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100 Restless Nights and the Return to Joy: Coping with Our Own Swiss Family Robinson Ordeal (Part 3)

August 11, 2020

I was beginning to lose heart in two ways:

One, I wasn’t sure Menlo would survive. I made a lot of calls to friends and they all spoke of 30% cuts to their workforce. For those, like us, who had gotten PPP loans, there was an eight-week lift, but it was temporary and unsustainable as the mounting recession and ceaseless infections rate climbs were hitting every sector. This caused everyone to hold back and hoard cash (just like we were!).

Our business model had survived 9/11, two wars, and 2008 mainly because we were so diversified. We had clients in automotive, manufacturing, healthcare, retail, logistics, insurance, finance, medical devices, and supply chain. We worked with large companies and startups, built handheld device apps, applications, cloud-based services and integrated existing vendor technology into everything we built. 2020 was going to be a great year for us. Surely there was NOTHING that could affect all of these industries at the same time, while also causing our entire approach to be challenged. Right?

One of my best friends, author and keynote speaker Linda Rising, describes Menlo in her talks as the most agile organization in the world. This is a great compliment from someone who knows us well and is respected worldwide for her views … well, we were about to find out just how agile we were.

If there was ever a time to have a strong culture built on trusting relationships, this is it. Pandemic, economic and social upheaval happening within a few weeks.

Two, I wasn’t sure that I was ready for reinvention. The stress of the moment had me tired. I wasn’t sleeping well. My standard statement over the years was that I would never retire, because I was having so much fun at Menlo. My co-founder, James, got nervous when I used the word retirement twice in one week. I reassured him it was just the stress talking, but in the back of my mind, I wondered if I had what it would take to help lead us out of this storm. Did I have the energy to start over?

We intensified our efforts to supplement the goods from the shipping container from what we could find on our island. Those efforts were producing results … we were finding food in the trees, the ground and the vegetation, but it was becoming increasing clear it wouldn’t be enough for all of us, not if help didn’t come soon. We gathered the key leaders and made some very hard decisions. There was another smaller island nearby, that likely would have enough food for about a quarter of our team. It was too far for back and forth trips, so we started discussing with the community our goal … trim our population by 25% by sending some to the other island. There was fear and sadness of course. We had been friends for so long, but everyone understood what was at stake. Decision day finally came. We had worked together to put enough supplies on the most stable raft we could build with what we had and we said goodbye “for now”. We assumed we would see them again when the rescue occurred. In the back of our minds we wondered if that day would ever come.

The PPP loan had run its course. We had repeatedly told the team … save your money. We can’t guarantee all of you can stay with the business we were seeing. By mid-June we started telling everyone that we would likely need to furlough a quarter to a third of the team sometime in July. We eventually declared a date for the furlough … July 17th. We would keep them as employees so that benefits could be continued. The state of emergency in Michigan would allow that to happen.

There were still signs of hope. New clients were arriving. They were small projects to start. Some larger clients were telling us … don’t lose heart, we will be back, but it probably won’t be until the 4th quarter. We could see we were still a valuable partner in their eyes. They just needed time themselves to adjust to their new normal. The team responded so well to the urgency required around any sales lead. Our friends in the community were helping us with introductions. It was all working. With the intensified efforts, the results we were producing, and the painful furlough decisions, we could see a financial picture that put us solidly in the “sustain” territory. Next step to Thrive Again was underway and feeling solid. We could see clear until early 2021. This would give us time to make other adjustments. We took additional steps to reduce expenses. We returned all of our parking cards to our landlord to save almost $4K/month in lease payments. Normally, these cards in Ann Arbor are worth their weight in gold. Now, nobody needed parking spots in downtown and certainly not us.

A rough kitchen created out of materials on a deserted island
The biggest sustainability concern for all of us was very basic: clean fresh water. There were small pools all over the island, but most it ran off into the salty ocean whenever the rains came. We had no way to capture it and store it, so we needed a new source, a different plan. The water we transported from the ship was running out. This wasn’t good.
One day, a small team was scouting for food on the mountain side and they came across a small trickle of a stream just slowly dribbling out of the rocks. First tastes were delicious. It was even cold! They started moving some of the rocks and digging at the dirt and it started flowing faster. There was excitement, then it burst forth in a gushing flow. The tiny group of explorers reveled in their discovery, they sloshed around in the delightful spray, they yelped for joy. A steady source of water had been found and it would set all of our minds at ease. Through some thoughtful and improvised engineering, we were able to control the flow like a water tap.

In early June, Skip Steward, a good friend at Baptist Memorial Health in Tennessee, reached out to me for advice for one of their internal teams. Skip had known and admired us for years. He wondered how we were doing and how we had adjusted. As we discussed the current situation and his team’s questions, I mentioned that we could more easily answer those questions by inviting them for a tour of Menlo. Tours had been our lifeblood, as essential to our business as water is to life. Of course, we couldn’t do tours, because no one would travel and even if they did, all they would see is an empty office.

“Would you like to do a virtual tour of a virtual Menlo, Skip?” I asked. The quick affirmative was heartening.

On Friday, June 5th at 1pm we engaged our first virtual tour for sixty minutes with Skip’s team. It felt as if we’d discovered cold fresh water in our isolated world. It went better than any of us expected. There was joy: Virtual tour, virtual Menlo, real joy. We put out a simple Linked In posting, and an offer of a virtual tour to others if they wrote us an email, and Skip commented:

“I cannot recommend this experiment highly enough! What an amazing company but don’t take my word go see it for yourself; virtually!”

Within two weeks we were doing 8-10 virtual tours per week! The cold, fresh water we sought was starting to flow again. There was energy, experiments galore and continuous improvement. We were already becoming familiar with the limitations of so many of the online meeting technologies. A highlight of the virtual tours is that we pop in on a virtual pair doing work on a client project. It’s a little clunky but the effect on our visitors is real. They get to see what remote pairing looks like and ask questions of people who work this way all day long. Perhaps the most gratifying sentiment we receive from those who know us well is something to the effect of “we knew if anyone could figure this out, the Meno team could.”

The virtual tours also offered something we wouldn’t have anticipated … visitors from New Zealand, London, and our largest gathering to date, a 50+ person tour with the fine folks from agile42 in Berlin.

This success has further energized the team to transition our most popular classes in project management, High-Tech Anthropology® and joyful leadership to virtual settings.

We are by no means fully safe in this uncertain world, but the human energy we strive for is there again, the experiments are flowing, and we are feeling stronger every day.

A clear day arrived on our tiny island. We can still see approaching storm clouds on the horizon, so we will once again have to brace for its arrival. That will be tomorrow’s work. Today is for enjoying the clear sky, the gentle sun, the warm breeze and the knowledge that we are all safe and able to care for each other. Right now, that feels like joy to us.
- Rich
Continued in Part 4.
Photo credit: "Robinson's kitchen" by jenthero is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/