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Another Look at Bottom-Line Change®

Why a 5-step recipe for change management can change your organizational culture

Another Look at Bottom-Line Change

What if I told you we had an organizational tool that gets better, longer lasting results than the old command-and-control approach? That it helps develop effective leadership skills across all levels of the organization. Encourages humility in everyone. Actively and systemically engages diverse perspectives in meaningful conversation. Cuts down on unpleasant surprise changes that can easily send front line staff spiraling. Pushes front line folks to start learning to lead rather than just giving their managers advice on how to do things better. Something that forces us as leaders to actively seek and then assimilate feedback from staff before we start shifting things around. What if this tool could help to take you to the next level of organizational development and meaningfully, if quietly, alter the cultural consciousness of your organization?

What if all that cost you only $15? No exaggeration. For $15, “Bottom-Line Change®”—created both intellectually and aesthetically here at Zingerman’s and printed locally—can be yours. Now to be straight, after you purchase the pamphlet, you will still have work to do. The 15 bucks buys you the info, but you need to do the implementation. Still, if you’re willing to give up on a few old ways, alter some long-held but perhaps past-date beliefs, and leave behind a host of problems that most of us say we don’t want (but still covertly cling to), it could be the best 15 bucks you spend this year. And if you like to learn in a group setting with smart, hands-on instructors to help guide you, we has the Bottom-Line Change (or BLC) class coming up early in 2021 for $150.

At its most basic level, BLC is simply our recipe at Zingerman’s for leading and managing organizational change. It’s a recipe, not a Standard Operating Procedure, so in the same way that a good cook always needs to adjust his or her cooking to the ingredients and culinary issues at hand, so too the change leader will work with the 5 Steps to BLC to creatively fit the “local” situation. In that sense, it is—like all leadership—a craft, not a science. BLC is applicable for little changes like moving the spot where the coffee pots are kept, to big scary stuff like working out a radically new organizational vision. In times of urgency, you can use BLC quickly: “We need to put this in place by tonight.” Or it can be used slowly: “We’re considering changing our organizational direction pretty drastically and want to get everyone on board.” 

We formally began using Bottom-Line Change® here back in the early 2000s. We learned and adapted it from the masterful teaching of Stas’ Kazmierski. Stas’ (pronounced “Stosh”) had led us through the visioning process back in 1994 when we wrote Zingerman’s 2009, and later helped us weave visioning into our everyday existences in the Zingerman’s Community of Business (ZCoB). He taught us a ton about using consensus and shared a host of terrific tools for effective group dynamics. In 2000, Stas’ became a co-managing partner with Maggie at ZingTrain, until he retired in the fall of 2014. Sadly, Stas’ passed away in the spring of 2017. BLC is a big part of his legacy. 

A dozen years or so after we began using Bottom-Line Change® here at Zingerman’s, Frederic Laloux wrote insightfully about “the organization of the future” in Reinventing Organizations. Laloux looks at the history of organizational styles over the centuries. He argues that each new advancement fits with a parallel advance in human consciousness. Laloux uses colors to mark a dozen historical shifts, from “red organizations”—tribal bands, Mafia groups, etc.—on up through “green organizations”—the caring-people focused, positive-culture-driven workplaces (Southwest Airlines, Ben & Jerry’s) from the progressive era in which we started Zingerman’s. The latest, and he says next level, is the “Teal” organization. I’m not here to tell you that Zingerman’s has “arrived” at Teal. We have much to do better. But, I can say that the three main characteristics of Laloux’s Teal organization clearly fit with what we are trying to do:

  1. Self-management
  2. Wholeness
  3. Evolutionary Process

I’ve just written about #2: Wholeness is embedded into what I wrote about Good Work. And #3: Mission Statements are a meaningful form of Evolutionary Purpose. It made sense today to take on the third of Laloux’s Teal triad this week: Self-Management. Which is what got me thinking, anew, about BLC. 
I know that when we write about self-directed management, the conversation will, in some mainstream quarters, elicit a rapid round of eye rolls. The obvious objections are some version of, “Sounds great, but how are you going to make it happen?” Or, “So, people just do what they want? Isn’t that chaos?” (Sometimes they cynically say, “That would be anarchy!” I smile.) The short answer is “No!” It’s not any of those things. “Self-management” actually needs better structures and systems and more meaningful checks and balances. In Secret #29 about my application of anarchism to business, the 11th Tenet (of 12) on the list is:
Workable Ways for Everyone to Modify and Self-Monitor Systems and Structures

We know . . . that people do their best work when their motivation and drive come from within . . . If you believe in people, then putting self-regulating systems in place and supporting those systems with sound leadership is the way to go. . . They’re not very hierarchical, but they are well structured and very clear. All are designed to give individuals here the chance to self-start and to make something special happen. . . . Open book finance is the most obvious—everyone knows the financial score, learns how to run a business, and participates in making it better. . . . Our Bottom-Line Change recipe allows anyone here to start a change.

Do you have to use BLC? Of course not! You don’t have to do anything (see my piece about “Free Choice”). But maybe it’s time to, as Laloux suggests, move to the next level. As Joost Minnaar and Pim de Morree write in Corporate Rebels, “We often live in the past, with structures and processes that were designed for a world that no longer exists.” When you put BLC to work well, along with other methods of self-management—open book management, LEAN, and open meetings are three that come quickly to mind here in the ZCoB—it can meaningfully alter the organizational culture. And the hearts and minds of the people in it. 
I put a list of 14 reasons to use BLC into the pamphlet. Right here, right now, though I want to focus on my belief that BLC is a beautiful way to help people learn to lead. By using it in that way, I believe, we have the power to help change lives. Lisa Schultz, longtime GM at Zingerman’s Roadhouse, and who’s poised to do even more in the ZCoB, led a BLC at the Roadhouse back in 2009. The change work was for a relatively tiny issue: changing our procedure to put bottles of pepper vinegar (to go with the braised collard greens) on the table. In the scheme of now nearly 39 years of Zingerman’s history, that project is a tiny dot in an ocean of organizational activity. For Lisa, though, it turned out to be a big turning point: “That’s when I decided I was ready to move forward and work on myself both personally and professionally. Things like that helped me to build confidence and feel good about getting involved. I’m so glad I did, or I wouldn’t be where I am today!” Small sparks can create big results. 
As the poet Irish John Quinn put it:

And sometimes
A mind will set
Our imagining afire

The idea here is to empower staff, to encourage them to act and to take leadership responsibility for their own ideas rather than remaining well-meaning, but passive, bystanders. To wit, while I was out running the other day and pondering this piece, I realized that part of what makes BLC so powerful is that it encourages us to “ban the box.” Not the “ban the box” on job applications (which I’m all for). I mean to ban the suggestion box. That might, I imagine, seem a strange thing for someone like me to say. But here’s what’s driving me: When a staff member has an idea, I don’t want them just to share it passively with their boss so that he or she can brilliantly pass judgement and give you $50 if we use the idea. Nice. But much too parental for my taste. Nor do I want to let people stand on the sidelines when they could—by using BLC in this case—become part of the meaningful action. Getting into the BLC game changed Lisa Schultz’s life, and there are others waiting to come in from the organizational cold as well.

If you follow this lead, you replace the suggestion box with BLC. In which case, it goes like this: Got an idea? Awesome! Let’s talk! I’m here to help. Do you know about Bottom-Line Change®? No? Let me tell you about it (or give you the pamphlet to read, or you can go to our internal class). My work in this context is to coach you through the ups and downs, frustrations and challenges, success and struggles, that all leaders learn to work through. When we use BLC in this way, it teaches, encourages, and supports people not just to have ideas, but instead to take the initiative. 

Will everyone do that? No. Some may simply let the idea drop. Which isn’t ideal. But if they’re not ready to push and lead and advocate for their idea, then it’s done. (Certainly, if I love the idea more than they do, I can lead my own BLC too.) On the other hand, a better outcome is that they want to take things further. Then they begin by drafting the first two steps of BLC: 

  1. A list of compelling reasons why the change is a good idea. 
  2. A vision of what the change will be when it’s working down the road.  

Will either draft be perfect? Of course not. Neither would mine. That’s the point. BLC isn’t just about the actual change. It’s about humility—we all need help. It’s about inclusion—the process will force us to gather input from others. It’s about diversity—it asks us to include a wide range of people in the conversation. Which, as Laloux says, becomes a “conversation of possibility.”

Will every idea an employee proposes be automatically implemented? No! Often the decision about the proposed change (and there’s much, much more on this in the pamphlet) will reside elsewhere. Having the idea, in the BLC recipe, doesn’t necessarily mean you can just make the final call yourself. But the way we work, that’s also true for me. Anyone at Zingerman’s—boss or busboy, managing partner or part-time coffee maker—is going to need to get buy-in and over an appropriate period of time get the nod from those with whom the decision making authority resides. Will people feel frustrated if their idea doesn’t end up happening? More often than not, yes. But the resilience and persistence that comes from that part of the process is part of leadership learning.

I can’t overstate the importance of learning like this—to have the chance to take an idea, even a seemingly small one, and engage as an equal in meaningful leadership conversations. John O’Donohue says, “There are limitless possibilities within each one of us and, if we give ourselves any chance at all, it is unknown what we are capable of.” BLC used well—as per Lisa’s story above—can help make that happen! Once someone starts to lead, their energy shifts. They take a more positive and prominent role at work every day. They become more confident in a humble but meaningful way. That carries over into their presence out of work as well. 

While BLC fits into the frame of self-management, please understand that even if an employee initiates, the boss is not absent in this work. There’s nothing about BLC that implies abdication. As educator and author Dennis Bakke writes, “The importance and impact of moral leadership on the life and success of an organization have been greatly underappreciated.” With BLC, the leader’s role shifts in much the same way it does with open book management. Instead of holding all the power and making all the decisions, the effective leader here shifts to a coaching stance. As poet Gary Snyder says, “Just as you could not grow culture out of a population of kindergarten children . . . A community needs its elders to continue.” 

Does everyone just agree when a new idea comes out in this format draft? NO! No matter who starts the process—me or a front line staffer at the Creamery—the point is to engage the different perspectives and ideas in ways that slowly weave diverse perspectives into a resilient and beautiful tapestry. As O’Donohue writes, “All creativity comes out of that spark of opposition where two different things meet.” 

What if I want to lead a change? I need to use BLC too. Do I always like it? Not emotionally. I’m not any different than most folks—by the time I decide something is a good idea, I just want to announce the decision and get it done. (As Stas’ used to remind us, “We all like change when it’s our change.”) But staying true to the process prevents me from just forcing something through without appropriate engagement with others. It requires us to actually talk to each other. It requires us to respect diversity and actualize inclusion. When it works well, cool things come from the conversation. As O’Donohue says, “In true dialogue something truly other and unexpected emerges.” 

How does BLC help?

Here are some learnings from Zingerman’s staff members:

Bethany Zinger, Catering Manager at the Roadhouse, shares:

As someone who is a planner by nature I can get really protective over my ideas. Using the BLC process has highlighted for me how processes and ideas change to fit the needs of the people they affect. You can take an idea and with buy-in and input on every level you can end up someplace even better than where you started. BLC gives power to every employee, effectively creating and building leaders from the ground up.

Karen Shepard, who works at the Candy Manufactory, says:

The biggest and best thing I have learned about Bottom-Line Change is that you are going to have resistance ALWAYS. If it is not your idea, you are going to feel it and if it is your idea, you are going to get it. That makes it so much easier to listen to new ideas and put things out there. Be ready to listen and have numbers to back your ideas up. If you are reacting to someone trying to create change—realize your immediate resistance is always going to be there, recognize it, and move past it. It doesn’t mean the idea is right, it just means you can view it with a clear lens. 

Grace Singleton, Co-Managing Partner at the Deli, says:

BLC allows time for any challenging issues to surface prior to the roll out. There are many times when changing something that I don’t know the impact it will have on all the different departments. Rather than making the change and finding out it’s a real problem for someone else’s processes, that can all come to light before we roll it out and we can have a smoother and easier implementation.

Lindsay-Jean Hard, Marketing Manager at the Bakehouse (check out her book Cooking with Scraps)

I don’t like BLC . . . I LOVE IT! In my case, I knew in my gut that shifting the Bakeshop e-news from 5x a week to once a week was the right move, but my gut isn’t going to convince anyone else. Writing out a BLC forced me to come up with compelling reasons to make the shift—in the process I realized there were many more reasons to make the change than I originally thought there were. And, sharing that information with relevant parties ahead of time meant that everyone knew about the change and why it was happening. Thus, they were not only prepared for it, but also had time to share any concerns prior to actually making the switch.

My point here is to get you thinking. BLC is a seemingly small change. And yet, the quiet potential for meaningful change in the cultural consciousness of our organizations is significant. To show that there are practical, unglamorous, but really good ways to alter your organization. Anatole France said, “To accomplish great things we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.” BLC, I will say from years of experience, has the power to do all four. In the process, it can help us to change organizations and change lives. Like anything meaningful, it takes more work than painting positive slogans on your break room walls or giving quick awards to good employees. But if you’re willing to do that work, the benefits to your business, to you as a leader, and to all the leaders-in-the-making you already employ are huge. Positive energy always ensues. Because, as Roland Loup, Stas’ longtime colleague, wrote, “Ensuring that people always have a sense of meaning, hope and the ability to influence (power) the decisions that affect them ensures that the fire never dies.”

Check out the “Bottom-Line Change®” pamphlet here!

P.S. They’re topics for another time, but BLC works well in non-business settings too. Try BLC in:

  • Classrooms (helping students learn to lead at an early stage rather than depend on—or be angry at—authority figures)
  • In your family (setting up new healthy boundaries, changing old patterns)
  • For personal change (quitting smoking, starting a new job, starting to work out, going sober)

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!