How One Company Replaced Meetings and Bureaucracy With Pairs, Ceremonies, and Storytelling

At Menlo Innovations, structure—and multiple keyboards—allows you to split the difference between chaos and bureaucracy.

"This year we're at 330 tours," says Rich Sheridan, the founder of Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He’s not humblebragging, he’s bemused—as Menlo has become a case study in progressive offices.

But are heavyhitters from Toyota, General Motors, Ford, McKinsey, and American Express coming to visit their office and learn their secrets?

At Menlo, the open office isn't focus-crippling or idea-stifling. Instead, as the title of Sheridan's new book on office culture, Joy Inc. suggests, it's a lot of fun.

How Menlo Innovations became 'Joy, Inc.'

"Visitors hear about this open office idea, so they want to see what it's like," he says. "Most people who are used to a quiet office and cube environment and unnerved by sitting in a room together. But we have some constructs that make our environment work."

Those constructs are pairs, storytelling, and rituals.

Talking with Sheridan, it's clear he's been thinking about this stuff pretty deeply for a while now. He's been in awe of Thomas Edison and his open and bustling Menlo Park laboratory since he was eight years old (thus the name of his company). Sheridan first started experimenting with wide-open plans during the first dotcom boom. He talks about culture like an anthropologist would: while in most companies a culture is something formed by "what behaviors get tolerated," he says, at Menlo the culture has been deliberately constructed.

Construction 1: Paired work

At Menlo, it's "two heads, two hearts, and four hands": no one works alone, everyone has a partner. Those partners switch over time, as Sheridan has referenced how airline pilots get complacent when they fly with the same copilots for too long a time. Yet amongst the hubbub there's privacy.

"This is like a noisy restaurant," he says. "Everyone's working in pairs, as opposed to everybody working alone. Think of the typical cubicle environment: everyone has earbuds in their ears. It's not library quiet. And then the person three cubes down is talking about the football game. You can't concentrate, but here it's the noise of work."

So how does the paired process work? Developers, for instance, can write code together, explaining to their partners why they wrote what line and where they're going with it. This creates an instant code review—bugs, we know, can get costly, plus "extreme amounts" of knowledge sharing, itself a salve to leaderly dillemmas.

To Sheridan, the paired work allows managerial challenges to fall by the wayside:

Typically there's the 'towers of knowledge' problem, where there's one guy who knows everything about one piece of the system, let's call him BIll, and no one knows what Bill knows. That feels like job security for Bill, but that soon becomes a prison, since no one can actually help Bill. And now Bill becomes a bottleneck for the whole organization. Pairing destroys that problem. The other problem is quality: (with pairing) there's instantaneously review.

Construction 2: Telling stories

At Menlo, the employees have an "oral culture."

"We don't really have our practices written down," says project manager Lisa Ho. "You learn by sharing with each other. We pass that on through stories and sharing."

As screenwriting guru Robert McKee has told us, the story is the most fundamental form of communication. At Menlo, storytelling is a way of diffusing their philosophy among the team. Since Sheridan can't lead every tour group that comes in, other team members take over. Plus new employees learn about the way things work through their partner—another benefit of the paired work.

Storytelling isn't just for internal cohesion; it's also how Menlo communicates the needs of the user. That advocacy is the duty of their high-tech anthropologists. As developer Ted Layher relays:

High-tech anthropologists go out and do observations and create personas based on experiences people have had. We design for the primary personas. If you were to walk in on some random project, you would hear people talking about Gary. it helps everybody to tell a story about gary and what they want and what their frustrations are and what their likes are, to talk about how this feature is going to impact Gary.

Construction 3: Rituals Instead of meetings

When I ask about rituals, Sheridan asks me to consider meetings as we may know them: where people are slumped into their devices, where no one knows who's leading, where they always run too long.

While meetings lack in structure, rituals provide them. For in a ritual, he explains, everyone knows the purpose of the gathering, the responsibilities you have, and the decisions to be made and then documented.

In this way, the ritual is totally unambiguous. Menlo's daily standup, as described in Joy, Inc, provides an example:

A dartboard alarm goes off at 10 a.m. to signal that it's time for the daily standup. Everyone stands up and gathers in a rough circle to report out to the group. Someone grabs a Viking helmet to start the meeting. The pair partners holding the helmet describe what they are working on and where they might need help. The helmet is passed to the next pair in the circle, all the way around. The last pair closes with "Be careful out there." This ends the daily standup.

What all this adds up to: an engineered culture

To Sheridan, office cultures can evolve in three phases:

First you've got the chaotic culture, where people are bursting into your office and telling you what to do, so all that gets finished is urgent, rather than important work.

Then there's the bureaucratic culture, where you have meetings upon meetings and status reports and endless work about work. "You move from not getting anything done to not getting anything started," he says.

Finally, there is the lightweight structure—with rituals, storytelling, and pair work.

Bottom Line:

Repeatable, measurable, simple structure: Humans crave that. With that simple structure you can spend most of your time actually doing work—without it being chaotic and without it being bureaucratic.

[Image: Flickr user Evan Blaser]

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16 Comments

  • Amr Elssamadisy

    I know Menlo as a respected name in the software development field. I'm wondering what the real culture is? Stand up meetings, pairing, and story telling is standard in the agile field and has been around since the late '90s. These practices, while effective, do not a culture make.

    Deliberate culture design - impressive - and there are those who are doing it. Can you give us more insight than 3 15-year old practices?

  • Puzzled in Peoria

    The description of the ritual is exactly the same as that of a well-planned meeting. Well, except for the sacrificing of a goat at the end. I think these breathless pronouncements about the newest silver bullet process are designed to sell hastily-written books or to boost a company's visibility, but are mostly rehashes of the last ten years' theories. Anyone who tours this company to gain insight should just invest in experienced personnel and turn them loose to build a streamlined and personalized culture of their own. "Best Practices" are rarely the best, just the most recently hyped, and are seldom actually practiced.

  • Charles Cawley

    The Chinese must be laughing. Telling stories? This is desperate stuff and appears to be treating adults as if they were children. This is not the right way to treat people.

    Business is brutal. Dressing things up this way is displacement activity to avoid dealing with the real problem. Bookshops sell millions of self-help personal improvement business books.

    The reality is that they are blame books; and are a perversion of the American self help ideology. The employee is to blame and managers do not need to change. US corporations are being eaten from within by rampant and out of control company politics. But even mentioning this reality is taboo. The lie is revealed: Every successful good CEO has used positive politics as key to their success. Fact. No exceptions.

    But where are the books on the subject? Our manual is, it appears, the only radical guide. All the management consultants are terrified of speaking the truth. Time have changed the luxury of denying business reality can no longer go on. If you want a free pdf copy... contact me by Linked In. The consultants and 'thought leaders' do not want you to know what's going on... it would show them up for what they are.

  • George

    I didnt understand the ranting above.....then i figured you want to sell your free pdf.....

  • charlescawley

    It's free. It is free because I genuinely believe that there is a very serious problem. I do not run or own a consultancy but run a holiday booking service in the UK. I went through years of misery as an employee and genuinely believe that others should not suffer in the same way. Negativity is a problem as is looking a gift horse in the mouth. There is no advertising in the pdf and no calls to do business or pay for anything. There are no phone numbers or e-mails on the pdf, aside from a name to secure copyright, there are no other details.

    Thinking it is possible to sell something that is free is a sad reflection on the blind cynicism of the age. Cynics are those who do not listen and do not care. Stoics at least care. I am neither but someone who genuinely wants a better world and does not expect money to work towards that ambition.

    You can have a copy and then, if you like, tell the people here if what I say is true and its worth. This is not a cheap trick. You have implied something unjustified. There are some people out there who genuinely care.

  • Sir you run holiday booking service in the UK. Totally different culture and industry. I am software engineer in our industry we have negative 5% employment. Keeping employees happy and productive is very important. This book helps organizations implement the Agile methodology.

  • ikaruga

    What the hell are you talking about?

    By "story", the author doesn't mean fiction. Instead the author means "putting best practices, manuals, etc in narrative form".
    That's way, way different.

    By the way, "story" aka narrative form is the most powerful form of communication. We're basically hardwired for "story".

  • charlescawley

    The attitude and style infantilises adults.

    Employees are being treated as if infants. You can hear the laughter in board rooms. Stories are not necessarily true. They are stories. Where did you get this stuff about basically hard wired etc:? Do you really think the Chinese respect this sort of thing? They are winning, there is no doubt about that.

    Do not swallow this stuff. Vast empires, great businesses were built without treating people this way. 'Effective communication', I think you meant. Power is very different and you know it when it comes your way.

    As for your bad language. Try not to do this. it will get you nowhere.

    This feel good fluffy stuff is not good enough. Instead, the real problems should be addressed. But you obviously think the problem of corporate politics can be ignored and we can find everything nice in stories.

  • George

    Though I must admit that the ritual and story telling is a bit soft...but thats a software company doing their own stuff...and lets figure out in time if they make millions of dollars in profits...but ur message of hard work and do away with fluff is right....but misplaced here....many flowers in a garden

  • ikaruga

    It's called Science. Modern science has confirmed that we're hardwired to learn best when taught in story form. See any journal of modern pedagogy, etc.

    I think your problem is that you're not listening to what I'm saying. I say "story", you think "fiction". A story (aka narrative form aka effective communication) can present facts *while* invoking emotions. The two of them together work pedagogical magic in our brains. In other words, while we may have invented the computer, we don't think (or learn) like a computer.

    A traditional corporate environment, which was designed for the industrial revolution of 100 years ago, treats employees like children. The reason is because its designed for a different type of worker---the *factory* worker.

    The article alludes to a new type of worker---the *idea* worker. Idea workers need a radically different environment to be maximally productive.

    As a computer programmer (and therefore an idea worker), I can attest that #1 is uber effective. By nature, programming is a complex *collaborative* endeavor.

    "As for your bad language. Try not to do this"... (1) "infantilises" is not a word. I'm assuming you meant "infantilizes" (2) "employees are being treated as if infants".... You meant "employees are treated *like* infants". (3) and other grammatical errors...

  • charlescawley

    Still not one word about company politics. Somehow, I do not see telling stories featuring big in the boardroom.

    Modern science? Some pretty wild and outrageous things were called 'modern science' in the past. Eugenics were all the rage in late 19th century UK.

    Words are not what you want them to mean, like Humpty Dumpty. If it is not a story then it is not a story.

    The traditional corporate environment did not treat employees like children. Indeed, the only defence during the period of the Combination Act laws in the UK when all this started off was to insist on contractual rights. The grim capitalist theme was that contracts were all and they were enforced in a cruel and bloody way.

    Using spelling as an excuse not to listen is a little sad. I use English spelling which is where the admirable American language came from. The colour and behaviourist nature of the way you plough on through this argument is interesting. And I do not fail to understand the equally good often superior US way of spelling. "As if" is not incorrect.

    The trick is to seek the meaning and to try to understand. Trying to find excuses not to listen on the grounds of supposed grammatical and spelling errors is, in itself, quite revealing..

  • ikaruga

    Because the article isn't talking about corporate politics. (Although now that you mention it, I'm a little curious what you mean.) In fact, the article is very specific. For example, Point #2 the author recommends using narrative form to effectively communicate *best practices*---nothing else, and nothing more. Point #3 is taken straight from Agile software development practices, which is used heavily in the software industry.

    Your tirade about the "chinese" and the need to be "hard" doesn't really apply.

    The point of the article is to motivate companies to evolve past the bureaucratic culture phase. As an idea worker having worked in all three types of companies, I can attest that the lightweight structure company is where I've been the most productive ... and happiest.

  • charlescawley

    Why not just use the word 'explain' or simply communicate? Politics is about information, communication, misinformation and abuse. It is absolutely relevant to the article.

    The Chinese are brutally effective and do very well without the need to complicate or invent unnecessary extras to make things or be productive. Some of the worst excesses of bureaucratic history were left in India from the British Imperial past and they find echos in what is thought to be 'modern' today.

    It is sad to see the US Empire crumble sharing the fate of the British Empire.

    It is as if you are frightened of the taboo of internal politics. Next, you will tell me that it does not exist where you work. Every good CEO in history has used positive politics as key to their success without exception. This is about information flow. It is a common mark of organisations troubled by internal politics that they refuse to admit of its existence.

    I was an employee for many years and learnt all about company politics the hard way. That is why I offered that free pdf. There is no direct commercial gain for me.

    The frontis piece features Queen Elizabeth 1 in the Rainbow Portrait opposite the frontis piece from Hobbes Leviathan. The gown of the Queen is covered with eyes and ears.