very specific artifacts, everyone understands their role, it is perfectly clear what data needs to be recorded, how decisions are made and documented. Ambiguity has been removed. Some wonder with such strict structure, whether there is room for creativity and innovation. The answer is: absolutely, because the people gathered are energized, and the structure itself frees them to focus on the content of the meeting rather than the arcane ways that most meeting results are recorded (or not). Q: What is "artificial fear" and what are the symptoms and the antidote? RS: "Artificial fear" is fear that is fabricated in the hopes of motivating people. It can be as simple as the boss sticking his head into your office and asking "how's it going?" or as insidious as asking what you plans are for the weekend, when the implication is that those plans better include coming into the office on Saturday. The fear part can also start inside of a job posting that says something like "only self-starters" need apply. Those ads are declaring: we are so chaotic here that we can barely keep track of what we are working on; you will need to figure out everything for yourself, and you better make the right choices. I once visited a firm where the CIO brought me into his office and described the failure of the last project his team worked on. His boss, the CEO, had told him that the next project better succeed, "or else." I asked the CIO, "or else what?" There was no clarity beyond "or else" but I think we all know what this meant. How is this helpful? Where does this begin to feel like we are all a team? For me, the antidote is getting away from chaos by removing ambiguity, avoiding bureaucracy by eliminating meetings and landing in the safe zone of simple, repeatable, measurable, well understood structure. This is the place where people actually feel safe. If people feel safe, they begin to trust one another, if they trust one another, they collaborate and teamwork emerges. At this point you get innovation, imagination, energy and invention. Q: I think a lot of people regard implementing systems and creating common tools as a waste of time. Why does your process of using cards on planning sheets and sticky dots as illustration work so successfully? RS: It is simple, unambiguous, and part of our shared-belief system as to how things get done. It carries its own rewards as no one has to worry that they missed a subtle clue in a meeting, where the big boss raised an eyebrow when a feature was mentioned and everyone tries to figure out later whether that meant work on it or not. In our world, if something is going to get worked on, it must first be written down on a story card, estimated, and then planned during planning game. If it isn't, it won't get worked on. It is that simple. In this simplicity is great freedom and safety. It holds everyone accountable, because everyone knows that no one can come in and raise a fuss to get something done. They can raise all the fuss they want, but if it isn't written on a storycard, it doesn't have a chance. Most IT projects die on the vine of "scope creep" which slinks its way in to projects based on innuendo and suggestion. Later, everyone gnashes his or her teeth about how we can never keep a project on track. We don't have that here. Q: How is leadership defined at Menlo, and why do you so value growing leaders throughout the organization as opposed to imposing order from top-down? RS: I heard Good to Great author Jim Collins describe leaders as the people who can get people to "want to do what must be done and follow when those people have the freedom to not follow." The word we use at Menlo for this type of leadership is "influence." Many organizations believe you get people to want to do things by "telling" them to do so from authority, title, position and power. Typically, in those environments, people follow with their bodies, but not with their minds. Q: On your website, Menlo showcases its culture as well as its practices. How did the practices list come to be, and why is something like "pets and babies at work" nestled within other hard items like "high speed voice technology" and "integrated quality advocacy?" RS: Some of the practices started with us on day one based on the experiences James Goebel and I had with this approach at Interface Systems between 1999 and 2001. Others evolved as new situations arose. Some started out as experiments, such as allowing moms to bring their newborns to work, or staff bringing in their dogs. When those experiments worked, we turned them into expected practices. Some were just a part of our culture, and then one day we gave it a name, as was the case with "High-speed Voice Technology".
Richard Sheridan, author of Joy, Inc. is the CEO, Chief Storyteller and co-founder of Menlo Innovations. Read more about Richard Sheridan and Joy, Inc. in yesterday's Thinker in Residence post.

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