Joy From the Ground Up

By: Chris Meredith, SA, CSM

Every IT organization says “We want to have a great culture.” I’ll bet yours is no different. We all know that a wonderful culture usually leads to highly-engaged team members, better product quality, happier customers and additional revenues.

After working as an agile coach with more than 30 teams across six software development organizations over the last seven years, I have been fortunate enough to encounter a variety of cultures, most of which were positive. One employer had 36 employees. One had 80,000 spread across five continents. I’ve been in the trenches for the most part, listening, learning, facilitating and coaching scrum, kan-ban and scrum-ban teams through the SDLC mud.

In my role helping organizations move from Waterfall to something more Agile, I have witnessed plenty of stress and dealt with a few interpersonal relationships that certainly lacked the “happiness” factor. Some of my team mates faced considerable challenges (external and internal) that made it hard for them to have fun at work.

 Much has been written lately about the role management plays in creating and maintaining a joyful culture. Some firms (like my current employer) take the bull by the horns and spell it out right up front in their mission statement. One of the four primary “pillars” at Commonwealth Financial Network is “Fun.” It’s right up there with “Service,” “Profitability,” and “Individual Development.” 

Granted, “Fun” is listed fourth, not first, but when great service is what really sets your firm apart, that makes sense. 

In any case, the message is clear. If you are going to work hard, create value for your firm and create happy customers, you should try to have some fun in the process. In addition, Commonwealth has devoted considerable effort on “Commonwealth Connect,” a company-wide campaign to bring new friends together from all parts of the company. The result is a fabulous company culture.

Rich Sheridan of Menlo Creations is going to pay a visit to Boston on March 3rd and share his thoughts on the “Joy” that makes his Ann Arbor-based software development firm special. I am seriously looking forward to hearing Rich’s message, but as the date has drawn near, I found myself pondering Rich, his book and his message. I ended up asking myself: What role does the average team member play in creating a joyful workplace?

Reflecting on the agile transformations I have witnessed firsthand over the past seven years led me to this: We do need management to take the lead in creating a joyful workplace but the “heavy lifting” is performed by people paying earnest attention to the little things and creating the micro-possibilities that help each team, every day of every sprint.

Did you get to the morning stand-up a couple of minutes early so you can exchange a few pleasantries with a team mate?  Were you aware that she worked late yesterday on a particularly difficult bug fix? Did you say something to her to express your appreciation? Being situationally aware and expressing gratitude to a team mate early in the day is an effective joy-producing habit.

During the stand up, did you share enough details on your work in progress so that that the others on the team know exactly what and how you are doing in helping to deliver the sprint commitment?  Did you make sure to avoid sounding vague and opaque (as if this sharing business is a little beneath you)? Don’t just stand and deliver. Smile and deliver.

How about that backlog grooming session earlier this week? If you are a Product Owner, did you distribute the user stories ahead of time? If you are a developer or QA engineer, were you prepared to discuss them? Were you fully engaged in the conversation with the Product Owner? He is under considerable scrutiny from the business to get that big feature delivered – did you help foster a discussion that gave him an accurate idea of what it will take to deliver?

Did you encourage your more reticent team mates to participate in the conversation? Let your guard down and make sure your team plays planning poker. Teams need to laugh and that is always good for a few laughs. Wha…? You’re at a ‘3’ ? Umm, I’m holding a ‘13’ here! Were you proactive in identifying potential dependencies?  Discovering dependencies after sprint planning is over creates stress and certainly erodes joy.

During your team’s last retrospective, did you keep it positive? Did you help make sure it didn’t become a pity-party? Did you communicate the notion that you are willing to try something new? Did you delivers “Kudos” or throw a virtual “bouquet” in the direction of a team mate who went above and beyond to help deliver the sprint commitment?  Too often we forget to express appreciation and admiration to our colleagues, but in my experience, the “Kudos and bouquets” aspect of the retrospective is nearly as important as the “Okay, Let’s Try This” piece. Openly recognizing your team mates for their excellence will put almost as much joy in their hearts as it will in yours.

We all know that Agile can be daunting for any team still mired in transition because Agile tends to reveal everything. Making the effort to help shepherd your team mates through the rough patch will go a long way to creating some joy. During the sprint, did you help or encourage the junior developer who was stuck? Did you help split that 13 point story that was stuck in “To Do?” Have you tried pair-programming? Did you go out of your way to learn something new from a team mate or share something useful with a team mate?

Having a fun team is more than periodically pulling up a laugh-out-loud video clip from You Tube in order to elicit a few guffaws from your team mates (although that certainly won’t hurt).  Take the time to create a team culture that is real, organic and sturdy – something that will survive the hard knocks that an agile transformation will throw at your team.

I’m certainly looking forward to meeting Rich Sheridan and learning more about what he has done to foster a joyful workplace at Menlo Creations. I suspect that for most IT organizations, “joy” is not a naturally-occurring phenomenon. But luckily, everyone can make sure it is cultivated.

Agility and Thought Leadership

Agility at its Best - The Basics

Statistics show that in 2014, more than two-thirds (68.5%) of U.S. workers are NOT enthusiastic and committed to their work . If you work 5 days a week, 40 hours a week, most of your time is spent working (not accounting for preparing for work and commuting). Ask your employees or team members,  “Do you like what you do? Do you hate it? Are you limited by what you are ‘allowed’ to do at work? Are your ideas stifled?” Chances are the answer will align with the majority. When it comes to the bottom line, workers who dislike their jobs perform at lower capacity and may affect the entire team’s performance.

If only there was a way to solve this…

But wait, there’s an app for that—a framework developed to enable people to be empowered to succeed and contribute to an organization. In fact- there’s more than one framework, all developed via the agile value system and mores.

Agility and agile values first evolved around hardware and software development- couched in lean manufacturing practices and later applied to software with the best in the industry looking for “a better way.”

“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and HELPING OTHERS to do it…”

(The Agile Manifesto)

Software organizations are trying to implement Scrum, Kanban, SAFe- and have many types of challenges- due to an inability to embrace AGILE VALUES.  

Agile Values: Self-Management, empowerment, helping others, communicating / real conversations, trust, courage, commitment, collaboration…

At Agile for Executives, we are bringing thought leaders on the topics of agility to the Boston management community.

Agile for Executives: December Event

In December, guest speaker was Doug Kirkpatrick, of Morning Star (author of “Beyond Empowerment: The Age of The Self-Managed Organization”). Having layers of management may result in a “management tax”- costs associated with salaries, and larger costs in adding barriers to solutions.  In the agile mindset, the team (all levels) works together to define a solution or approach. Individuals who are trusted and competent work with each other, without need of “permission” or the associated delays, and are enabled to provide solutions, innovate, and experiment. Employees need to be trusted and empowered.

Agile for Executives: March 3

This month at Agile for Executives, Rich Sheridan, author of “Joy, Inc.” and CEO of Menlo Innovations speaks on implementing agile practices to create a joyful disciplined workplace, bringing with it tangible successes in developing a software company. Here are some of the techniques used at Menlo Innovations to create a culture founded on the Business Value of Joy™.

Practical AGILE practices:

•    Use of Open Space

•    Pairing / Helping / Learning

•    Transparency

•    Artifacts – Writing things down on paper

•    “Hey You” communication

•    Define your work (what can you commit to)

•    Color-coding

•    Disciplined Delivery

•    Hiring / Having the right people on the team

•    Quality through Pairing / Engineering Practices (TDD, Continuous Integration & Delivery)


•    Excitement

•    Joy

•    Productivity

•    Love

•    Ability to SCALE UP or DOWN

Come hear Rich this week at the Harvard Club in Boston, off of the red line. There’s still time to register at Look forward to seeing you there!

Dare to be passionate,


Carol Kollm

Carol (@ckollm) is an Agile Coach at Eliassen Group, passionate about helping and empowering others to develop great products.


Gallup, 2014;

Why Innovation Matters in your Management Practices


Regional Agile Delivery Lead

Are your management practices simply in need of fine-tuning or do they require thoughtful innovation?  Are those processes something you set-and-forget, or are they worthy of regular examination and renewal?  Consider the annual performance review.  Does your staff walk out of those feeling that they were dealt with fairly? That they have received great coaching that will enable them to reach new career highs?  Do you?  I certainly never did.  But year after year, we went through the process hoping that the value we desired would be there.  We train managers to provide concrete regular feedback on goals, but do they?  And, with their staff spending so much time working on teams, are managers even qualified to provide that assessment and feedback?  But we persist with these and other largely ineffective processes.  What if, instead, we viewed the means by which we manage our organizations as an opportunity for innovation and competitive advantage?  Menlo Innovation does exactly that and it produces dramatic results.  First, let's discuss the importance of management innovation, then how Menlo Innovations achieves their breakthrough results, and finally what you can do in your organization.

Management innovation pays.  In The Future of Management, the authors describe work that has been done studying management innovation.

Over the past few years, I, along with two of my colleagues at the London Business School, * have been examining the history of management innovation. To date, we have studied more than 100 management breakthroughs, stretching across two centuries. One inescapable conclusion: major advances in management practice often lead to significant shifts in competitive position, and often confer long-lasting advantages on pioneering firms.

The book cites many examples of companies with non-traditional management practices.  In some cases the practices are radical, yet they have paid off well.  The authors don’t say that you should do what these companies do.  Instead consider innovative management practices a potential source of competitive advantage.

Now, returning to Menlo Innovations, how do they continually innovate their management practices?  Menlo considers organizational innovation to be a core part of their culture.  And they manage the risk of that innovation by conducting small experiments.  For Menlo, an experiment is a way to test out an idea to see if it addresses a problem.  Instead of working for months on a new process, they look for small ways to test out the idea.  Some work, some don’t and some work for a while.

Many experiments don’t survive for very long because they don’t solve the problem. Some are only needed temporarily; others start as temporary and become permanent. We think many are amazing solutions to long-standing problems when, in reality, they last for a little while and then change or go away. Then we run a new experiment.

Here’s an example of how Menlo hires.  When hiring, Menlo pairs candidates together to solve a problem, but with an unusual twist.

Many are surprised we don’t use computers or coding examples during our interview process. Our exercises are meant to demonstrate teamwork, not technical skill. The purpose, James tells them, is to make your partner look good. If your partner struggles, help him or her out. If you know something the other person doesn’t know, share it. The goal is to get your partner a second interview.

Teamwork is pivotal to Menlo’s success.  The interviewers see teamwork, or the lack of it, demonstrated as the pair works.   But this process may change as new ways emerge to select the best candidate.  If it appears there is a better way, they’ll try it out, and switch if it works.

Menlo Innovation’s success is not just because of the things they do, but also because of how they work.  They consider their management practices malleable, something to reflect on, experiment with and improve.  Instead of working to fine-tune existing process, they are willing to depart depart from what they know in the hope of achieving far greater outcomes.  So can you do that in your organization?

Create the Climate for Organizational Change

While organizations are generally comfortable introducing change, they seldom touch the pillars of the prevailing management theory:  compensation, space layout, job titles, site strategies, promotions, career development and accountability.  If there are executives looking for how to boost the organization to the next level of performance, suggest they read The Future of Management and Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love.  The first book talks about bold, and sometimes radical, management innovations across multiple organizations, many with recognizable names (for example Whole Foods and W. L. Gore).  Joy Inc., shows a smaller scale, experimental approach to change in more detail.  If you can get people to discuss these books, culminated by a facilitated workshop to talk about where these ideas might lead your organization, you’ll be in a solid position to move forward.

Make the Benefits of Retrospectives Visible

If your organization is making use of agile to any degree, you already have an experimental approach to organizational improvement - the retrospective.  While many managers and executives have a conceptual understanding of retrospective, many don’t understand the concrete benefits the teams get from these retrospectives.  Find meaningful changes that have come about from retrospectives and publicize them.  Demonstrate that you are already a culture that experiments with practices.  Then, when you suggest experimenting on a broader scale, your suggestion might be better received.

Take Retrospectives to New Areas

Move retrospectives up in the organization and across to new areas. Are you only conducting them for software teams?  Consider having them for other kinds of teams or functions.  Use retrospectives at the highest possible levels in the organization.  Retrospectives are a core organizational process for improvement.  People who have experienced their power are more receptive to experimentation and innovation.  

Get Support from the Senior Team

In many large corporations management practices are centrally designed and governed.  To bring innovation to those practices, you need to get permission to experiment.  This may, in some cases, require approval from the senior team as well as their support.  If you are already in the midst of an effective agile transformation, you are in a good position.  You have already been innovating your practices and have a level of management support.  When you want to try more, possiblycolliding with organization policy, like how performance appraisals are conducted in your organization, you’ll need additional support.  The critical success factor is small experiments, frequent feedback and ongoing reflection and refinement.  As you get more used to continual improvement and innovation of your management practices, the things you try might become more bold and have more impact.

Come to Agile for Executives on March 3

We’re fortunate to have Rich Sheridan, influential leader, CEO Of Menlo Innovation and author of  "Joy, Inc. – How We Built A Workplace People Love"for a breakfast seminar at the Harvard Club in Downtown Boston on March 3rd, an opportunity for executive leadership from our community to explore how a company culture focused on the business of joy out-innovates their competition through relentless experimentation and innovation with their organization’s practices.  Menlo Innovations brings the rigor of The Lean Startup to the design of their organization.  Click here for more information on the event.

Bob Fischer
Regional Agile Delivery Lead, Eliassen Group

Trusted Advisor, Partner, Coach, Mentor, Facilitator, Trainer.

Written by

Trusted Advisor, Partner, Coach, Mentor, Facilitator, Trainer

When I reflect over my career and think about the times when I truly grew professionally, the word that comes to mind is “fun.” We worked hard – but it didn’t feel like work. We innovated. We experimented. We collaborated. We failed. A lot. But, it was OK. Especially when our customers were also resonating with the cool stuff that we were pumping out.

I was reminded of this recently, when I came across Rich Sheridan’s book “Joy, Inc: How We Build a Workplace People Love”. Rich also happens to be our speaker for an upcoming Agile for Executives event in Boston. While there were many “ah ha” moments, some of his messages that particularly resonated include:

  • If we have joy ourselves, our customers will see the joy in our work, and will tend to resonate with the product we created even more
  • People flourish when they feel safe to explore and try new things; it’s OK to learn from failure; pump fear out of the room
  • When people feel safe, they are open to collaborate and trust one another – this is where creativity and innovation can flourish

So, I began to think about times where I was having fun and felt safe, and how that might correlate to my growth and doing awesome things for my customers.

What instantly came to mind is in my early days as a young engineer at 3M. Management encouraged experimentation. Regularly I was told to “go play”, collaborate with all the folks involved in production, and figure out how we could make things better. Yes, I did have accountability, a budget and had general guidance. And, there was a degree of transparency simply expected – it was the culture.

Even in my biggest failures (and there were several spectacular ones…), when I went to my management with the proverbial tail between my legs, it was OK. They asked, “What did I learn? Did I need help in figuring out the next steps?” I felt safe to go out and try again.

Over a period of four years, we increased productivity as a team by over 8-fold, introduced new products that our customers loved, and even got a patent or two along the way. But, most important to me, is that we had a purpose and we were growing, all while having fun; net-net: It didn’t feel like work.

While this feeling has come and gone over the years, I noticed a common thread when things were really going well, when I was growing and having fun with my colleagues, and when we delighted the customer in new, innovative ways. In these times, there was a culture of feeling ‘safe to experiment’ and ‘safe to fail.’ And, when I was experiencing joy, this was reflected in my work, and seen by the clients.

So let me challenge you: what can you do to help increase the joy with your colleagues, clients, customers, and management while building a culture of feeling safe?