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The Art and Magic of Making Joy the Driver of Your Business



Inside a Human Business.  An interview with Richard Sheridan, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Menlo Innovations


Menlo Innovations is not yet another software development company in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It is unique in many aspects. Face this, every year more than 3.000 people visit this firm to watch how it works. They are inspired by the people, the environment and the way Menlo work. Co-founder, CEO and Chief Storyteller Richard Sheridan writes about this unique place in his bestselling books Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love (2015) and Chief Joy Officer: How Great Leaders Elevate Human Energy and Eliminate Fear (2018).

Richard Sheridan is co-founder and co-CEO of Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. Photo © by Menlo Innovations

I first met Richard in 2015 as we both participated in the Learning Consortium for the Creative Economy. We shared ideas and stories of how joy, happiness and humanity make huge differences in our world of work.- 

In an interview for my new book “Being Human in a Digital Age” (to be published in Germany in 2020) I asked Richard to share his insights about a human business, the Menlo Magic, their way of work, and how to develop an environment where joy and work fit together. In the interview you learn more about

  • the driver of Menlo Innovations,
  • how striving to end human suffering can motivate you,
  • Menlo Magic,
  • why trying to scale Menlo’s model can be misleading,
  • the importance of a human and creative working space,
  • how Menlo communicates with its customers and end users,
  • how Menlo cultivates an environment of continuous learning and innovation,
  • why structure and discipline are prerequisites for creativity,
  • how a human touch can change the overall work atmosphere,
  • why and how joy and work fit together.

Menlo’s Driver

Thomas: What’s the driver of Menlo Innovations? What are you pursuing?

Richard: You know, I think, obviously, the word joy always enters into our world here, and, so, what we talk about is that we’ve created an intentionally joyful culture
To us, all of the words that people might ascribe to us like Agile or lean, that sort of thing, we look at those things through a lens of a simple question: what problem are we trying to solve? 
So, rather than pursuing Agile or lean as a goal, we look at it through this lens of problems we’re trying to solve and how this helps end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology.

And so, we look at the tools of Agile and the tools of lean as helping us do that. 
Certainly, people who come here who know us well could easily describe us as an Agile organization. Linda Rising called us the most Agile organization in the world. I appreciate Linda’s support when she says those things, but it isn’t the thing we are pursuing. 
We are pursuing this idea that we can one day delight the people we intend to serve — and that is our definition of joy — and we’re going to do it by ending human suffering.

Ending human suffering

Thomas: What do you mean by ending human suffering?

Richard: Part of this is born out of my own personal story. I’ve been doing Menlo now with my co-founder for 18 years. 2 years before that, James and I came together to reinvent a public company to something that looks like Menlo today. So, for the last 20 years, I have been living in an environment like Menlo. The 20 years before that, it wasn’t like that at all. I was suffering. I was personally watching projects I was leading miss deadlines, blow budgets, deliver poor quality, work their teams to death, you know, your 24-hour, around the clock, work 7 days a week, people pulling all-nighters, staying all weekend, only to watch projects be cancelled before they actually get delivered. Or if they ever did get delivered, the users would throw up their hands and say, “Well, why doesn’t it work like this? This isn’t what we needed. Why…?” and, of course, the engineering teams would say, “Well, they’re just stupid users. They don’t understand our beautiful designs.” 
I watched all of this pain for a good portion of my career, and I thought I don’t want that. I don’t want that for the people who pay for software to be built. That’s one form of suffering. People who don’t know technology, but they need it. And so, they pay a team like mine to build it for them, and, often, executive sponsors of projects get very frustrated with the work of software teams. We have a lot of code words in our world. When we something like, “Well, it’s done but it’s not done done,” and those kinds of things. So, I didn’t want that for them. 

I wanted people who were paying for software to be built to feel like they were in control, that they had a voice, that they had a healthy interaction with the technical team that was building it.

So, that was the first form of suffering is for the, what I call, the sponsors of software projects. 

The second kind of suffering we really took aim at is for the end users, the people we ultimately intend to serve with the work that we do. 
Too often, our industry has learned to call the people we serve stupid users. We thought, no, it doesn’t have to be that way. If we actually take a different approach to what the users’ experience will be, we can delight them. We can have software work the way they need it to work. 
Too often, software teams might be tempted to say, “You know, if you learn to think like me, the software will make sense,” and the question is, why would a normal, regular, non-technological human being need to think like the programmers? Why can’t we make the computer and the software that runs on it think like the humans? 
We want to end that kind of suffering, that suffering of the people who use software that teams like ours builds every single day.

And then finally we wanted to end the suffering for the people who do the work. 
Our industry, coined the term “death march”, 24/7, teams of people burning themselves out, and the trouble with that kind of burnout is, our fundamental view is, tired people make bad software. We don’t want to make bad software so we’re not going to have tired people. 

So, those are the three pillars of suffering we wanted to end.

But we didn’t want to characterize it only as suffering. We wanted to characterize it in terms of a more noble goal. And this idea is of returning joy to technology for the people who do the work, for the people who pay for the work, and for people who use the work.

Menlo Magic

Thomas: What is the Menlo Magic? How does it work? And, why does it work every single day?

Richard: I think there’s two fundamental pieces to why Menlo works as well as it does. 
Number one, the people who come in our door every day, the people who work here, actually believe in how we approach what we do. This isn’t cow towing to a mantra or a discipline or methodology or process or, you know, a religion, if you will, that I think a lot of times software teams end up in. The team believes in the process we use here.

And then the second part is, and this will sound a little bit funny, the people who work here actually want Menlo to survive to see another day. They don’t want to go back out into the real world. They actually want to work here.

Scaling Menlo’s model

Thomas: Would it be possible to scale your model?

Richard: First of all, we’re about 60 people right now, and a lot of people look at us and say, “Oh, I see it works for 60 but it couldn’t work for 90 or 200 or 2000,” but we have found examples of companies that work a lot like us — … companies, for example, who work at a much larger scale but still quite decentralized, still very purpose-driven. 

I remind organizations that even if you’re a large organization, you are typically composed of 50- to 100-person teams, no matter how big the company is, and so if you’re thinking of pursuing some version of what we’ve created here — which I would certainly encourage you to think about that — don’t think you have to change the whole world. You don’t have to change your entire organization. You can just change the part around you, because, in some ways, Menlo is much, much, much, much bigger than what first comes to mind because we are plugging Menlo as a company into some of the largest organizations on the planet. We’ve done work for Ford. We’ve done work for General Motors. We’ve done work for Pfizer. All of these enormous corporations are using our team. They didn’t have to change their corporation to work with us and we didn’t have to change how we worked in order to work with them. 
So, in some ways, you’re seeing the example of how a small cohesive team can create a particular culture and serve others who don’t necessarily subscribe to all those same cultural elements you do. And then I think this is scaling and we’ve seen this happen, too.

We have created our own interesting environment. It is interesting enough that people actually want to come see it. We get about 3000 people a year come through our doors from all over the world and they just want to see how we operate. We do about 1 to 3 tours a day here. And, so, now what happens is people come here and visit and they take some piece back with them. 
We don’t tell them we found the one true way that, you know, you should work like Menlo or it won’t work at all, but they’ll take something back with them and they’ll start to improve their lives, their world, their work world. 
Imagine if you were inside of a large corporation — pick your favourite large corporation — and your team within that company is operating differently, so differently that other people within the corporation are coming to visit you, see how you work, and you share with them what you’ve learned, and they start taking pieces and parts back to their organization to try it out.

I think this is one of the challenges of scaling where people think, “Oh we have to replicate it. It must be identical in every place you go,” and I just don’t think that’s true. 
Menlo doesn’t have to be the same even in every client project, and we certainly don’t have to have the same types of customers that we plug Menlo into.

What I don’t want to do is let your readers off the hook here. What I mean by that is they might come and look at Menlo or they read our interview or maybe they read my books and they say, “Oh, Rich and his team, they’re so lucky. I wish I could be them, you know, but I can’t be because our organization is too big, it’s too small, it’s too old, it’s too new, it’s too governmental.” I’m not going to let them off the hook because I have seen so many examples of big corporations that have taken some piece of what they have learned from us and bring it home for their teams and improve their work world. My challenge to your readers is, you can create change within your organization, you just have to choose to do it.

Thomas: So true. It’s also my philosophy. I believe in smaller projects rather than huge corporate programs which can easily become death march projects trying to save the world or the whole organization. Instead I’m proposing to do one project at a time. A project is like a microcosm which the team can control. We can shape it, we can design it the way we like it, and we can change it if we have to. It’s much more complicated on a corporate level with all the politics and bureaucracy. It’s a different story.

The meaning of a human working space

Thomas: How does your working space affect the team productivity? What kind of impact does it have on the atmosphere, the performance, and the results?

Richard: I think for us it’s, as Dickens would say, A Tale of Two Cities.

You know, we are in a former mall. Actually, the space behind me is a former food court. … It is in fact in the basement of a parking structure and there is no sunlight whatsoever. So it’s all electric light that lights the space. 
And so, maybe my challenge to your readers is if we can create joy in the windowless basement of a parking structure with concrete floors and so on, you can do it where you are too.

Menlo’s office space in a former food court of an old mall in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan. Photo © by Menlo Innovations

A lot of people ask us, “Oh, you didn’t want sunlight?” No, we wanted sunlight, but we wanted three other things more. We wanted one big open room. We wanted to be in the downtown Ann Arbor area because the physical surroundings we think actually improve our thoughts about work because people can leave the building, go out onto the street, go to restaurants and bars in the local area here. There are little parks nearby, and so on. So, there’s a lot of amenities to being in a downtown area, and we wanted to be able to afford it. And so we lost natural light in that process. 
But yet when people walk in our door for the first time, almost universally the first word out of their mouths is, “Wow,” because they can actually feel the human energy of our space. I think that is so important. They can hear laughter, they can hear conversations, they can see people working together.
And suddenly it strikes them, oh my gosh, there are no walls, there are no offices, there are no cubes, there are no doors, and then they begin to question us. 
They’re like, “Oh, this is one of those open office environments, isn’t it?” and they say, “Those don’t work, you know. There’s research that proves that these environments don’t work,” and yet they’re confronted with this paradox because they can see it working, and they ask us, “Rich, why does it work for you and it seemingly doesn’t work anywhere else?”
And I say, “well, it’s very simple. 

We didn’t create an open office. We created an open culture. Our physical space is a reflection of some of our deepest held cultural beliefs about creating great teams: openness, transparency, collaboration, teamwork, work done together, flexibility and scalability.”

Everything we’ve done here says to the team, make the space work for you. You don’t have to go ask permission. You don’t have to go check in with the space police. You just simply make the space work for you. 
So, our space changes in small ways every single day. Every once in a while, the team just get bored with the setup and they tear the whole thing down and put it back together in a completely different configuration. And I will tell you those small changes, and sometimes those big ones, are energizing. You know, we become a product of our physical space after a while. I think it was a Churchill quote that said first we form our spaces and then our spaces form us.

And if we put all these walls and corridors up and doors that close, you can’t move them and then your organization gets stuck in a rut, and communication starts to fall down and, you know, mindsets set in concrete. We want people to always be in this adaptable mindset.

What if we move things around this way? How does that feel and could it change our energy? And I will tell you. I sit out in the room with everybody else. There’s no corner office for me, and every once in a while, they move me. I don’t actually choose where I sit. They put me somewhere. Right now, I’ve been in the same table spot for several months, which is a little bit unusual for me.
So then they’ll move me. There’s usually an actual reason behind the move. They don’t just do it randomly. Then I come in the next morning and my table isn’t where it used to be, and I go to where my table used to be and my mind kind of like, “where did my table go?”, and I have to go find it, and probably for the next several days, I am going back to the old spot before I go to the new spot. And it’s literally bumping my brain, right? 
It’s creating what was this passive sort of beta thinking process into more of an alpha mode of just I’m now aware. I’m now very aware of my physical surroundings once again and I can feel it. It’s frustrating because I’m used to going to the same spot but it’s also energizing because I have to think differently. I can’t think the same thoughts I thought the day before because I’m now in a new space. I’m probably surrounded by different people, different interactions, different conversations that I’m overhearing by different people because I’m sitting near different people now. 
And that, I think, awakens our humanity when we do those kinds of things.

Customer and user interaction

Thomas: You talk about delighting your customers. Given that the prerequisite for doing so is understanding their true needs, how do you identify the true needs?

Richard: There’s kind of two conversations that go on here and I’m going to differentiate between two groups of people that often get put together.

One is customers. Now, Menlo is a custom software design and development firm. Customers are bringing big bags of cash and some ideas. We form teams around their ideas, and we design and develop software for our customers who are paying us to do that. The customer is the one who pays us to do the work.

But our primary thought process isn’t actually around the customers, even though we have to take care of them of course. Who we want to take care of are people we will never meet, people who won’t pay us for what we do, and people who will never know who we are, and those are the end users of that software. And this is very important. 

Most businesses actually have this dichotomy between the people who pay them for what they do and the people who one day use the pieces and parts. 

So, there’s often in this world of work, and especially when businesses work with other businesses, there’s this differentiation between customers and users, and we have to take that into consideration when we’re working on our projects. 

I want to answer your question in two different ways. A customer, i.e. the people who pay us to often come in our door and they say something — you know, I’ll use it fairly generically — “Hey. We’ve heard great things about you guys. We think you could help us build an app for an iPhone.” We look at them and say, “Well, awesome. What problem are you trying to solve?” and they look at us funny. They say, “Well, the problem is we don’t have an app.” We explain then, “No, an app is a potential solution but no one in the history of mankind ever woke up and first thing on their mind this morning was, ‘You know what I need today more than anything else? I need a new app.’” 
So, we try and back them up into what problem they’re trying to solve, and this is a really curious little journey because often the thing they think is the problem isn’t actually the problem, and I can tell you, as an engineer, I can’t wait to start thinking about solutions. It’s the first thing on my mind.

Often what we do is we ask our customers — remember I’m differentiating between customers and users — could we go visit with some of the potential users of this solution? 

We had this big logistics firm come to us, and they came to us and they said, “Hey, Menlo. We know you well. We think you could help us build a new CRM system — customer relationship management system.” I can tell you, for the size of this company, that would have been a very big project for us, maybe one of our biggest. Of course, we asked them, “What problem are you trying to solve?” and they’re like, “We need a new CRM system.” We said, “Well, why do you need a new CRM system?” They said, “Well, we’ve grown through acquisition. We’re now a nationwide firm. We used to be regional only. And because of all the acquisitions we’ve done, every separate company we acquired had their own CRM system. We want to create one unified CRM system across the whole organization so that our offices around the nation can all share customer information with one another.” 
Now, I would tell you, as an engineer, this made perfect sense to me. But we said, “Could we go visit your sales offices?” and they looked at us funny and said, “Oh, we know that’s what you’d like to do, but we know what the problem is so you don’t need to do that.” “Well, humor us. Can we go to at least two offices?” and they said, “Sure.” So, our anthropologists went out to two offices of this firm. They started observing them work and they started asking them questions about their work. So, they went to these offices and they said, “Hey. We’re going to watch you work. And what your management believes up in the central office is that you guys have trouble sharing information between offices if they need to transfer information,” and the people in the office smiled politely at us and said, “Oh, we would have never share information with another office.” We’re like, “What? You all work for the same company.” They said, “Yeah, we do. But you have to understand our annual bonus is calculated by how much we outperform the other offices. So, if they make us share information with another office, which they might, we’ll miskey something, we’ll type a phone number wrong, we’ll put in an address incorrectly, we’ll mess up their name so that in fact we will give no advantage to the other offices and then we will outperform them and get a bigger bonus.”
The problem they had wasn’t the CRM system yet. It was their compensation system that was broken.

We think humans are rational, logical creatures, but in fact, you know, when we create the wrong incentives, we will create weird behaviours. 

We went back to the management team and said, “Don’t do the project right now. Not yet. Fix your compensation system. Fix your culture first and then maybe a unified CRM system.”

Cultivating a learning environment

Thomas: How do you cultivate an environment of continuous learning and innovation?

Richard: I know you’re working on a book around humanity in the workplace. And I think it’s very important for all of us, as leaders, to consider what is it that actually makes us human. 
Like, what are the fundamental characteristics of humanity? And I think they revolve around that part of our brain, that prefrontal cortex, where our most human things happen such as creativity, invention, innovation, learning. All of those things are happening in this most human part of our brain. 
So, there’s an anti-part to learning. What should we as leaders not do to promote learning? What we have to remind ourselves is the part of our makeup that — actually steals our humanity and therefore our ability to learn — is fostered by fear. Fear releases chemicals into our bloodstream, adrenaline and cortisol. It shuts down this great part of our brain because this part of our brain is such a big oxygen consumer. 
So, literally with fear, if we learn to lead with fear, we will shrink our teams back down to reptile brain and no learning will happen whatsoever except pain-based learning, which is important, no question. We can learn something from pain, you know. All of us touched a hot stove at least once in our lives and we remembered never to do that again.

But the kind of learning I think organizations are seeking now is not “don’t touch the hot burner.” It’s how do we outperform our competition, how do we adapt to a changing world, how do we lead in that adaptation. And that’s the part where we need to be the most human. 

So, number one, learn to eliminate, as much as humanly possible, fear as a tool in leadership and management. 

And the other part is how do we create the environment within which learning can just easily happen? And for us, the physical space is important. It’s not just the open room, it’s the posters on the wall, it’s the bright lights. It’s that feeling, that wow feeling, when people walk in

And then the other part is how we organize the humans on the team. No one here works in isolation. We work in pairs. 
That simple construct, you’re putting people together, letting them work together, giving them permission to collaborate, making it a standard of our workplace means no one is ever working in that fearful isolation of, “It’s all on me. It’s all on my shoulders. It’s what I can get done and done by me alone.” For us, this idea of putting people together creates safety that I don’t have to be complete by myself, I can lean on the person next to me, and I expect to be leaned on by the person next to me and I expect them to allow me to lean on them. That idea of ‘make your partner look good, help the person next to you succeed’, creates a kind of safety here where learning can flourish, creativity can flourish, and human energy can flourish.

Ensuring discipline, performance and delivery

Thomas: Learning is one thing. But, how do you ensure discipline, performance, and delivery?

Richard: There are two fundamental components of how we think here at Menlo. 

One is we’re a very high structure environment. So, this isn’t laissez faire, do whatever the heck you want, you get some random idea, go off in a corner and start working on it all by yourself. We have a very, very strong structure here, but a very simple structure. So, everybody knows who they’re paired with for the week. There’s a little display as they walk in the front door and, you know, the first day of the week, and they say, “Oh, I’m paired with Thomas,” right, and then, you know, next week, I come in and, “Oh, I’m paired with Michael this week and Thomas is paired with Richard”. 
So, this construct starts to remove a lot of ambiguity and goes towards clarity. This is very important in our world, because ultimately, by the time the work is being worked on, you are in a very unclear environment because there’s invention that has to happen, there’s experimentation that has to happen. But if you know what you’re supposed to be working on, what your goals are, how you will be evaluated for how close you got to what was going on. This is a high-structure environment.

At Menlo all software developers work in pairs. This is called “paired programming”. Not only makes it coding faster, it also improves quality and is more fun. Photo © by Menlo Innovations

And then the other part that really informs how we think is systems thinking. Systems are at their best when there are short communication and feedback loops. 
And that’s what we appreciate so much about the Agile movement. Typically, in our world, we are working on a 5-day iterative cycle. Every 5 days, we check in with our customer through an event we call ‘show and tell’.

So, you know, this isn’t about creating the perfect plan. This isn’t about having the perfect planning process. This is about simply acknowledging we will make mistakes. We are human. The way to keep fear down is make small mistakes quickly.

So, let’s create a system and a structure that allows us to make small mistakes quickly so we can correct them while they’re still small, and if we have open and honest communication, which is critically important in this kind of environment, then we can deal with the things as they come up, and I think, that’s the essence of an Agile enterprise.

Caring for employees

Thomas: I remember you shared a story where you had one of your team members who became a mother, and you wanted her to return but she couldn’t find childcare. You said, “just bring your baby along and we’ll see what happens.” Do you still have this policy in case somebody can’t find childcare for the day? How did it change the environment?

Richard: Yeah. So, yes, that little girl … is now 12 years old and Elsie right now is coming in with George. Elsie is Menlo baby number 24 in the last 12 years.

This has been an awesome experiment for us, and it is delightful. And yes, over the last 12 years, we have continually improved the physical things we put in this space to allow the parents to have an easier time taking care of their child. But I want to say it very clearly, this is not a Menlo daycare. We did not open up a daycare facility. The baby is with the parent all day long or if the parent chooses, and they often do, the baby is also with the team. So, if you bring your child, you may say to Rich, “Hey, do you want to hold little Elsie for a while?” and of course I love holding little children so I might be caught on a tour carrying a baby around, but that’s always the parent’s choice.

We are thinking in terms of humanity in the workplace, if you want to bring humanity into your workplace, bring humanity into your workplace, especially little humans.

I mean, babies have such incredible human energy. They’re like little sponges. They want to hear all the noises and it’s really fun. Usually when they’re here for a couple of months, they start mimicking what they hear. Sometimes, I remember with little Maggie, one of the things that happened was, at a certain point, Maggie started making what we affectionately referred to as dolphin sounds.
She just mimicked the sound. And it would be so loud that the whole team would hear it and they would just laugh. Then suddenly, at one point, Maggie realized she was the source of the laughter, and she just started making the dolphin sounds over and over and over again and the team just kept laughing. It was a wonderful interaction with a baby. 

So, I will tell you, it’s a huge thing that we’ve done here, and I’m so delighted for the parents who have been able to make it work.

Joy and work

Thomas: How do joy and work fit together?

Richard: I think this idea of, as you would put it, chasing humanity, bringing our most human self to work, and we use the word joy here which we think is very human in that regard.
I want to emphasize in this is that this is also real work. Joy is a neat thing to pursue and I think we get very close every single day, but we are not happy here every single day. This is hard work, hard work done together. 

Our customers often have different expectations for us, so we have to always keep checking in with them about how things are going and how they’re feeling about things and so on. And they’re not always feeling great. Same for us who work here.

As leaders we have to remind us that, 

if we really want to keep ourselves on this track towards increasing the humanity of the workplace, we have to recognize that the people who work here are 100% human. 

They’re not just human at work but they’re human at home as well. If we start to recognize they have lives outside of work, I think we create a greater opportunity for empathy with others in our team. I can tell you, every family, every person has their stuff, stuff from their previous life, stuff from their upbringing, you know, stuff that happened in the world, stuff they’re worried about, all that kind of stuff. 
So, I would just simply encourage your audience to think about one thing. When they have conflict with somebody else in their team regardless of what their current environment is, before they get upset, before they get mad, check in with the other person. Look them in the eye and say, “Are you okay? Is everything going okay in your life?” Now, that person may be willing to share or maybe they’re not. That’s okay. This isn’t about bringing everything to work every day. But a simple human check-in of saying, “Hey, I noticed something wrong today. Are you okay? Is everything going okay in your world?” and if they say it is, but you notice they’re holding something back a little bit, then check in on you. Maybe whatever’s upsetting them is actually coming from you. So, be humble enough to say, “Am I okay? Am I okay with you? Is there anything I’ve done to upset you lately?” Because, in that case, we’ve got a chance to actually have a heart to heart discussion about maybe what’s going on. And, again, not everyone will feel right about that and that’s okay.

Let me share a story with you. Shortly after my first book came out, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Scrum Alliance Conference in Berlin. I spoke of joy and I spoke of Menlo and I spoke of the processes we use. I ended the talk with the baby story that we discussed a few minutes ago. After that talk I had male German engineers come up to me in tears, and I would describe tears of a different kind of joy, a joy that was not what they were experiencing today, but a joy of hope that they could experience it someday. And I thought to myself, “If I could get male German engineers to cry, I can get anybody to cry.”

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Note: The interview is part of my new book “Being Human in a Digital Age” which will published in Germany in 2020. If you are interested to learn more about the book, join my Facebook group „Being Human“.


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Being Human in the Digital Age


M2B Butterfly FBThe digital transformation was one of the buzz words at this year’s World Economic Forum in January 2019.  Walking the streets there were numerous signs for special events, receptions, panels, speeches or forums on the topic.  All of them had in common that there was an atmosphere of excitement about the technological advances of the 21stcentury, the huge potentials and promised ahead of us.  Or so it seemed.

Fact was that this appearance was deceiving and possibly misleading.

I had the privilege and honor of having been a member of the panel „The Art of New Business: Body, Mind and Soul of Digitization“  in the FQ Lounge. When asked about my opinion about the prospects of the digital transformation in my native country of Germany I cautiously mentioned that, first of all, not everyone is super excited about digitization.  Indeed, I have observed that a lot of people (who knows, possibly the silent majority?) do have concerns and fears about the digital transformation.  When I shared my observations I had expected that at the outset of my remark people in the audience would roll their eyes or shake their hands in disbelief about my skeptical opening statement. Interestingly, none of it happened. The opposite was the case.  Indeed I sensed that the audience was relieved that finally there was a panelist who talked about their silent fears, the downsides of digital transformation in contrast to the many other events in Davos this week.  I admit that the audience’s reaction surprised me.  And at the same time it confirmed my impression that people hesitate or avoid speaking about their concerns and fears, at least in public. So, what’s true?  Is digitization a blessing or a curse? My answer is that it can be both.

It is a fact that technology has brought, brings and will continue to bring many advancements that improve our well-being overall and offer huge business opportunities. On the other side, we will see lots and lots of jobs, businesses and even industries being eliminated or disappear. This is certainly one ingredient for being somewhat skeptical about the digital transformation.  But we don’t even have to look so far into the future to identify an even more obvious drawback.  Fact is that rates of disengaged workers, sick days and depression and burnout rates have been on the rise and have reached record numbers.  A clear sign that the so lauded world of the digital age is not so bright after all.  People complain about endless work, increased pressure and expectations at work.  They are often either stuck in a hamster wheel or have become themselves addicted to the ever-accelerating race of infinite growth and corporate greed and cut-throat competition.  They have become pawns in the grand chess game of modern business. They are functional, efficient, productive, and effective.  And yet, they don’t behave or act like humans anymore but have become replaceable resources in a big machinery.  Replaceable like machines because there is no space for burnouts, sickness or alike.

Corollary, the excitement about the digital transformation can and does co-exist with fears and concerns.  Both are real, though not equally desirable or sustainable.  I am convinced that fears and concerns cannot be resolved unless we take them seriously and deal with them.  They have a common denominator.  It’s the lack of humanness.  In other words, being human often only matters in as much as a human resource, as one cost factor out of many.  While resources in general and human resources in particular can be replaced the principal lack of appreciation of humanity at the core of our business activities sheds a long shadow on the wonderful promises and opportunities of the digital age.

In my 20+ years in professional project management I can say that projects rarely, if ever, fail because of faults in the products or some suboptimal processes. The number one cause of failure is ‘people’.  Not because we make mistakes (of course, we do) but because we don’t recognize and value each other as who we are:  human beings. Our personal motivations, visions and goals are appreciated only in as far as they benefit the project or product. There is no space for more, say, our belief systems, inner drives or purposes other than our relation to the jobs themselves.  It’s like driving a car with a pulled handbrake and a weak battery.  The human potential is left untouched.  No wonder that so many projects still fail or struggle and are characterized by waste.

I have found that projects that create the space for individuals to uncover, explore, unleash their individual potentials and share it with fellow team mates turn into co-creation wonders that help delight customers, generate sustainable business value and develop happy and joyful workplaces while nurturing the thirst for continuous self-improvement.  In other words, putting humanness at the core of business is the seed for mastering the challenges of the digital age and succeeding in the business world.  It is time to acknowledge, explore and unfold our human potential to shape the present and future we truly want and need.  Let’s be human in the digital age.  Technology and digitization are welcome and valuable tools to serve this purpose and goal.  Tools, but no more and no less.

Posted in: Agile, Centeredness, Creative Economy, Future of Work, Human, Human Business, innovation, Project Management, WEF

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Applying Leverage Points for Greater Project Success


Project, program and portfolio management are people intensive activities, subject to personalities, differing agendas, and misunderstandings. Successful managers are those who, while not immune from these challenges, correctly assess and determine how to navigate political minefields. Personal case studies, along with examples from other people and industries, provide a proven means, first to accept that these challenges will arise, and second to work through them and achieve desired outcomes.

balance_bar_tipped_400_clr_6313Leverage points are activities within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything. This idea is embedded in legend: the silver bullet, the trim tab, the miracle cure, the secret passage, the magic password, the single hero who turns the tide of history, the nearly effortless way to cut through or leap over huge obstacles. We want to know where they are and how to get our hands on them. Leverage points are points of power.

An example in the physical world:  trim tabs are small surfaces connected to the trailing edge of a larger control surface on a boat or aircraft, used to control the trim of the controls—to counteract hydro- or aerodynamic forces and stabilize the boat or aircraft in a particular desired attitude without the need for the operator to constantly apply a control force. This is done by adjusting the angle of the tab relative to the larger surface. This reduces the work of the engine by reducing the amount of manual control necessary, as well as providing for greater efficiency by keeping the ship in the ideal orientation for the conditions.

What is the equivalent trim tab [leverage points] in the world of people and relationships? L2M2:  Leadership, Learning, Means, and Motivation. Examples where these “forces” apply include:

  • Speaking truth to power
  • Getting past resistance to achieve results
  • Working through a difficult encounter
  • Applying controlled anger
  • Negotiating with reluctant stakeholders
  • “Selling” and implementing a new process

The simple model of key leverage points—L2M2—may perhaps be sufficient as a recipe for greater project success. All four factors are necessary for this recipe to succeed:

Leadership is a well-articulated communication from the organization of what kind of new behavior is required and why it is required, along with a road map of the change that will take place over time.

Learning is the process of supplying the knowledge and skill necessary for individuals to carry out new behaviors. It includes learning support from the PMBOK, project leadership, and business skills, etc..

Means are all the resources necessary to carry out the behaviors, including tools, organizational policies and structures, and time.

Motivation is the formal and informal system of incentives and consequences that reinforce new behaviors. These are differentiated by role so that the required role-based behaviors are supported in all parts of the organization.

Behavior begins to change when all four factors work in concert. Without Leadership, people will not know how to apply their new knowledge and skill in concert with business strategic and tactical objectives. Without Learning, people may know what they are supposed to do from Leadership, but not know how to do it. Without Means, people may know what to do and how to do it, but not have the tools and resources to carry it out. Without Motivation, people may know what leaders want, and how to do it, and have the resources to carry it out, but simply not bother to do it.

Challenges present themselves on every project and program. An attitude of acceptance is required to get past initial paralysis and/or frustration, then to assess, design, and apply an action plan. Base actions on leverage from L2M2.  Foremost, a belief in ability to prevail is required. An individual’s positive attitude that today is a good day and tomorrow will be even better provides the means to embrace and implement leverage points.

It is important to focus on people, relationships, values, and skills. Modify an approach depending on the situation, always knowing there are patterns in how nature and people respond. Tap leverage points in those patterns as a means towards greater project success. Changing a mindset to embrace change or a new approach may perhaps be the simplest and most powerful leverage point for an individual to implement. Apply a key phrase:  “I can think differently about this.”

Examples and a paper on this topic are available from the PMI Global Congress North America 2014.

Randall L. Englund, Englund Project Management Consultancy, www.englundpmc.com

Posted in: Guest Blogs, Leadership, Project Management

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Surviving in a Matrix: Simple Techniques for Effective Project Management in a Matrix Organization


You love projects.  You love good project management.  And you love the exhilaration of power teams and project success.  BUT you are struck in a matrix?  Not the matrix of the movie.  But the matrix of a strong line organization where projects have all but a miserable existence.  The line organization is dominating, politics is prevalent, people care more about securing their own posts, maintaining the status quo and thus focus on their daily tasks, not willing to look outside their box or even beyond their own desk.  Projects?!  Gee, hell no!  Those are activities where you have to work with people from other departments, maybe even in cross-functional teams.  But, what do those folks know about my area of expertise.  Nothing!  Hence, it is better to keep things as they are.

Does this sound familiar? Or, have you ever experienced or heard of such an organization and setting? – If so, continue reading.

Surviving in a Matrix: Simple Techniques for Effective Project Management in a Matrix Organization from Thomas Juli

On Thursday, 2 October 2014 from 11:30 AM – 1 PM EST I gave a free webinar for the IT Metrics and Productivity Institute.  The webinar is entitled “Surviving in a Matrix: Simple Techniques for Effective Project Management in a Matrix Organization”.  In this webinar I introduce a simple, yet very pragmatic approach to structure, plan and set-up a project in a matrix organization with strong line management and a weak project culture. I explain the need and value for developing a compelling project motivation, vision and objectives. I outline how to engage stakeholders in building a work package structure, outlining a project organization, implementing an early warning system for plan deviations, establishing risk analysis and management. Last but not least, I elaborate on how to cultivate continuous learning in a matrix organization.
Don’t stay stuck in your matrix.  Learn how to survive in your matrix, introduce effective project management techniques and become a master of your own project success.

Posted in: Empowerment, Leadership, Project Management, Project success

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Let Happiness Turn Your Project Around



Ever wondered what could turn around your struggling project, or shape a project that it tells a story and convinces others just be hearing about the project?  Well, there could be a simple remedy.  And that is to link happiness to your project.  – Ok, let’s start slow.

This week I conducted a seminar on project leadership.  In one of the central exercises smaller groups worked on fictitious projects.  Seminar attendants could pick whatever topic, issue or question they cared about.  One group chose to ponder how to improve time management for students obtaining a graduate degree while having to work full-time and nourishing a family.  Another group analyzed ways and means to improve a business partnership with suppliers.  And yet another decided to talk about the need of drones for the German military.  At the end of each exercise session teams presented their results.  They shared their views what motivated them to work on their particular project, what they envisioned and what specific goals they were pursuing.  Not too surprisingly the project with the military drone got rather passive looks and no real feedback when they presented their project.  This changed when I asked the teams to address a simple question with respect to their project.  “How does your project contribute to happiness?”  That’s it; just this simple question.

HappinessI was curious what the teams would come up with.  Especially the drone project.  After all, linking a military weapon, defensive as it may be intentioned, with happiness?!  That would be a tough sell.  Well, things did not quite work out as assumed.  When it was their turn everybody expected them to talk about the various functionalities of a military drone, its specifications and how to use it in combat.  But instead the group talked about peace enforcement, conflict prevention and support for human rights.  And they talked about it in an appealing way that reached people and caused their emotional reaction.  All of a sudden, nobody was thinking of the weapon any more but how to help achieve world peace.  What happened?  Addressing the question “How does your project contribute to happiness?” project members checked for their inner motivation – not warefare but peace and stability – and they shared it openly and honestly.  This touched people, they could relate to the team’s motivation, even identify with it.  Instead of being doubtful and deprecating, not only did they appreciated the project presentation but even asked how they could help the team.

A project which moments earlier was dull, cold and tiring became lively, meaningful and attractive.  A simple question “How does your project contribute to happiness?” triggered the change of the nature of the project, its momentum and the attitude of team members and observers.  So, next time you face a troubling project, ask the team this question, “how does your project contribute to happiness?, and see what happens.

 

Posted in: Happiness, Leadership, Project failure, Project Management

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A wide-angle lense for your project efforts


gripWhile some of my peers are still thriving for planning tools and methodologies to strengthen their grip on projects, others offer ten keys to a happier living and pursuing a great dream. It’s the summary of this month’s PMI Netherlands Chapter’s 3rd Summit on the thin line between project success and project failure. Discrete task management as a 20th Century invention, cultivated from the times of Frederick Winslow Taylor‘s book The Principles of Scientific Management to David Allen‘s Getting Things Done. Resemblance with the classic Divide & Rule strategy elements is surprising:

  • creating or encouraging divisions among the subjects to prevent alliances that could challenge the sovereign
  • aiding and promoting those who are willing to cooperate with the sovereign
  • fostering distrust and enmity between local rulers
  • encouraging meaningless expenditures that reduce the capability for political and military spending

Proven project success factors however are e.g. trust, collaboration, communication, and contribution to a greater cause. Research led Daniel Pink to rethink Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (I bet you know this pyramid) and come up with 21st Century drivers for our professional and personal motivation:

  1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.
  2. Mastery — the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
  3. Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

sagrada familiaConnecting dots, zooming out of discrete tasks to larger structures up to the organization, value chain or customer journey shows a wide-angled view:

  • Working on brick by boring brick appears to the final stage of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona.
  • A piece of Java code skips a mouse click in an application form, raising chances a customer will continue buying an insurance policy.
  • Implementing legislation in processes, systems and information products avoids penalties and saves cash for investments.
  • A proper configuration of a server keeps hackers out and the business focused on their core business.

A monthly review of your risk log or skipping the benefits section in a mandatory business case for a ‘compliance project’ will get a different meaning, once you understand the effects of your efforts. Costs turn into values. System integration enables business sustainability. Daily routines like a stand-up or check-in become an index of project health or happiness of team members. What drives you home? And back to work tomorrow?

Posted in: Guest Blogs, Leadership, Project Management, Project success

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Top Secrets of a Project Leader to Build a Strong Performing Team


The leadership role is one of the most coveted ones, but also the most challenging one. In the words of Peter Drucker, the father of modern management techniques, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things“. Businesses have evolved over the years and job roles have changed over time, but what remains crucial to success is the presence of an effective leader who has the capability to build a strong team.

Leadership Struggel

While in many cases there are instances of born leaders who have led from a very young age, a large number of leaders are born out of tough situations that push them to perform better than others and thus lead the team. If you have the talent and the desire to excel and be in a  project leadership role, the best way to go about it is to follow your intuitive project leadership skills and have a deep understanding of the fellow members of your team. When handling a particular project, a project leader can hardly move even a step ahead without support from his team. As we delve deeper into what makes a project manager click and become successful, here are a few insights that can help you with the process.

Lead by example

You might have heard this multiple times and eventually learned to ignore it. However, this is one piece of advice that can fetch you many followers in the form of team members who make up a strong-functioning team. As soon as an employee is hired, he or she looks around for a mentor and some inspiration. To be able to create an effective team, it is important to provide positive inspiration that your team members can follow. If you want your team to be in office early, you would have to do the same. If you want a degree of discipline about work deadlines, you would have to submit your work at the earliest opportunity.

It may be tough to always play the role model, but it can also be rewarding in the end when you know you have a strong team that can take on more critical projects in the future. This also ensures that you are training every individual to be a project leader who can carry the mantleon their own once you have moved on to a higher role than project manager.

Be the comrade

Often leading a team or project is equated with being on a higher platform than the rest, and this leads to aloofness from the team and labels a leader as unapproachable. This hinders progress as your team members are not able to confide in you about their problems, be it about their project-related issues or even about their personal lives. Being a friend helps. It helps to know what’s blocking your team members’ progress and stopping them from providing quality work.

Each hire involves a lot of time and money for the organization as well as the team. As a leader, if you are able to be a friend and comrade who can nurture and grow individuals instead of letting them go, it will help in building a strong and tenacious team filled with experience and resilience.

Listen and give recognition

In the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey says, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”This attitude can be very harmful for the role of a leader. When your team members are trying to articulate something in times of a crisis, they should be able to do it without fear of being ostracized from the team or being labeled as over the top. Sharing ideas or apprehensions about a project, without fear, often provides new insight and solutions to existing problems. Contributing to the team and being recognized for it gives a team member a sense of accomplishment. Listening to even the smallest of ideas and promoting experimental processes can excite a team and encourage them to work harder.

Be the pillar

Being a leader calls for being the strong pillar of confidence. Being a straight shooter and asking direct questions can clear up the air and project you as being fair under all conditions. These actions require a lot of confidence and can in turn make you an immediate favorite among your team members. It assures team members that you can take charge of things and will be there to back them up whenever required. The true leader always backs up his or her team even in dire circumstances and always makes them feel safe. Ultimately, this feeling is what helps build loyalty among team members and their team lead.

So, which project leadership skills are you going to inherit? Do you have any other qualities to highlight? Share your thoughts with us.

Posted in: Guest Blogs, Leadership, Project Management

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3 Steps from Zombie Projects to WOW Projects


Wikepedia defines Zombies as fictional undead creatures regularly encountered in horror and fantasy themed works. They are typically depicted as mindless, reanimated corpses with a hunger for human flesh, and particularly for human brains in some depictions.

A project is a project is a project?

Who am II wish it were this easy.  The good news is that more and more companies and organizations realize the value of project – and to a lesser extent the need and value of good project management.

I have seen, worked on and led many projects.  The ones most memorable were those projects where things were flowing.  That is, the team worked as a team, performance was outstanding due to synergy effects, quality of deliverables exceeded clients’ expectations and everyone was just happy and proud to be part of the project.  I call such projects WOW projects.  And it this kind of projects I love to work on, build or lead.

Zombie projects may still get the basics of project management right

My strong desire for WOW projects may explain my frustration every time I work on or for “suboptimal” projects that have more or less nothing to do with WOW.  It is not that these projects lack project management fundamentals.  Indeed, often they do cover the basics.  That is:

(1) project objectives were defined (mostly top-down by management),

(2) functional and non-functional requirements were described and documented (more or less),

(3) a project organization was put in place,

(4) a project plan was posted on the walls, and

(5) project management tools available.

So far for the basics.

And yet, there was nothing which resembled the WOW factor even at the lowest level.

What’s wrong!?

Zombie projects lack the soul and spirit of WOW projects

While these projects covered the basics of project management they lacked the “soul” or “spirit” that makes WOW projects tick.  Team morale on such projects is often in the lower ranks.  The quality of deliverables is satisfactory at best.  Long working hours are the norm and this is reflected in errors and delays in deliverables.  Transparency about progress, actual issues and potential risks is mirky and not welcome – because, after all, management wants to hear good news.

Working on such projects can be tiring and energy draining.  It is a job, ok. But no more.

Does this sound familiar?  If so, continue reading.

3 steps to WOW projects

The causes for suboptimal projects are not limited to the lack of leadership or a true team.  It is more than that.  It is an attitude and a principle approach how you build, grow and nurture projects.  So, let’s have a look at what it takes to build the foundation for WOW projects to evolve:

3 steps to wow - picture 1Step 1: Listening and learning

The first step to growing a WOW project is active and intense listening, learning about the needs, motivation and vision of people and the organizations.  It helps sorting out the playing field of the project and how it fits into the larger system of an organization and its people.

Step 2: Developing awareness

Based on the insights of step 1 gather your project team and stakeholders and find out what you truly try to achieve in your project.  This means, find out and agree on the MVP’s of your project, i.e., the motivation, the vision and the project objectives of your project.  Expand this exercise to the MVP’s of individual team members and the team as an organizational unit.

Once you have developed strong MVP’s, work on engagement rules for nurturing collaboration, promoting performance, cultivating learning and ensuring results.

Step 3: Performing and aligning

Now, walk your talk.  Start working, practice, fail and learn from your mistakes.  Make necessary alignments and perform.

WOW projects evolve and are very much alive

3 steps to wow - picture 2Steps 1 -3 may imply that they are sequential.  This is right and wrong.  When you start a project you go through this sequence.  However, aligning always includes listening and learning which is Step 1 of growing a WOW project.  This takes you back to the beginning of the 3-step process.  Insights from each step are integrated in each of the other steps and vice versa.

From this perspective it is more practical to depict the process as a Venn diagram which each circle standing for one of the three steps.  The intersection of these three circles is where the WOW ignites and spreads.

3 steps to wow - picture 3In other words, the combination of listening & learning, developing awareness, performing & aligning spark WOW projects.

As you iterate each of the three steps, border lines blur, it becomes increasingly difficult to depict one step from the other.  One element feeds the others and vice versa.  The iterative learning and growth process of this project become intertwined and infinite.  This is illustrated in the picture on the left.

 

Start growing your WOW project today

Even the longest journey starts with the first step.  On this token, I encourage you and your team to have a closer look at your own project(s).  Follow the three steps described above and start building your own WOW project today.

Need help?  Please contact me.  I help you build WOW projects through customized workshops and trainings.  Workshops can be as short as 2 hours or several days depending on your needs.  Or, if you like, I can accompany your journey over a period of several weeks through coaching and consulting.

Posted in: Centeredness, Project Management, Project success, WOW projects

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Your Path to Happy Leadership and Project Success


WebinarankündigungToday, 18 September 2013, I will be giving a free webinar for the PMI Information Systems Community of Practice entitled “Leadership, Happiness and Project Success”.   Follow this LINK to learn more about dial-in information

2 Ingredients for project success

In this webinar I am exploring two crucial ingredients for project success: empowering leadership and happiness.  I explains why and how leadership can help build successful projects by actively accounting for happiness on the individual, group, project and organizational levels.  Attendees will learn how to find a clear focus of what they really want to achieve, create a strategy through principle centered leadership, resolve project issues and align their priorities for happiness and project success.

Target Audience:  YOU

The presentation targets anyone who is sincerely interested in finding new and transforming ways to project success.  These can be individuals, project managers, project team members, line managers, line organizations, companies or social groups.

Free Registration

Registration is free for active PMI members.  If you are not a PMI member and still want to view the presentation, have a look at my handout on Slideshare. Or, if you like to receive a pdf version of the presentation, please contact me directly.

What’s next?

Institute FolieIn my webinar I am talking about my personal vision of helping build an Institute for Project and Business Transformation.  This cannot be done by oneself.  Instead, it takes the effort of like-minded people and a strong, performing team.  On this token I want to invite you to join this great effort.  Stay tuned for updates on this new and exciting project.

 

Posted in: Centeredness, Company News, Empowerment, Happiness, Leadership, Project Management, Project success, Training

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3 pillars for success: Finding a clear focus, effective strategy and aligned priorities


Today I have come across a truly inspirational video showing Tony Robbins speaking about The Art of Focusing.  What does this have to do with projects?  A lot, i.e. if you are interested in project success I highly recommend you take a few minutes to watch Robbins’ speech.

Jaime Neely of Trendhunter summarizes the key points very nicely:

“In this Anthony Robbins speech, the award-winning author and motivational speaker presents his three pillars of success. To find success and absolute happiness in life, Robbins believes that individuals must first find a clear focus of what it is they want to accomplish; second, they must create a strategy with the best tools possible; and third, they must resolve any and all inner conflicts.

  1. The first step requires evaluating where you are right now and having a clear vision of where it is you want to be. Robbins believes that focusing on what you don’t want or where you don’t want to be will waste all of your positive energy.
  2. The second step requires making yourself a map (a strategy or plan) and finding yourself a mentor who can provide you with encouragement and shortcuts.
  3. The last step involves ridding yourself of any conflicting priorities or commitments.
    80 percent of success rates in anything depend on psychology, while the other 20 percent depends on mechanics.

[In a nutshell:]  Finding a clear focus, effective strategy and aligned priorities are the components of Robbins’ recipe for success.”

What about my project success?

Robbin’s 3 pillars for success are easily applicable to the project world, too, namely:

  1. evaluating where you are right now and having a clear vision of where it is you want to be:
    ->
    Develop a solid Motivation, Vision and Project Goals with your team and follow through.  Don’t know how, check out my seminar “Building your MVP for Project Success
  2. making yourself a map (a strategy or plan):
    -> The 5 Leadership Principles for Project Success give a you this map
  3. ridding yourself of any conflicting priorities or commitments:
    -> If you and your team have developed an MVP for your project, this gives you a clear direction.  Stick to it and follow through.

 

Posted in: Centeredness, Leadership, Project Management

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