Happy was founded in the UK by Henry Stewart as Happy Computers in Dec 1987. The aim was to make learning about software an enjoyable experience.
A key turning point was in 1992 when Henry read Maverick by Ricardo Semler and realised that organisations could be based on trust and freedom.
In the 2000s the company expanded into leadership and personal development and changed its name to Happy.
Another key turning point came in 2017 when the company adopted the ideas of David Marquet and the two key leaders decided to make no decisions. The company expanded by 20% annually in the years following.
As of 2021 Happy provides IT training, leadership and personal development and apprenticeships and seeks to create happy, productive workplaces.
In 2021 Happy employs 25 permanent staff and around 50 associates. Its turnover is around £2.2 million
- P. Education
- United Kingdom
You can’t say there is no hierarchy at Happy, as there are two clear leaders: Henry Stewart, founder and Chief Happiness Officer, and Cathy Busani, Managing Director. However there isn’t a rigid structure.
There are three departments: Happy Computers (IT Training), Happy People (leadership and personal development) and apprenticeships (funded in the UK by an Apprenticeship levy that every organisation has to pay).
Each department does have a Head but it is not necessarily a relationship between them and the people in those departments. Each person chooses who they would like to be their “M&M”. The title M&M was chosen by the staff and means Multiplier and Mentor - although the role is more of a coach.
Where staff work in a team, there is a team job description, rather than individual ones. That means that people can choose which roles in the team they want to play and these often shift.
There is a regular staff meeting (fortnightly before the pandemic, weekly during it). This will decide anything that affects everybody.
There is also a monthly Joyful meeting. This includes Henry, the heads of department and people elected by the staff as “potential leaders”. Anybody can attend this meeting. Wherever possible the teams make their own decisions, without referring to the head of that department.
Happy’s organisation chart is a series of circles with the picture of the person inside. It includes:
- Job title
- When they work
- Whether they are an activist, pragmatist, reflector or theorist (Honey and Mumford)
- Their 5 key strengths based on Strengthfinder (R)
The colours show their communication style, when at ease (external circle) and when under pressure (internal circle)
- Red = Driver,
- Yellow = Expressive,
- Green = Amiable,
- Blue = Analytical
The arrows indicate who coaches who. The chart is the work of two front-line staff who were pre-approved to come up with it.
Some areas of the budget are fixed, such as rent, rates, service charge.
For flexible areas, we seek to use metrics that align with income such as trainer costs, manuals, food, ice cream. The trainer cost is expected to be at most 35% of income generated and the other costs at most 15% - giving a net profit of 50%.
In marketing it is expected that each pound spent generates 5x that in revenue.
These metrics enable each individual in the company to work to these ratios without needing any approval from above.
While the company does work to a P&L based on its financial year, there is very little time (at most one short meeting) spent on deciding the budget, as most of it is based on these metrics.
“People know what their responsibilities are”, explains Henry Stewart, the co-founder. “They don’t need anybody else to tell them whether they need to be in the office or not.”
“I remember before the pandemic I was showing somebody around the office; he commented that only 5 out of our 25 staff members were in the office and asked where the others were. ‘I have no idea,’ I commented. People are judged by the results they deliver, not the amount of time they spend in the office.”
There are a range of flexible hours. Some work part-time. Some work compressed hours (eg, the full week in 4 days). There are no set hours, people work when they want around their responsibilities.
Around 2000 the leadership became aware that our admin team of 9 people wanted to work more flexibly. So they set out the terms, that there was a need for two more people in the office from 9 to 5.30 each day to answer the phone. People then decided between themselves when they would work, with some coming in at 6am (to avoid the London commute) and not many people working on Friday afternoons!
Nowadays it wouldn’t be the leadership who would set out the requirement; the team would do it by itself.
Decisions to be made on when people are in, and what meetings are for, are now all made within the team.
In 2018 Happy held a vote on whether to continue with annual performance appraisals. The vote was 82% against.
The company has tried different sorts of targets, including OKRs. The problem was that many of the staff members, especially the facilitators, would have similar targets for years. So at a six-monthly Happy Day (the Happy Day is basically a full company away day), one of the staff members came up with the idea of a radical disruption: one thing to do radically different in the next 4 months. https://www.linkedin.com/posts/henrystewart_instead-of-targets-how-about-a-radical-activity-6760863420976766976-6jRc
This is now included in a four-monthly snapshot session with their M&M/coach, described here : https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/lets-get-rid-annual-appraisals-replace-them-snapshots-henry-stewart/
One of Happy’s core principles is that recruitment should be based on people’s ability to do the job, not how they talk about doing the job.
Example of a Facilitator interview: Happy interviews are organized in groups, with typically 6 people at once. They ask the people to do the job immediately, for instance facilitating a 20 min session. The group interviews allow Happy to see how people interact and whether they are positive and supportive of each other. The session shows whether they have the potential to train in the Happy style. In the second interview they will take the person aside and give them some coaching on how to improve. They then go back and they see if they have responded to the feedback. Ability to learn is a key criterion.
Same for other roles : Happy puts people in the situation, and observes competencies (ability to do the job, or the potential to), attitude (not qualifications) and also how they interact in teams (recruitment is made with 6 people to be sure that they will be able to regulate and self-manage themselves within their teams). Happy also aims for collaborative interviews, with as many as possible of the people who will work with the new recruits and then they provide a very detailed feedback to the people.
One of Happy’s core recruitment principles to have this working is : don't leave candidates to guess what is needed. Make it absolutely clear.
More Happy recruitment principles can be found here; the vision (purpose) and core values of the organization to be shared with candidates are very clear in this document.
In 2018 Happy held a vote on whether to continue with annual performance appraisals. The vote was 82% against. Instead people have a four monthly snapshot session with their coach: Of course it still makes sense to carry out a regular review, so they replaced it with a four-monthly happy@happy snapshot. The form used can be accessed here. It is inspired by something they saw at the food company Cook. It highlights disruptions, successes, aspirations, contribution to unity and joy.
choose one thing that you will do completely differently in the next period.
Strengths, Responsibilities and Values
as pillars of Successes and Aspirations
Happy uses Strengthfinder to discover each person’s five key strengths, as well as working with them on what motivates them and what makes them “feel magnificent”. They want people to do what they are good at, for their sake and for Happy’s. So they explore which strengths they have used and which they will use going ahead.
At Happy people aren’t generally given responsibilities or promotions. Instead they encourage people to seek opportunities, to decide what responsibility they are able to take on. One example was two of their front-line staff who decided their prices needed updating. As is the Happy way, they consulted with colleagues and clients and checked the market. And then they took responsibility and made the decision, without needing upward approval on what to change to.
Happy doesn’t want core values to be just a laminated poster stuck on the wall. So the snapshot is a good opportunity to explore where they have “believed the best”, “helped people feel good about themselves”, “celebrated mistakes”, “delighted the customer” or “made the world a better place”.
Contribution to unity and joy
At Happy, it is not enough to be good at your core job. They believe their values are clear and they expect everybody to be positive and supportive of others and – even in a difficult conversation – to leave them feeling good about themselves. So a crucial element of the form is to ask what they have done to achieve more unity and inclusiveness. That can be anything from little things like taking lunch with different colleagues or checking in with people in other departments..
Joy at Work
The aim is that everybody at Happy finds joy in their work at least 80% of the time. They ask their people to measure it for themselves and to think about what would bring them joy. It leads to a very different conversation to ask “What would give you more joy?”, instead of “How can we improve your performance?”.
Salaries are decided annually. Each person submits what they think they should earn.
The salaries are decided by a salary panel, which consists of four people elected by the staff (before 2021,only half the panel was elected by staff.)
This approach started in around 2015.
It is based on a total figure that the staff decide, after examining the profit-and-loss for the previous year - and expectations ahead.
Inevitably the total submitted normally comes to more than the total that has been allocated to salaries. So figures are often scaled back. However sometimes the salary panel decides that somebody’s salary should be more than what they asked for.
Happy seeks to keep internal meetings to a minimum. For ones involving the whole company (a weekly staff meeting and six-monthly Happy Day), Happy seeks to use Liberating Structures - to give everybody an equal voice.
Whether on real life events or on Zoom, meetings at Happy use liberating structures. They are a set of formalised techniques that, instead of having meetings dominated by one or two people, involve everybody. For an overview of all 33 techniques see https://www.liberatingstructures.com/
Here are a quick sum-up of some techniques used at Happy
Spiral Journal: A mindful start
Take a piece of A4 paper and fold it into 4. Spend two minutes drawing a spiral, as slowly and as tightly wound as possible, out from the centre. In response to four prompts, give your answers in each of the four quadrants. Then discuss in (breakout room) pairs. This is a chance to reflect, and ground yourself. The prompts that are used are:
- "Right now my body is feeling……",
- "The challenges I’m bringing with me to this workshop are……",
- "Something I have been paying close attention to is………",
- "Lately it's been important for me to….."
Mad Tea: an icebreaker
Live, you form two circles so everybody is facing another person. Prompts are presented and each person responds in turn in just 30 seconds. (eg, "The current crisis is making me feel …." and "Things that are more important for me now are… ") Then one circle moves round and you face another person. It is a high energy activity, giving a chance to meet people quickly. In Zoom, you display the prompt in Chat (and on Broadcast) and split the room into pairs for 90 seconds, sending out a broadcast at the halfway point. It still produces a buzz.
W3: What? So What? Now What?
W3 is a great way to reflect on a discussion or a process and step away from self-generating beliefs. It simply consist of asking three questions, each to be considered first alone and then in pairs, to base decisions on what has been answered:
- What? What did you see, feel, hear, think?
- So What? What are the implications?
- Now What? What to do next?
Triz: What's the worst that could happen?
In Triz you look at the worst possible outcome (e.g, what would make this project fail?). Working first alone and then in groups, you examine what could lead to that result. Then, again working first alone and then in groups, you explore which of those things your organisation is doing.
Happy’s prompt was "How can you ensure you respond to this crisis in a way that is reliably disastrous for yourself and others?". There was a lot of talk of Trump and injecting Dettol, but also of issues like "failing to adapt".
Troika: Consultation in threes
What challenge or issue would you like help on? Troika groups three people together. Each in turn raises their issue and explains it to the others. In real life, they then turn their back (so the others can't see their response and facial expression) and hear the other two discuss their issue for 5 minutes.
Online, you can turn your back. But it is actually more effective than normal to turn off your video and be able to not just hear the other two colleagues but not see them too. It is remarkable how often real insights result from this process.
From 1992, when Henry read Maverick, to 2017, Happy sought to give people trust and freedom and job ownership. However it could not be described as a self-managing organisation as many decisions were made by Henry and Cathy.
In 2017 a key change happened. Learning from David Marquet, Henry and Cathy decided to stop making decisions, and instead to push them down to front-line staff. The results were remarkable, with people stepping up and taking responsibility. The effect on sales were dramatic, see here.
Even before 2017 Happy had been practising the concept of pre-approval, the idea that you approve a solution - within clear guidelines - in advance. https://www.happy.co.uk/blogs/pre-approve-it/
The CEO role is not to make decisions but to set the framework and be sure the right metrics are being measured.
Example: There are two key metrics in training delivery: customer satisfaction and training utilization. Customer satisfaction delivers delighted customers, but for the company to be profitable trainer utilisation is key. “All our facilitators are focused on the feedback they will get. But they aren’t so focused on utilisation. So I asked them to, each month, measure their utilisation. We didn’t set targets or anything, we just asked folk to measure it. That step alone resulted in a £95k increase in profits.” “I get to do what I love to do and feel what I am best at, which is coming up with new products,” explains Henry. In April 2021 this has meant creating a “Happy MBA”.
Here an example of frontline decision-making : in 2018 Ben and John felt that the prices of their courses needed increasing. They used the Advice Process, asking others for their views but making the final decision themselves.
“I was consulted”, explained Henry. “But actually they chose to go much higher than I would have gone. But that's fine, that is the effect of taking real responsibility.”
Happy core values:
Help people feel good about themselves
People who feel happy and confident are more likely to try new things. They are more likely to form effective teams. They are better equipped to face challenges. The key to being a great manager is to help people feel good about themselves.
Believe the best and trust others
When we get annoyed with people for being ‘stupid’ or ‘slow’, we are in fact getting annoyed with our own inability to pass on information easily. Recognising our own shortcomings, we should trust that people always do the best they can. ‘Mental blocks’ offer us the opportunity to find new ways to overcome them.
Create customer delight
We aim not just to give ‘customer satisfaction’, but to delight customers and exceed expectations with every interaction.
We’re conditioned from an early age to scold or punish mistakes. However, mistakes are the greatest way of learning! Training and managing should encourage people to try something new. The best way to be bold is to minimise fear of failure and to celebrate mistakes.
Make the world a better place
We are committed to supporting the local community, offering free training, support and consultancy sessions to charities through our Timebank scheme. We also offer discounted rates for charities and non-profits, During the pandemic Happy provided over 800 free seats at trainings to NHS staff.