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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.

[Image: Flickr user Evan Blaser]

"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.