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Zingerman's Natural Laws of Business

Natural Law #18

How creating connection can lead to a better life

Dr. Vivek Murthy wrote in his book Together: “The more I studied the seesaw relationship between loneliness and togetherness, the more convinced I became of the great power of human connection. 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.” The same struggle to create more connection, I’ve come to believe, is happening inside organizations all over the country. As Vivek Murthy makes clear, “We have a universal need to connect with one another… We all need to know that we matter and that we are loved.”

Much of this isolation and disconnection came out of the changes inspired by the Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 19th century. It’s a good bit of what anarchists of that era were reacting to—as Alexander Berkman warned, “Revolution that divests itself of ethical values thereby lays the foundation of injustice, deceit, and oppression for the future society.” Certainly, we have all benefited from parts of that industrial model, but much of what Berkman forecasted has, unfortunately, come to pass. Industrialization separated work life from home life, land held in common was cut up into privately owned plots, and people left small communities for tenements and tenuous jobs in the cities. In the process, industrialization severed the natural connections between farmers and those who ate their food, between craftspeople and their products, and also with the people to whom they had provided them. It broke down jobs into isolated tasks, which yielded economic benefit for business, but often brought boredom—instead of beauty—to those who were doing the work. In the last year, it’s safe to say that social media and the pandemic have only made these disconnections more extreme still. As Vivek Murthy says, “In the workplace when we violate human nature, we create a crisis that causes disengagement, depression, and loneliness. This comes in part from not honoring people’s humanity and not honoring their unique contribution as human beings.” We can, I believe, repair the damage that has been done. By working more harmoniously with nature, on the planet, and with human nature, we can help restore those connections.

Which brings us back to where I was last week—to continue adding to the list of the original 12 Natural Laws of Business. The Natural Laws, I believe, offer a framework for organizational healing that can slowly, but surely, help. I was reflecting a bit this past week on why they work in that way. Here’s what I came up with:

a) The Natural Laws have helped me understand why things are working the way they are. And, conversely, to understand more quickly why, at times, our efforts fall short.

b) They make it easier to take behaviors that seem “obvious” to successful leaders, and turn them instead into teachable tools that allow others, at every level of an organization, to learn them too.

c) The list of the Natural Laws has given me a mental model, or a template, that I can hold my work up to. After all these years, it’s pretty clear that when we live in harmony with them, things go well. When we fight them or forget them, we suffer.

Above and beyond all those benefits, there’s a fourth item on my list—the Natural Laws often help me to see and understand things at a different, deeper, level. To wit, I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few weeks thinking about another “new” Natural Law on my working list:

Natural Law #13: Everything is naturally related and interconnected.

This concept of universal connection isn’t new. In the 16th century Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “Realize that everything connects to everything else.” In the 19th century British mathematician Ada Lovelace wrote, “Everything is naturally related and interconnected.” In a sense, this Natural Law is a new way to state what’s known as “The Butterfly Effect.” The Fractal Foundation explains:

This effect grants the power to cause a hurricane in China to a butterfly flapping its wings in New Mexico. It may take a very long time, but the connection is real. If the butterfly had not flapped its wings at just the right point in space/time, the hurricane would not have happened. A more rigorous way to express this is that small changes in the initial conditions lead to drastic changes in the results. Our lives are an ongoing demonstration of this principle.

I first wrote about this idea in Part 3, in a short sidebar called “The Theory of Relevantivity” (it’s on page 379 in Secret #39). What it means is that pretty much anything that happens in our lives is going—to a greater or lesser extent—to be relevant to everything else that’s going on. Small decisions can add up to big differences. If I had chosen the University of Wisconsin over Michigan? Or if I’d opted to go law school like my mother wanted me to? I’ll never forget how a small shift in the grind of the sea salt we buy from Sicily screwed up the Paesano Bread. Or how getting a new grinding attachment caused quality problems with our Pimento Cheese. Everything is ultimately impacting everything else. As writer Meg Wheatley says, “We know from science that nothing in the universe exists as an isolated or independent entity.”

I was reminded of how meaningful these seemingly small actions can be last week when I got an email from Carol Strayer, who will soon be retiring after a decade and a half with our accounting team. I had reached out to Carol to thank her, and to tell her how much all her work here is appreciated. Her positive presence and persistent professionalism will be missed! She sent me back this touching and inspiring note, which reminded me yet again, how big outcomes can come from seemingly insignificant interactions:

Having heard you speak at ArtTrain about service is part of the reason I was drawn to applying for the Zingerman’s accounting opening when I saw it advertised. As usual, it was an impactful and inspiring talk. There are very few times in life that you can point to a mind shift, but that was one of them for me. Over 15 years later, I can still remember parts of it. We still have 2 more months of work ahead, but it’s not too early to say I have appreciated my time at Zingerman’s and consider my life changed for the better because of it.

What I wrote about above is the appreciation of how much connections we make have an impact. But this past week, a whole second part of Natural Law #18 came clear to me. Two small, completely unrelated things—the wonderful flapping of a pair of existential butterflies’ wings—happened within a week to build on what I’d already understood. The second half of this piece is about my recent realization of how important it is for us to go out and actively make those connections. To do our part to repair some of the damage that Alexander Berkman once warned of, and that Vivek Murthy wrote about last year. Our long term health—both personal and organizational—I’ve come to believe, depends on how well we can reestablish connections that have long since been severed.

The other evening, Severine von Tscharner Fleming had dinner at the Roadhouse. She’s a farmer, an activist, founder of both Greenhorns and the Agrarian Trust, and editor of the New Farmer’s Almanac—among other impressive feats. While she ate (along with her local hosts, Sandy and Sarah Wiener), Severine shared thoughts on a host of subjects. One that caught my attention was how ecologically-minded people are planting plots of wildflowers and wildlife between large-scale commercial cornfields. These projects, called “prairie strips,” effectively re-energize ecosystems that had long since lost their natural diversity and vitality. I wasn’t taking notes, but Severine said something along the lines of, “Nature is always thinking about us, always working to come up with the right answer. But because human beings have divided nature, and broken so many of her natural connections, nature is having a really hard time thinking. She can’t connect the different dots. And the disconnects are keeping nature from being able to work as she has for billions of years.”

I was out running the next day when I suddenly connected what Severine had said the night before with Natural Law #18. Severine’s stories made me realize that #18 isn’t just about increased understanding, but that there’s an active application of this Natural Law: We would be wise as leaders and organizations to find ways to restore the natural, much-needed human connections that have been cut—intentionally or otherwise—by efficiency, hierarchy, and an effort to control what can’t be controlled anyways (see this blog post). Natural Law #18, I now see, tells us:

We can reduce loneliness, increase creativity, and help enhance well-being, both for individuals and for the organization as a whole, by actively making as many connections across the organization as possible.

This realization was reinforced for me this past weekend when I followed Maggie Bayless’ (from ZingTrain) recent recommendation that I buy Peter Block’s book Community: The Structure of Belonging. I’d read it when it first came out ten years or so ago, but the book made such a big impression on Maggie last month that I decided I’d better read it again. I’m glad I did—like anything interesting, we don’t “get” everything the first time through. What we take away is as much a reflection on us, where we’re at, and what’s in our heads, as it is on what we read, saw, or heard. This time, I made some new connections.

Block’s book—as with all he’s written—is magnificent. His 1991 book The Empowered Manager, and his 1993 tome Stewardship were both HUGE influences on me and Paul in our early years of learning leadership. The ecosystem of Zingerman’s has been significantly altered for the better over the last thirty years by Peter Block’s beliefs. Re-reading Community, his beliefs are about to impact us in a big way once again. In the spirit of what Severine shared about prairie strips, Peter writes that, “The vitality and connectedness of our communities will determine the strength of our democracy.” Community reminded me that we have the ability—and I would suggest responsibility—to help human nature “think” by reconnecting people. Vivek Murthy says that loneliness is currently a public health crisis. If we honor Natural Law #18, then we have an obligation to restore the connections and relationships that would both remedy that crisis, and help us create the organizational and personal well-being to which we’re so seriously committed.

The connections we create are, like Carol Strayer’s story, probably not going to garner much attention in a world where hierarchy and headlines tend to take top billing. But like the prairie strips, it’s possible that these small bits of seemingly peripheral work are able to add significantly to the depth, diversity, joy, and vitality of our work. (Permaculture principles remind us that the “edge” is where the most creative energy can be accessed.) Without healthy connections and attachments at every level, the bigger features—big-selling products, customer service, strategy, and vision—will, slowly but surely, fall short. At worst, they fall part. Yes the small connections remain mostly in the background, but it’s the background that makes the things we want to feature standout. As Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki says, “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates… Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”

So, with all that in mind, what are some ways to make these human connections happen? A series of small actions that can, I’ve realized, add up to big things. Peter Block reminds us that this is not a quick project—as per Natural Law #11, “it takes a lot longer to make something great happen than most people think.” As Peter writes, “Depth takes time and the willingness to engage.” That engagement makes a difference. As Peter puts it, “These are the conditions whereby we find new places where we belong.” Here are a few of the ways I want to more actively connect people. Adapt as you believe best in your organization or community:

Connection across department and business unit lines
Introduce Bakehouse bakers to Deli sandwich makers. Connect servers with sauté cooks, and accountants with artists.

Connect across the hierarchy
Introduce upper level administrators to new delivery drivers. Encourage partners to bond with box packers. Longtime managers can have lunch with folks who just joined the organization.

Connect outside the organization
The more ZCoBbers are connecting to the greater community the better. 21st century technology makes this so simple—reach out and connect with others across the country and around the globe.

Connect with ourselves
This is the work I wrote about in Managing Ourselves—the engagement of a lifetime of self-study to understand who the heck we are and how we got here. If we don’t do this one well, I’ve learned the hard way, the rest will almost always fall short. For me at least, it might be the most challenging of the lot.

Connect with nature
If you live on a farm or in a rural area, nature is likely right outside your back door. If you live in a city, as I did as when I was a kid, where asphalt, highways, and overpasses are the norm, then we need to find our personal version of prairie strips.

Connect with our future
When we have no connection with where we want to go, we’re likely to lose hope. Visioning is a huge help in this work!

Connect with our past
This is about knowing where we came from. It is important to understand that the stories we tell ourselves about what once took place are often inaccurate, and to understand that they may no longer be serving us well. Read more on this in The Power of Beliefs in Business and in “Vision Back” (Secret #8 ) and in the new “Working Through Hard Times” pamphlet.

There are certainly more connections to make—with other cultures, styles, skill sets, and languages… Each connection we make enhances the effect of the next. The irony of me, a shy introvert loner, encouraging connection is not lost on me. But it’s clear that these connections, in all directions, are critical to our individual and collective health. As Erin Ye Juin McMorrow writes, “We can’t truly connect with ourselves without understanding how we’re connected with each other and everything around us.”

How can we make the connections across the organization happen? We need to do it both systemically and culturally. We already do a lot here at Zingerman’s—in hindsight, I can see that’s one of the reasons we’re able to do what we do here. In part, it’s why our culture has held up as well as it has during the pandemic. Open book management, open meetings, LEAN, what we call 1+1 work, the simple act of introducing everyone we come in contact with to anyone else who is nearby, learning people’s names, and our Bottom-Line Change process can all help.

What do we get from all this? Increased creativity, more calm, and emotional resilience. More hope, positive energy, and better health. We make it clear that everyone really does matter and support the idea of everyone being a leader. In the process, we reduce the pressure on leaders as others step up. As Robin Wall Kimmerer says, honoring nature in this way can lead to, “A liberation into kinship to say, ‘Oh my gosh, there are other intelligences around us. We don’t have to figure all this out for ourselves.’” Ultimately we build positive power—not the modern style of concentrating power at the center, but power in the most positive, collective, shared sense of the word. As Frederic Laloux writes, “If we acknowledge that we are all interconnected, the more powerful you are, the more powerful I can become. The more powerfully you advance the organization’s purpose, the more opportunities will open up for me to make contributions of my own.”

Ultimately, when we restore nature, we diminish loneliness, we reestablish connections, we create community, and we come together to do things that none of us would be able to accomplish on our own. Because as Peter Block says, “Restoration is about healing our woundedness… healing our fragmentation and incivility.” Like prairie strips, the multifaceted connections Natural Law #18 encourages us to make, may seem peripheral. But Severine and Peter have helped me realize that they’re actually hugely powerful in the best possible, natural way. As Severine says, we can create “A massive kind of crystal pattern of humans who care and are connected and are engaged.” And as Peter points out, “Community is built not by specialized expertise or great leadership or improved services; it is built by great local people deciding to do something useful together.”

P.S. Rajiv Mehta, Gabriel Acosta, Su Williams, and others at Atlas of Care do amazing work with what they call Care Maps. Their project offers us a series of creative tools to take a look at the connections we have in our lives. They were part way through teaching a four week course to 25 folks here in the ZCoB when the pandemic hit.

P.P.S. Making these sorts of connections is one of the key contributors to making the kind of culture of creativity that’s all the more critical in these challenging times. For more on how to help that creativity come into play in your place of work, see Secret #39!

*** 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!

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