Designing Sustainable Visions
Snowdrops, precious stones, and sustainable futures for all
Many thanks to all of you who reached out with such positive thoughts after to my recent piece about our 2032 Vision. I appreciate everyone who asked for a copy. I’m happy to share—inspiring visions and interesting ideas, ever imperfect, can only lead to more creative thinking across our ecosystem when shared widely. Speaking of which, one of the things that’s been prominently on my mind is the question of where visions fit into the organizational ecosystem model that I’ve been doing so much work on of late. The beginnings of my response are in “Secret #47: Visionary Roots,” near the back of Part 4:
Everything else in the [ecosystem] model—roots/beliefs, soil/culture, seeds/people and ideas, water/generosity, sun/hope—holds equally true for an unwalked part of the woods or a pristine wild prairie as it does for anything we’re actively working in and on. Animals—and I love them—mostly exist within an environment, living their lives, changing only in the way their genetic coding tells them to. Beavers build dams, birds build nests, and lions make lairs. But they don’t develop new constructs, and they don’t, as far as I know, really innovate—they only repeat what’s been done and has worked well for the hundreds of generations that came before them. Humans are different. As anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus suggests, “Humanity is nature becoming self-conscious.”… We have the ability to imagine institutions, design things, construct cathedrals, dream up new projects, develop pioneering products.
Businesses aren’t like wild mushrooms—they don’t just spring up in the night after a big rainstorm. Someone had to have had a dream, a vision. And then they had to do the work to make that dream a reality. As architect Christopher Alexander writes, a vision of greatness “is, quite simply, the desire to make a part of nature, to complete a world which is already made of mountains, streams, snowdrops and stones, with something made by us, as much a part of nature, and a part of our immediate surroundings.”
Looking back at what I wrote last week pushed me to think further: If a vision is the blueprint of what we’re working to build, what would a creative, ecosystem-focused, forward-thinking architect—like Christopher Alexander—want to include in our organizational “design”?
Looking back a bit, Alexander was born on October 4 in 1936 in Vienna, at a time in which pressure was growing from the Nazis to incorporate Austria into a “Greater Germany.” In response, in the winter of 1938, the Austrian chancellor called for a national plebiscite on independence. Before the referendum could be conducted on March 13, Hitler declared loudly that the forthcoming vote was sure to be fraudulent, and warned that Germany would never accept its outcome. In the days leading up to the referendum, the German Ministry of Propaganda began broadcasting false reports of rioting in Austria, and called for German troops to intervene and restore order. On March 12, German soldiers crossed the border and Austria was annexed. Shortly thereafter the Alexander family fled to London. Later, as an adult, Alexander moved to the United States to do his graduate studies, then taught architecture at U.C. Berkeley for nearly 40 years, before retiring back to England in 2002.
Alexander also went on to write many books, most famously, A Pattern Language published in 1977, and The Timeless Way of Building, which came out 1979. Laura Miller wrote in the New York Times that Alexander has “one of the most developed senses of beauty I’ve ever encountered.” Although Alexander’s books are specifically about architecture, for me, they resonated much more broadly. In the same way that Robert Henri’s amazing The Art Spirit, published in 1923, was specifically about painting but is actually loaded with wonderful life lessons, Alexander’s writings are really a well-described worldview. He opines insightfully about energy, art, beauty, history, community, and alignment with nature. All of which, I see now, appear in one form or another in the 2032 Vision that I wrote about last week.
For years here at Zingerman’s we’ve said that an effective vision has four characteristics: It ought to be inspiring, strategically sound, documented, and actively communicated. Any vision that does all four, we’ve long believed, has a pretty good shot at success. I’ve realized of late though that visions of that sort will likely work well regardless of the ethical alignment of the vision. Big multinational companies that make pesticides might have visions that are inspiring and strategically sound for them, but those are not visions that feel aligned with nature—ecological and human—in the way that Alexander was writing about, or that I’m imagining, as part of healthy, sustainable ecosystems. Which made me wonder—what other characteristics would we want to always be present in a positive, sustainable organizational vision? What follows are a few of my thoughts. I have much more to say about all of them, but my hope here is really just to get us thinking. Adjust the list as you like.
True to ourselves
A vision in this sense isn’t about what we can do, or simply what will make us the most money. While those things will factor in, it’s really about what’s right for us. You can feel the grounded energy and authenticity in people you meet. Same goes, I say for us as organizations. We all have dreams. The vision is a way to help make them happen. Christopher Alexander writes:
“When you meet a person who is true to himself, you feel at once that he is more real than other people are… [W]hen a person’s forces are resolved… we feel relaxed and peaceful in his company… We need only ask ourselves which places—which towns, which buildings, which rooms, have made us feel [alive] like this—which of them have that breath of sudden passion in them, which whispers to us, and lets us recall those moments when we were ourselves.”
While finding that future may feel intimidating to some, it’s easier to access than I used to think. In our hearts, I’ve come to believe, we already know what we want to do. As John O’Donohue says, “Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. Your soul alone has the map of your future.” In the ecosystem metaphor I’ve been imagining, the moon as our soul—it quietly pulls us, through tides and social pressures to conform, to where we truly, by nature, need to go. The soul shines brightest when the ego is out of sight. It reflects back the bright hope of the sun (see below). It never dominates, but if we honor it, it stays strong. And it’s these soulful, authentic, made from the heart, businesses to which people will always be drawn. When I give Tammie a compliment and appreciate her for who she is, she often responds, quietly, with “I’m just me.” It’s a lovely and elegantly simple way to say it—when we can respond the same way as an organization, then it’s likely we’re on the right track.
Aligned with nature
This might mean ecologically sustainable, aligned with human nature, and working in harmony with the Natural Laws of Business. Regenerative in every aspect of our work, leaving our world better than the way we found it. As physicist Fritjof Capra writes, “Instead of being a machine… the way of approaching nature to learn about her complexity and beauty is not through domination and control but through respect, cooperation and dialogue.”
As Rumi said: “Let the beauty we love be what we do.” By contrast, the industrial age has brought on what John O’Donohue called a crisis of ugliness. We can quietly and creatively bring more beauty into everything we do. People feel good in its presence, and consciously or not, they are drawn to beauty. The more beauty we write into our visions, the more beauty we bring into our daily work, the better things are likely to go. As O’Donohue said, “The human soul is hungry for beauty; we seek it everywhere—in landscape, music, art, clothes, furniture, gardening, companionship, love, religion and in ourselves.” Which means that beauty in spirit, strategy, design, food, drink, relationships, and energy is likely to become a strategic differentiator as we move into the future.
Do something special
The more our visions describe something that’s unique, the more appealing our business will be, the more energy we’re likely to feel for it. As Gary Snyder wrote, “Excellence is a function of uniqueness.” We are each one of a kind and, in the kind of “natural business world” I’m imagining, it’s true for organizations too. Honoring that one-of-a-kind character is both a sustainable and good strategy. Christopher Alexander confirms, “This oneness… is the fundamental quality for anything. Whether it is in a poem, or a man, or in a building full of people, or in a forest, or a city, everything that matters stems from it.”
Help others be hopeful
In the organizational ecosystem metaphor, hope is the sun. (See Secrets #44 and #45 for more on hope, and “Working Through Hard Times” for a bit on building hope in a pandemic.) Christopher Alexander advises architects to be mindful of southern facings (here in the Northern Hemisphere) in order to get more light. And also, he suggests, to design rooms so that they have at least two sides with sunlight coming in from the outside. As Alexander writes: “When they have a choice, people will always gravitate to those rooms which have light on two sides, and leave the rooms which are lit only from one side unused and empty.” How important is that hope? Nearly everyone feels better in the presence of sunlight, and customers and staff alike are drawn to hopeful places. Which means that offering hope—like beauty—becomes a differentiator in the marketplace.
Bring joy and well-being
We can write health, wholeness, and sustainable wealth for all involved into the vision. As O’Donohue wrote, “The joyful heart sees and reads the world with a sense of freedom and graciousness.” Read Rich Sheridan’s insightful book, Joy, Inc. for much more on this subject.
True to place
John O’Donohue reminds us: “Landscape has a soul and a presence.” A vision that’s of its ecosystem will then by definition, always take into account, and honor, the terroir in which it is placed. (Here’s more about the idea of committing to the place in which we do business.)
Equity across the ecosystem
You don’t need to be a master architect like Christopher Alexander to know that buildings which are out of balance will fall over. Same is true in business. There has to be some sort of equity designed into our vision if we want our organization to be sustainable. The other way of working—giving nearly everything to those at the top and very little to everyone else—is not an effective solution. As has been demonstrated so many times in history, it can work for a short while, but is ultimately unstable and unsustainable. As Emma Goldman once wrote so succinctly, “Too much for too few. Too little for too many.”
Design for collaboration, not competition
It seems clear that, despite the dominance of the outdated and demonstrably inaccurate old belief that the fittest are the fiercest competitors, nature works the way folks like anarchist Peter Kropotkin, biologist Humberto Maturana, anthropologist Ruth Benedict, writer Ursula K. Leguin, and physicists Fritjof Capra and Bruce Lipton and others are all saying—the most successful, the “fittest,” are the most collaborative. What if we wrote our visions to honor that natural reality?
Create human connectivity
Vivek Murthy writes, “So many problems we face as a society… are worsened by loneliness and disconnection. Building a more connected world holds the key to solving these and many more of the personal and societal problems confronting us today.” It seems clear then that a sustainable vision of the future will help people feel that kind of community and connection—organizations in which we build long lasting, meaningful relationships.
Although large multinationals dominate the global marketplace, one does not have to keep growing so big that we lose the human connection that is at the core of the sense of belonging that Vivek Murthy is writing about. Bo Burlingham made this concept one of the characteristics of what he came to call a “Small Giant”: “The companies I was looking for all operated on what you might call ‘human-scale,’ that is, a size at which it’s still possible for the CEO and owner to meet with new hires and to have a personal connection with everyone in the organization… what I refer to as a culture of intimacy.”
I wrote a bunch about purpose last month. A vision that helps only the bosses will not bring beauty or sustainability to its ecosystem. As we know, we need to believe in what we’re doing, and what we’re doing needs to make a meaningful, positive difference in the lives of those we impact.
Again, I wrote much more about dignity than I can fit here—the full essay is in the new pamphlet “Working Through Hard Times.” The question I asked myself is: “What if we judged our collective success by dignity instead of dollars?” Visions that offer creative answers to that question bring our essential humanity to the fore in our ecosystems.
I wrote a whole book about this subject so I won’t say much here, other than to highlight that the sort of positive sustainable visioning I’m imagining must be based on positive beliefs. More to come soon when we have our new “Statement of Beliefs” in print. Beliefs, it’s clear, drive all our behavior, and also, as per the work of the biologist Bruce Lipton, our health.
Sustainably, strategically sound
Beauty without balance won’t work in business. In Alexander’s architectural world, I imagine, this is partly the work of the structural engineer—the building can’t just look good and be placed in a lovely location; it still has to stand up. The vision needs to take this into account. No matter what we do, we need to make enough money to pay the bills and sustain the lives of those who are a part of our organizations. Alexander reminds us that while we absolutely want to be true to ourselves, we must also design so that people want to come into our world and spend enough money to make it all work. And, at the same time, as Wendell Berry reminds us, don’t extract so much from the ecosystem that there’s nothing left for future generations.
When we write our visions, we have the chance to design the future of our caring and creative dreams. To write about what we believe is right and good, aligned with nature, hopeful, generous, equitable, inclusive, unique, and beautiful. What we create can work wonders, and ultimately change the world. As Christopher Alexander says, “It is the difference between health and sickness, wholeness and divided-ness, self-maintenance and self-destruction. In a world which is healthy, whole, alive, and self-maintaining, people themselves can be alive and self-creating.” This is what we have come to call “good work.”
Micki Maynard recently published a beautiful piece about restaurants and the Roadhouse that got me tearing up about two minutes into reading it. As I was reading I realized that in many ways what she wrote touches on nearly every element I’ve outlined above. A business that’s “of its place,” true to terroir, where you can feel the positive energy. A place where the work is done at a human scale, where the positive parts of an organization’s personality are always present. One where uniqueness, quality of care, love, positive beliefs, and the spirit of generosity are naturally—if ever imperfectly—embedded in what gets done every day. We have much work to do to make our 2032 Vision a reality. But Micki’s touching essay reminded me that we have much good work already at hand to build on.
Thank you all for being such positive pieces of our ecosystem. And for giving some thought to writing inspiring, strategically sound visions of the future that can raise the spiritual, ecological, and economic standards of living at the same time. Now is the time to do this work. As John O’Donohue said, with his uniquely Irish way of combining humor, humility, and wisdom, “The soul is making something of a comeback.”
*** 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!