By Richard Sheridan
November 16, 2022
One of the biggest obstacles to spreading tangible joy in our two decades of hosting the tens of thousands of visitors to Menlo Innovations lurks in a simple and often asked question:
“How would THIS scale?”
It’s not always clear what the “this” is in the question. It often revolves around some of our specific practices:
- Pairing our people and switching the pairs at least every five days.
- Working in an open environment.
- Simple, paper-based visualization of our most important project management practices.
- High-speed Voice Technology as a substitute for electronic communication.
- Daily standups with the whole team.
- HR without formal HR.
- “Run the Experiment”: A culture that promotes taking action over taking meetings.
- “Make Mistakes Faster”: A culture that values transparency over documentation.
- Leadership as an effective replacement for most hierarchical authority.
- Auditions over interviews.
- Peer-based feedback over annual performance reviews.
What is clearer in the question is the combination of excitement and admiration for what we’ve created alongside an almost desperate belief that there is no way this could ever work in their own organization. It typically revolves around the fact that our visitors work in an organization that is twice as large, ten times as large, or over a thousand times larger than Menlo. We average around 40 employees.
We have seen stunning examples where joy took off quickly inside very large organizations such as units of MassMutual, Nationwide and GE who had met us. If joy can scale inside of some of the oldest, largest businesses in history, it can scale for you too.
I’d like to focus on three key topics:
- Intentional culture over default culture
- Principles over practices
- The role of HR in all of this
Every human organization has a culture. Some are explicit and well understood. Many are not. What is lost in many discussions about culture is that you can choose your cultural intention.
Default cultures are tricky. They can work well for a really long time until one day they don’t, and no one understands why it all stopped working. These kinds of cultures are often hero-based and when something changes in the hero structures, a culture that worked well for a long time suddenly and dramatically stops working
An intentional culture is well understood, over-communicated and very present in the practices and systems of the organization, thus, it would be very hard for a hero to change it. The strongest cultures align three perspectives:
- The world’s outside perception: What do people who don’t work for you say about your organization?
- The inside reality: what do people who work for you say about your organization to family, friends, and colleagues?
- The heart of the visionary leaders: what does top leadership say and do?
If these points are not aligned, the culture is not actually intentional, but simply an aging poster on the wall, and the text of a once-a-year rah-rah speech. Sarcasm, cynicism, and disengagement follow. The most obvious disconnect occurs in the annual performance reviews that ask questions that are not aligned with the oft-repeated cultural intentions.
Principles OVER Practices
I relearned this lesson in the moment the COVID-19 pandemic put all Menlonians in a work-from-home environment suddenly, instantly, and without compromise. As the guy who spent the last 21 years speaking about how our practices intertwine with our culture, has written two books on the subject, and spoke at conferences around the world about the joy at Menlo, I instantly fell into a deeply worrisome state about whether we could weather this storm.
Our practices changed dramatically. Our principles remained:
- Caring for one another
- Time spent together doing work
If you want to pull through tough times, build the strong foundation of an intentionally joyful culture that everyone believes in and wishes to maintain.
Establish a Culture of Experimentation
One of the biggest laugh lines I get at the conference keynotes I deliver centers on a story I tell about one of the grandest, longest running experiments at Menlo: the Menlo babies. Our tradition for the last 15 years is to invite newborns into the office (not daycare, the baby is with the parent) all day, every day.
The first baby (of a total of 27, with two currently on the way) came to work when one of our team members was trying to get back to work after maternity leave and there were no viable daycare options. The mom had told me how excited she was to rejoin the team but had not yet solved the daycare issue. I listened and offered her a crazy idea.
In my talks, I describe this moment as a screaming match in my head, that the mom never heard, with a dark voice on one shoulder and a bright voice on the other.
The dark voice said:
“Don’t you dare say what you are about to say, the lawyers will freak out, the insurance policies will go through the roof. HR will kill you!”
The bright voice said:
“It’s your company, you can do whatever you want. You don’t even have an HR department!”
A roar of laughter and applause happens every time. Even at HR conferences!
Organization versus Company
One last important thought: I carefully chose to use the word organization instead of company. This organizational approach is key to scaling. You don’t have to change the world; you just have to change YOUR world. Large companies that span nations and have thousands or hundreds of thousands of employees will never change ‘all at once’. And that’s OK. All the examples I’ve seen where joy was successful inside a large company involved an internal organization within a much larger company … the claims department of MassMutual, the IT team at Nationwide, a Global Services team within GE. However, on one visit of GE’s then CEO Jeff Immelt, he said “I’m not sure exactly what is going on here, but I want more of it.” And that’s how you get culture to scale.
About the Author
Rich Sheridan, CEO and Chief Storyteller at Menlo Innovations, is a successful entrepreneur and author of two best-selling books, Joy Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love and Chief Joy Officer: How Great Leaders Elevate Human Energy and Eliminate Fear. Rich’s passion for inspiring organizations to create their own joy-filled cultures has led him to address audiences across the world—through four continents and 18 countries (and counting) as well as throughout the United States.