As old as Adam and Eve

"As old as Adam and Eve" by Greg Alder

Last year, 330 companies asked for tours around a small Michigan office. Those companies included Toyota, American Express, General Motors and McKinsey. Why did they ask for a tour? Because they wanted to know the secret to the Michigan company’s fertile culture.

The company is Menlo Innovations. When founder Rich Sheridan learnt that others wanted to know what Menlo was doing differently, he wrote a book. It’s called Joy, Inc.

There are three secrets (well, secrets no more) to this progressive office culture. Each of them is as old as human existence.

So what are they?

1. Nobody works alone

If the story of human life had just started with Eve, and no Adam, it would have been a very short story indeed.

If Noah had taken just one of each species into his arc, David Attenborough wouldn’t have much to film today.

If Costello didn’t have Abbott, Hardy didn’t have Laurel or Ginger didn’t have Fred, would they be remembered today?

I spent a long time as an advertising writer. As is the custom, writers and art directors have always worked in pairs. Sure, each of us has different responsibilities, but before a writer has to write the words or an art director has to do a layout, they need an idea. We always came up with better ideas as a pair than we did as individuals.

Two brains have a better chance than one brain does of coming up with something original. Two brains can solve a problem easier than one brain.

So that’s the first of Menlo’s secrets.

2. Rituals replace meetings

Humans have always engaged in rituals. We’ve had rituals of initiation. Rituals to ensure a bountiful crop. Rituals of courtship.

Rituals are intriguing, exciting and sometimes dangerous.

Compare this with meetings. Rarely intriguing. Rarely exciting. And, outside of mafia or drug cartel meetings, almost never dangerous.

However, the really important difference between rituals and meetings is sense of purpose and anticipation of outcome. If tribal elders announced a war dance, everyone knew what to wear and what to dance. Everyone knew the outcome – war.

In the case of most meetings, all that’s known is who convened it, what room it’s in and what time it starts.

At Menlo, they introduced a ritual using a Viking helmet in which all of the pairs share their thoughts, problems and progress with all the other pairs. So not only do the pairs come up with better ideas and solutions, but they can tap into the minds of everyone else – with the result that even better ideas might be presented.

3. People tell stories

Storytelling is something else we humans have been doing forever. There are cave painting dating back over 40,000 years. They tell stories of hunts and battles.

In villages around the primitive world, people sat under trees telling stories of powerful spirits.

Below decks on men-o-war, sailors told stories of ruthless pirates and fetching maidens.

In Mexico and the American west, cowboys sat around campfires telling stories of gunslingers and famous riders.

I wrote a recent post on the role of storytelling in building brand engagement.

At Menlo, they tell stories as a means of communicating the company’s culture – exactly as they were used millennia ago. There is no corporate bible. No published policies. No systems set in stone.

The best part about passing on culture via stories is that the stories can change, be embellished. Improvements can be suggested. Alternatives can be offered.

It’s ironic that a company using three ancient ideas should be regarded as a leader in modern corporate culture.

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