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James Goebel Talks 'Collaboration and Innovation'

Published March 27, 2013

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James Goebel (left), COO of Menlo Innovations, is one of many
EMU alumni who work at the award-winning company.

Menlo Innovations, an Ann Arbor-based computer software design company, does not reflect a typical work environment. But then again, the award-winning company does not produce typical software.

Visitors to the work space in The Office at Liberty Square, 505 E. Liberty St., are greeted by bright orange and green walls covered with colorful post-it-notes showing projects in various states of progress. Collaborative work teams sit side-by-side at portable desks in a large, open space that lacks walls or cubicles. Ongoing and engaging conversations create a stimulating and noisy atmosphere that has spawned many innovative products.

"The point of this open environment is to remove barriers that limit communication within project teams, and to breed more ideas and productivity by creating more collaboration," says James Goebel (MBA04), founding partner and chief architect of Menlo.

Judging from the results, this innovative approach has been very successful. The company, which has a proven track record of creating useful and marketable software that delivers real business value, generates revenues of about $4 million. "My goal is to find ways to create value for others, then worry about how to monetize it," says Goebel.

At the time of this interview, Menlo employed 50, including several EMU alumni and current students, but employment numbers fluctuate depending on the quantity of projects. "About half of Menloians are employees; the other half are contractors," says Goebel, 47, who also earned his bachelor's degree from Eastern, majoring in computer science.

Employee and alumna Elaine Conroy (BA74) describes Menlo's atmosphere as unique and dynamic. Contractor and current student Wes Schacht agrees, adding that EMU's College of Business helped to prepare him for the challenge. Schacht is on track to graduate with a bachelor's degree in computer science this spring.

Goebel says he drew inspiration for the open work space from Thomas Edison's "Invention Factory" in Menlo Park, New Jersey, which pioneered a similar approach; and from his alma mater, Eastern Michigan University.

"When working on my MBA at Eastern, I took a class on teams and on organizational change. As a part of it, I had to pretend I was leading a major organizational change and write about it," he says. The class, and subsequent experiences, helped to hone his skills at accomplishing challenging and time-consuming projects by building effective teams instead of trying to repeat heroic effort, he adds.

The resulting collaboration is so successful, that Menlo won the Alfred P. Sloan Award for Workplace Flexibility; was named a "Michigan Psychologically Healthy Workplace" (American Psychological Association); and was named among Top Small Workplaces (Wall Street Journal & Winning Workplaces), among honors.

Clients have ranged from the University of Michigan Hospital, which uses the Organ Transplant Information System that Menlo designed, to an organization needing software for scoring dog agility events.

"We want to develop leaders and to help people grow," says Goebel. Underscoring that point, a poster on the wall behind him offered this quote from Socrates: "I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think."

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