It’s fitting, in this holiday season, to be talking about "joy".  Menlo Innovations, a software development company in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has made a joyful workplace its goal and has found Joy Inc that, by doing this, business success follows. In Joy, Inc., a new book by Richard Sheridan, Co-Founder and CEO of Menlo, we read how his company makes joy the center of its business model.  

Starting in 2001 and even after considerable growth and changes in location, the company has succeeded in maintaining a work environment that is joyful. Most observers would have said, “Not possible; maybe for a few months or a year but no longer; and certainly not in a weak economy.” These observers have been proven wrong and every indication is that Menlo is sustainable. Joy, Inc. tells how this happened.

Being joyful is serious business. Sheridan writes:


At Menlo, we have fun, we laugh a lot, and there is almost always palpable energy - but we aren’t always happy. We have a shared belief system. We are focused and driven. At times, we are cynical and sometimes downright angry. We use the energy of our anger and cynicism to fuel our work, in hopes of ending the human suffering caused by what is perhaps one of the most broken industries on the planet: information technology.

But it’s not only the information technology industry that is “broken”.  Menlo, by being very public about its culture, is saying to the world that no organization has to have a cheerless, hard-driving workplace. Businesses don’t have to be controlling, demeaning, punitive, and energy-depleting. They don’t have to be bureaucratic and authoritarian; managed by an org chart and powered by position. By explaining how Menlo works with clients, estimates costs, organizes work assignments, develops teams and leaders, and ensures quality, Sheridan provides a guidebook for creating joy in any organization.  

The success of the company doesn’t mean there haven’t been problems and challenges along the way. One of the things I like about the book is that Sheridan lets the reader in on things they did with employees, with processes, and with clients that didn’t go well. I won’t call them “mistakes” or “failures” because those aren’t terms that fit Menlo. Everything they do is an opportunity for learning. When something doesn’t go as well as intended, they use that experience to improve.

After reading Joy, Inc. and visiting the company on several occasions, I believe the key to Menlo’s success is its “learning culture”.  This is an intentional culture a la Edgar Schein's three levels: (1) the deep underlying beliefs and assumptions that are often difficult for insiders to articulate; (2) the values and principles that structure action; and (3) the symbols and artifacts that are visible on the surface for all to see. In the Menlo culture the message to employees, both implicitly and explicitly, is that we are learning together how to best serve our clients while creating an enjoyable and meaningful work environment. The “rituals and artifacts” that Sheridan describes in Joy, Inc. contribute to creating this culture: from the hiring process when prospective employees learn how to fit into Menlo, to the paired employees who learn how to work together on job tasks, to constant conversations during the workday, to lunch n’learns, to storytelling, to leaders setting an example for continuous learning, and to speaking about The Menlo Way to other companies and to the public. The value placed on the joy of learning comes through loud and clear to employees and observers.