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Far Reads Recap: Joy, Inc.

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Our latest Far Reads book club pick was “Joy, Inc.: How We Build a Workplace People Love” by Richard Sheridan. Here’s our recap.

Who Selected It

Jen Aiello

Why We Selected It

We were talking a lot about our vision for Far Reach at the time. I think people felt we could learn some things about how to make our vision of having a happy, fulfilled team doing meaningful work a reality.

What It’s About

Joy, Inc., written by cofounder and CEO of Menlo Innovations, Richard Sheridan, is about how to shape an organization’s culture into a joyous workplace.

In it, he describes how Menlo created an environment in which its team members do great work and find real meaning in what they do without falling prey to the stereotypical traps of impossible deadlines, 90-hour work weeks, and insane levels of stress—characteristics traditionally associated with high-tech software development.

He delves into the environmental, cultural, and procedural disciplines employed at Menlo to promote joy, sharing insight into the processes used to execute the work in a sustainable way, how they’ve turned HR on its head, and how they work with clients. And, lest you think life at Menlo is all rainbows and unicorns, the book ends with the comforting (for us, anyway!) admission that, as joyous as the Menlo team is, they still have to deal with a lot of the same challenges facing other businesses. People dynamics, growth, losing a deal, and communication problems are familiar issues to most businesses. We can certainly relate to this stuff!

Sheridan makes a great point, though—if you’re in business and you don’t have any problems, you probably aren’t making an effort to learn and grow. And if you aren’t consistently working to improve, your business—and your team—will suffer.

Our Favorite Quote

We found the following description of a typical exchange between Sheridan and Menlo tour participants particularly impactful. After describing Menlo as “a place that has created an intentional culture focused on the business value of joy,” tour-goers often ask why joy has to be the focus. His response:

“Well,” I ask visitors, “what do you think would happen if half the Menlo team had joy and half didn’t? Which half would you want us to assign to your imagined project?” 

Of course, they always pick the joyful half of my team.

“But why would you want the joyful half of my team?” I ask. “What difference would that make?” 

Answers come pouring out:

  • “They’d be more productive.”
  • “They’d be more engage.”
  • “They’d be easier to work with.”
  • “They’d do better work.”
  • “They’d care more about the outcome.”

Anyone can quickly and easily recognize that a joyful team will product better outcomes.

We couldn’t agree more!

What We Learned

Among many others, some of the most important things we learned include:

  • The valuable role of great relationships in creating and maintaining a joyful workplace
  • The importance of rituals and ceremonies in reinforcing relationships, and the value of talking rather than writing (email, electronic communication)
  • How to simplify scaling (up and down) within a software development team
  • What you say no to defines you as much as what you say yes to
  • The importance of identifying—and not compromising on—quality practices that reflect our values
  • How to use learning as a competitive advantage
  • The value of predictable rituals and ceremonies over unproductive meetings
  • How to use small experiments involving a small amount of risk to reduce risk overall—“…small fast mistakes are preferable to the big, slow, deadly mistakes you are making today.”

The book also reinforced several ideas to which we already ascribe, including:

  • A joyful team adds significant value to clients—it’s not selfish.
  • Pair programming (two developers working side-by-side on the same thing at the same time) adds significant value to the team and to the client.
  • Anyone can be a leader—it doesn’t have to be the boss.
  • The importance of honoring people over process—humans come first.
  • People are more engaged when they’re able to get meaningful things done—we’ve seen this in action on our team over and over again.
  • The value non-developer members of our team bring to our work—we can’t create great software without our UX strategist, product owners, scrum master, QA tester, and business strategists.
  • The critical importance of keeping a product’s focus narrow, at least in the beginning—we’ve seen too many clients try to be everything to everyone. An approach that rarely, if ever, works out well for the client or for the users.
  • Avoid sunk-cost thinking—fretting about the money that’s already been spent on a project can doom its quality and, ultimately, its success. Creating great software often involves trial and error and it’s important to understand and appreciate the value in that process.

Applying What We Learned

We actually started implementing several ideas from Joy, Inc. before we even finished reading the book. We’ve been running small experiments for a few months and iterating on our processes based on the results of these experiments.

For example, in an effort to reduce distractions and increase focus, we’ve adjusted our meeting schedules to give the team longer blocks of meeting-free time throughout the week. We’ve also been iterating on how we write user stories (aka, “requirements”) to help the team better understand what’s expected.

We’ll continue to do these kinds of small experiments, but we’re also making bigger changes.

Probably the biggest is that we recently changed our team structure to facilitate learning and spread knowledge throughout the team (via pair-programming), build relationships, ease communication, reduce unproductive meeting time, and increase clarity and focus. This is a big change for us, but we’re already seeing some positive results and we’re confident we’ll learn a lot and create even better software as a result.

Joy, Inc. was a really impactful book for us, right up there with “Scrum: Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time.” We’d love to hear what books you’ve found to be particularly valuable in your business. Reach out and let us know!

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