I attended a local agile meetup today. The speaker was Jurgen Appelo, on a mini-promotion-tour for his new-ish book, Managing for Happiness.

Right off the bat: Jurgen is freaking awesome. He’s funny, engaging, informative, and direct, but also super-nice. If you ever get a chance to see a talk of his, definitely go.

He kicked off the conversation by telling us about himself, but this wasn’t a snooze-worthy rundown of his resume (which while impressive, I’m sure, would have been terribly boring). Instead, Jurgen told us stories – mostly stories of his failures, which predisposed us in the audience to liking him right away. Crafty! He balanced vulnerability with funniness really well, something I aspire to do when speaking.

The talk was really dense, so here are just a few highlights I took away. In staying true to myself as a millennial, they’re listicles.

7 Silver Bullets for Happiness at Work

Jurgen started off by telling us there is no one silver bullet for being happy at work – but there are seven. He also cited a book called Fearless Change: Patterns for Introducing New Ideas by Linda Rising, in which the author suggests to

Do Food. Make an ordinary gathering a special event by including food.

Short of bringing cookies to meetings, or making cooking dinner together a team-building activity, what can you do to be happier at work?

  1. Manage the system – you can’t make people happy, but you can create the environment for people to be happy.
  2. Nurture happiness – Jurgen told us a story of a physical ship bell they used at a previous workplace to celebrate accomplishments team-wide. See the steps below for more how-to strategies!
  3. Embrace playfulness.
  4. Run experiments.
  5. Accelerate learning.
  6. Innovate management – Jurgen’s consultancy, HappyMelly, believes that contracts impose limits on freedom and happiness. So Jurgen has literally no written contracts with his team – everything is based on trust. Of course, this is also how they ended up with a Zoo Keeper and a Creative Bottleneck as people exercised their freedom to choose their own job titles.
  7. Build for meaning – per Simon Sinek, “what would the world miss if you weren’t there?”

To illustrate points 4 and 5, Jurgen summarized the difference between learning from experiments and just plain fucking things up in what I thought was a really cool visualization:

In order to maximize learning, make sure the experiments you devise have about a 50/50 chance of success – otherwise, they’re either a layup and should just be operationalized, or they’re too far out, and will be prohibitively difficult to analyze.

There was an interesting other point Jurgen brought up regarding remote teams, which is near and dear to my heart. There is a book by Jim McCarthy called “Software for Your Head“. In it, he states:

Team performance typically has less to do with the collaborators’ physical proximity than with psychological, emotional, and intellectual proximity—that is, the individuals’ degree of engagement with one another and with their work.

This feels accurate to me; plus, as Jurgen rightly pointed out, the trend worldwide is definitely moving away from colocation.

7 Levels of Delegation

Did you know that the word “management” comes from “maneggiare”, which means “handling horses” in Italian? Here Jurgen got a bit controversial on the popular topic of self-management. He believes that complete self-management is, following the analogy, like a wild horse. While delegating as much as possible is desirable, Jurgen believes a fence has to be somewhere.

While I agree with this statement, I disagree with the idea that management has to be the one to define the locations of those fences. My thinking is that this too can be a team-wide decision (or, at least, the team should decide together who should make each decision). To be fair, we may have actually agreed, because here’s Mr. Appelo’s take on any practice:

When you’re being dogmatic, you should know that you’re not right.

However, there aren’t just two options (dictator or anarchist). In fact, taking inspiration from situational leadership, Jurgen presented 7 flavours of manager-employee collaboration:

  1. Tell
  2. Sell
  3. Consult
  4. Agree – “this is the Dutch approach; we talk and talk and talk until everyone has died, then the survivor makes the decision”
  5. Advise
  6. Inquire
  7. Delegate – to use Jurgen’s word, “anarchy”

It’s possible to visualize these with a Delegation Board, putting levels across the top, practices down the side in a matrix. How do you know which practices need to actually be on the board? Per Jurgen:

Start with a blank board, when you notice there’s confusion, then paint the fence.

Then how do you know what level each practice should be? Try playing Delegation Poker, a variation on Agile planning poker.

Dutch people have a dichotomy – they like freedom, but they don’t like chaos. Freedom and order. Sit in the right chair, but pay yourself what you want.

12 Steps to Happiness at Work

Jurgen asked a provocative question: “Does success lead to happiness, or does happiness lead to success?”

In the room, the majority of people raised their hands for the latter. I, of course, raised my hand for the former.

Mr. Appello took the diplomatic approach: he said he didn’t really know, and cited a few studies with contradictory evidence.

[…] we now know that happiness is the precursor to success, not merely the result.
— Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work

Two things may be correlated, but we may not know which one causes which. Does employee satisfaction lead to high performance? The evidence suggests it’s mainly the other way around — company success has a stronger impact on employee satisfaction.
— Phil Rosenzweig, The Halo Effect: … and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers

So what are the 12 science-backed ways to increase your happiness – at work, and overall?

  1. Thank someone and be appreciative of your colleagues, every single day.
  2. Give something to another person or make it possible for other people to offer gifts.
  3. Help someone who is in need of assistance, or enable colleagues to help each other.
  4. Eat well, and make good, healthy foods easily available for everyone.
  5. Exercise and work out regularly, and make it easy for people to take care of their bodies.
  6. Rest well, sleep sufficiently, and enable colleagues to refresh their minds.
  7. Experience new things, try stuff out, and let people run all sorts of experiments.
  8. Hike outdoors, enjoy nature, and allow people an escape from the office and the city.
  9. Meditate, and get people to learn and adopt mindfulness practices.
  10. Socialize, relate to other people, and make it easy for colleagues to develop connections.
  11. Aim for a goal, and get people to understand and realize their own purpose.
  12. Smile whenever you can, appreciate humour, and get colleagues to engage in fun activities.

There’s a lot more detail and resources for the 12 Steps to Happiness on Jurgen’s Management 3.0 site.

By the way, based on some reader feedback, I’d like to emphasize that Mr. Appelo did not present these “steps” as an exactly prescribed process to follow – in the way that AA does, for example. These are more like a smorgasbord of happiness morsels, leaving you free to choose whichever might fit your needs.

Your Turn

What do you think? Is it possible to achieve happiness at work? Have you ever had a “silver bullet” experience at the office? Let me know in the comments below, or shoot me a note to sabbatical@mashakrol.com – would love to hear your stories!

Join Me!

Get weekly updates on brain tech, fitness, work, and other fun! All summary of learnings, zero spam.