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Business Visioning

The Life-Altering Work of Writing Your Organizational Vision of Greatness

Rolling out our new vision, and why you might also want to write yours

Thursday, January 28, is a morning that I will remember, in the best possible ways, for a long time. Probably, for the rest of my life. Unlike so many other days lately, nothing particularly noteworthy that I know of happened on a national scale that day. And yet, here at Zingerman’s, it was a day that marked a dignified conclusion to thirteen years of hard, mindful, wonderful work. At the same time, it was also a lovely beginning to twelve more years of meaningful work to come. It was another threshold. As I recently wrote in a different context, John O’Donohue said, “To acknowledge and cross a new threshold is always a challenge. It demands courage and also a sense of trust in whatever is emerging.”

The threshold we crossed on Thursday morning was one that marked the “end” of our 2020 Vision (written all the way back in the now distant, pre-economic collapse days of 2007), and also the formal rollout of our new 2032 Vision. I say “formal” because the thresholds we pass through here at Zingerman’s when an “old” vision ends, and a “new” one begins, are far less jarring than when we change which political party is in power in Washington. In our case, Guiding Principles are unaltered, our Mission Statement stays the same. There’s a much smoother transition, more like one river flowing into another—if you aren’t paying attention you might not even know in the moment, though in the long run you’ll be heading to a different destination. The morning’s work felt fluid, natural, a well done ritual, an homage to what we’ve done well, and a meaningful commitment to making real the new long term vision we shared. It’s a moment to remember. As John O’Donohue said, “The earth is full of thresholds where beauty awaits the wonder of our gaze.”

That morning, something like 80 ZCoBbers got together online for the Town Hall at which we formally introduced our “new” 2032 Vision. I left the two-hour session inspired. And, also, in awe. Vivek Murthy, in his terrific book Together, writes about the work of Dr. Dacher Keltner, founding director of the Greater Good Science Center, who “defines awe as an emotion we feel in response to vast things that are mysterious, that challenge our current way of understanding the world.” Keltner says that when we experience awe, we “shift our focus from narrow self-interest to the interests of the group.” That was certainly true last Thursday morning. It was, to my sense of it all, about shared achievement and collective commitment. As with all meaningful visions of greatness, it was about making our “whole” greater, by far, than the sum of any of our individual parts could ever be on their own.

Looking back now at the challenges of the last ten months, I’m happy we’re still here, still intact, still engaged, still smiling to do this work as we have for nearly 39 years now. I attended the meeting, watching and listening, in awe of the people in the organization who, while working through hard times, have continued to stay focused, deliver amazing service, and make great food every single day since all this started back in March (less Thanksgiving and Christmas Day when we’re kind of closed). I feel incredibly honored to work with so many amazing folks, all of whom have continued to cook, bake, train, pack boxes, run teeny tiny weddings, smoke chicken, make sandwiches, and teach classes.

Taking two steps back before the Town Hall got started, I felt very fortunate, and even a bit relieved, to be rolling out a new vision, right now, in the middle of a maelstrom. That the meeting even happened, is in many ways remarkable. While there’s a lot to be said for innovation and creativity (I’m a big believer) during times of crisis, my priorities shift some. When things fall apart, it’s essential for us to provide calm, continuity, care, and kindness. When most everything around us appears to be in a state of upheaval, just showing up with smiles and the spirit of generosity can be a remarkable, and really meaningful, achievement. Rolling out the 2032 Vision in one wonderful morning session accomplished both of those—it’s kept us appropriately, steadily on course towards a positive collective future we’d been planning for the last few years. And within that new vision are the very significant seeds of new approaches, new ideas, and new strategies, all of which honor and build on all that we’ve done together—with you—for the last 39 years.

Thinking back to the beginning of the pandemic, around the time I was writing the “Things Fall Apart” essay that’s now the Introduction to the new “Working Through Hard Times” pamphlet, an interesting thing happened. As I was making random phone calls to connect with colleagues around the country to try to figure out how the heck we were all gonna get this through this, many of them who know our work at Zingerman’s—and our reliance on visioning—started to say things like, “Well, I guess you’re gonna have to rewrite your vision now!” Admittedly, in the first few weeks of the pandemic I hadn’t really thought about it. But their comments did make me wonder: Did we need to rewrite it? We’d already been working on our 2032 Vision for a couple years. Maybe we’d have to chuck the whole thing, and start over?

At the time the pandemic started showing up in news feeds back in mid-March (the same week as our 38th anniversary), the 2032 Vision was pretty nearly finished. We’d actually planned to do this Town Hall meeting in late March—in person, of course, not on Zoom—but, like a thousand other things, that got postponed. Still, they’d made me wonder if what we’d written would still be workable. So, quietly, with a fair bit of anxiety and uncertainty, I got out the Google doc and reread the draft. I was relieved. I really didn’t see anything that would need to change. Doubting myself, I went back and repeated the reread a couple more times. Each time I came away with the same conclusion: While the world had turned upside down in two weeks, the 2032 Vision was still just as inspiring and strategically sound as it had seemed a month earlier. Yes, in the short term our lives had been drastically altered by COVID-19. But twelve years down the road, when we arrive much as we imagine in the year 2032, what we’ve described as the uplifting future picture of the Zingerman’s Community celebrating its 50th year in business, still stands just the way we’d written it.

The Town Hall itself was a lovely little piece of organizational “art.” Other than a few grammatical tweaks and adjustments of apostrophes, the vision is as it would have looked in late March. Arianna Tellez, one of the trainers at ZingTrain, designed and ran the session. Pretty much all the partners presented a small piece. There were questions, small group conversations, lists of action steps to start us on the road to implementation. I did the opening and closing remarks, and answered one or two questions of clarification. The rest of the two hours was everyone else. It ended the way all our meetings do, with appreciations. Now, we have the hard work—12 years of turning what we wrote in the 2032 Vision into a reality.

If you haven’t been keeping score for the last 30 years, this is our third formally written organizational vision for the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses. Looking back to our small quiet beginnings, in the winter of 1982, we had one more vision, but as is the case for most people who start a small business, it would have been found only in our heads. Number 1 on the list of Natural Laws of Business says that everyone who’s getting to greatness of their own choosing has a vision that’s inspiring and strategically sound. Back in 1982 we definitely didn’t call it a “vision,” but then neither do most folks at the stage. Like everyone else in similar situations, that (unwritten) vision helped us hold course, gave us purpose, hope, a set of positive beliefs to build on. Even though it was only in our heads, it helped us communicate where we were headed to new staff, curious customers, caring colleagues, anxious bankers (who generally aren’t all that high on small start-ups) and whoever else was interested enough to ask us what the heck we were up to in our tiny, 1300-square foot space, with no parking, in a “bad” neighborhood, and in a town that had seen a dozen other delis go under in the previous decade.

That undocumented vision was not the only reason we achieved what we did over the next ten years or so, but it was certainly a critical element. If I had it to do again, I would absolutely have written it out the way we do now. We got lucky—it turned out that what Paul and I were each imagining in our separate, independent and strong-willed heads, was pretty much parallel. Many partners—both business partners and life partners (visioning works at home too) find out a few years after they enthusiastically embark on their “voyage” that they have very different visions, and/or different values.

Most businesses that make it to that stage of “success” run into the next problem. Everyone has a “deal” to offer them as they think about “what’s next?” Scarcity as a startup turns, almost overnight, into an overabundance of opportunity. I wrote a bunch about this challenge in Secret #47 in Part 4. (The story includes my metaphor of the Winchester Mystery House near San Jose which I don’t have room for here. It’s on page 419 if you have the book.) Thanks to Paul’s intuition and willingness to ask odd questions, long story super short (the full story is in Part 1): back in the summer of 1993, he challenged me to tell him where I wanted to be in ten years. In essence he was asking what my long term vision was. I didn’t have one. I don’t think he did either—only the sense that we’d “finished” our original, unwritten one. From that well-asked question, a year later, we wrote our first formal vision—Zingerman’s 2009—in 1994. Its six prose pages described what we were committing to creating 15 years into the future: A Community of Zingerman’s Businesses, all located here in the Ann Arbor area, each with its own specialty, and passionate managing partner(s), all operating synergistically as a single organization, though with healthy, creative, semi-autonomous parts. It wasn’t the way others were doing it back then (or in most cases, even now), but as is true of all great visions, it came from our heads and our hearts. Thelonious Monk once said, “A genius is a man most like himself.” The 2009 Vision was, in its own odd and wonderful way, us; a powerful, if of course, imperfect product of a lot of long walks, long talks (liberally laced with swear words and enlivened by extreme eye rolls) and hard conversations. In the 2009 Vision we wrote our own future in a way that no one we knew was doing it. And, as Seth Godin says, “That’s the work of creation. To invent something, not to discover it.”

In 2007 we wrote the next vision—Zingerman’s 2020. Both visions are in full form in the back of Part 1. It’s about nine pages long. More than 200 folks in the organization contributed to the writing and confirmed it at the Partner’s Group (which itself had grown out of the 2009 vision) using the consensus process we still swear by. Building on what we’d already done—and liked doing—it added more about to our mix about diversity, employee ownership, mindfully making our work fun on a professional level, and more. Again, I’d say we did a solid 70 to 80 percent of what we’d written. We have much that we could have done better. But with the benefit of distance, I can see that we really did do a great deal of what we wrote about in the vision.

In 2018, the calendar was clear—it was time to get moving on the next vision. As you can tell already by what I’ve said, we date the visions to particular times. We started talking about doing our next one for the year 2030. It felt far enough out that we would have worked an effective organizational transition from me and Paul as founders to other partners, leaders, and staff ownership, but not so far out that people would have to wait 30 years for that to happen. Maggie Bayless, founder of ZingTrain (who stepped back this year), suggested we shift to 2032—it puts us at our organizational half century mark. Nigh-on miraculous in an industry where like 85% percent go under in the first year. And all the more so I realize when you take into account that somewhere between 50 and 75 percent of independent restaurants like ours are likely to have closed or will close from the pandemic.

Two years later—well, it turned out to be closer to three—we put out that 2032 Vision. I’ve lost track of how many drafts there were and how many people gave input. It was a lot. Drafts, redrafts, difficult discussions, incongruities that were slowly but surely shifted into alignments. If you want a copy of the new vision I’m happy to send it your way. This vision is particularly important because it will carry us past the day-to-day presence of the two co-founding partners (yes, that’s me and Paul) and position the organization as a positive, kind, and generous anchor of our community for many decades to come.

If you want to give a gift to your organization, or to your family, or even to yourself, it’d be hard to give a better one than writing a vision of greatness. Rather than getting caught in reactivity, it allows us to write out the art we have in our hearts, to imagine and share a future that’s filled with hope, dignity, financial and physical health, positive beliefs, community giving, resilient relationships, meaningful diversity, active inclusion, full on humanization, beauty or whatever you want that future to be.

If you want to learn more about this approach to visioning, you can find a bunch in the business books, or online learning. I totally get that, if you’re not familiar with the process, it might feel intimidating or overwhelming or anxiety provoking. But as Jack Kornfield, one of the world’s most revered teachers of mindfulness says about meditation, “It’s easier than you think. It’s like coming home.” After thirty years of practicing, teaching and implementing visions, I believe very strongly that we all already know in our hearts and our heads what we want. The visioning work is to simply listen to what our hearts and heads have to say and then write down what we hear. As I wrote in Part 4:

I’ve watched the visioning process work with thousands of people over the years. Many have a hard time writing at first. Worry and overthinking start to get in the way. But the discipline of the “hot pen” always takes them to the next level. As Pablo Picasso points out, “One doesn’t paste one’s ideas on a painting… One simply paints.” Time after time I’ve seen the change in their faces—eyes come alive, smiles soften, energy is increased. All from 40 or 50 or 60 minutes of free writing. The process is the point. The pen becomes the paint. You are the painter.”

I strongly believe that if this visioning process were widely used, it would meaningfully change the world for the better. (I wrote a postscript Vision about the process at the end of Secret #6—if you’d like to see it, email me and I’ll send it your way.) If visioning were used almost everywhere, it would mean that each organization and each person would be pursuing a future and a life of their own choosing. It would mean that doing meaningful work was the norm. It would mean we were inspired by, and clear on, where we were heading—before we started to disagree over tactics and strategy. It would mean that we would be working to make our worlds better. And if all our worlds become more inclusive, more equitable, and our work more meaningful, then the beauty that John O’Donohue advised is awaiting us—even in a pandemic—would be abundant.

*** 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!