Why and How Visioning Works

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner
originally written for Specialty Food Magazine, September 2008

When we start any project, we use the process of visioning—figuring out what we want success to look like—to get it going. I’m selling visioning because it tangibly improves the quality of the organization and the personal lives of those who use it. Without visioning, it’s easy to be dragged down by pressures and problems, but with it we are lifted to a more positive energy level.

What is Visioning?

As we define it at Zingerman’s, a vision is a picture of the success of a project at a particular time in the future. A vision is not a mission statement. We see those as being akin to the North Star, a never-ending piece of work that we commit to going after for life. It also isn’t a strategic plan—which is the map to where we want to go. A vision is the actual destination. It’s a vivid description of what “success” looks and feels like for us—what we are able to achieve, and the effect it has on our staff.

We start our planning work with a draft of a positive vision of the future—and we do that visioning work at every level of the organization, whether it’s working on visions for a business five years out, a project that will be done in five months, or a dinner special that will be on the menu at 5 p.m.

For Zingerman’s, an effective vision needs to be:

  • Inspiring. To all that will be involved in implementing it.
  • Strategically sound. That is, we actually have a decent shot at making it happen.
  • Documented. You really need to write your vision down to make it work.
  • Communicated. Not only do you have to document your vision but if you want it to be effective, you actually have to tell people about it too.
  • The Innovation Benefit

    I used to think that innovation came from a flash of brilliance. But I’ve learned that it actually comes when you build in (and regularly use) processes that encourage it. Zingerman’s visioning work is based on a concept that dates to the late 1950s and early 60s. The late Ron Lippitt called it ‘Preferred Futuring” and found that when people focused on the end result rather than the litany of logistical issues, the energy level in a room went up. And by getting people to start thinking about what success was going to look and feel like, creative, out- of-the-box ideas flowed more freely. It gets people to go after the future of their choosing.

    Small Project Visioning

    To make this process more tangible for you, I’ve included a draft vision for a small project:

    A Thursday evening Farmer’s Market in the parking lot of Zingerman’s Roadhouse – The Vision:

    Throngs of people are milling around the Roadhouse parking lot on this Thursday, amazed and excited at the abundance of locally produced goods and services ranging from several varieties of tomatoes to handmade soap and artisan crafts, to herbs and plants, plus Zingerman’s items—cheese from the Creamery, breads from the Bakehouse and the ever-energetic Roadshow crew caffeinating all the vendors and customers. Every vendor is selling the best of what they are growing or producing. There’s a tangible truth patrons have come to trust—that all these products have a story and none of them traveled far to get here. Tents and awnings cover the stalls, creating a colorful and festive mood. There are 15-20 vendors at the West Side Farmer’s Market so it’s accessible and maintains variety but remains magnetic and welcoming.

    The Market continues to provide customers with the best products available and serves as a catalyst for community development by offering an educational component and a local music scene. We have space reserved for weekly acts, including local musicians, demonstrations and other activities. Several people recognize the Roadhouse chefs selecting vegetables from the Market’s vendors for their weekend’s menus. The Market is a family event, where parents bring their children to shop for fresh produce and enjoy a snack at our picnic tables. Guests are thrilled with the produce, the chance to visit with neighbors, and best of all, connect with the farmers who actually grow their food.

    This year, the planning committee is generating support throughout the business community. Local businesses hang posters about the Market and participate in promotions. These companies recognize the potential for the Market to draw additional patrons to the area, enabling the Market to become a more self-sustaining entity.

    The Market planning committee operates under an inspiring mission statement and is taking steps toward making it a fiscally independent operation. The Market manager is working closely with the Zingerman’s liaison to ensure organization and success, from honing job descriptions to developing and proposing paid Market positions. We have a great group of vendors working together who are already excited to build on these successes for next year. Visions and action steps are laid out for the coming years at our annual Market debrief.

    This was written in 2005, before the market began. It’s pretty much exactly what happened when we started the season for the Market this year. In fact, I checked with our market manager, Jen Salisbury, and we had 20 vendors participating.

    Large-Scale Visioning

    To show an example of what a long-term organizational vision can look like, I’ll share our 2020 vision. Here’s a downloadable version of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses Vision for 2020. I’m not saying it’s the “right” vision. There isn’t a right or wrong vision. This is simply the future we’ve agreed we’re going after at Zingerman’s, one that’s inspiring for us and also strategically achievable. It’s been finalized by consensus of the 15 managing partners in our organization, after gathering input from more than 200 staff members along the way.

    By documenting and actively communicating the 2020 vision we have a clear sense of where we’re going as an organization. As a result, we each understand how our work contributes to the building of this future, which helps keep each of us engaged. We can make decisions more effectively. And we can also turn down opportunities that would distract us from the work we need to do to achieve that vision.

    Personal Visioning

    At Zingerman’s when we write business visions we stress the importance of incorporating personal passions and desires into what we write. While the vision needs to be inspiring and strategically sound for the business overall, it also should include things that will help us as individuals live our own dreams. If you own the business and you want to travel all over the world, write a vision of greatness for the future that includes travel. If you want to take long summer vacations with your family, then write that in too. The point is to create a future in which you and I as leaders and as writers of the vision will feel fulfilled and rewarded.

    We also talk about our commitment to leaving everyone we work with—customers, suppliers, community, environment and staff—a bit better for that interaction. In the context of the latter, teaching and using the visioning process has turned out to play a surprising role. Charlie Frank and Katie Janky, two of our long-time managers, are getting married this fall and use it to plan their wedding. Carlos Souffront, Deli cheese specialist, uses visioning in his after-work job as a DJ.

    A big benefit of visioning is that it helps us stay the course. Author Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes that, “everything can look like a failure in the middle.” Having a written vision helps overcome that sense of impending doom. It’s easier to keep going when we’ve already committed that we’re going to get a successful conclusion, and when we all know what that conclusion (or vision) is.

    Visioning in Action—Beyond Zingerman’s

    It could be easy to dismiss this visioning stuff as flavor-of-the-moment management-speak. But, my own experiences, and those of so many others, have me believing that it has helped make the world a better place in sometimes small, but meaningful ways. The creativity that comes out of it is all around, both from folks at Zingerman’s, and from others who come to learn it at the ZingTrain seminars.   Here are some of their stories:

    Turning a Business Around: Laurey Masterton, owner of Laurey’s Catering in Asheville, N.C., came to one of our seminars when she was faced with the closing of her business. She shares that, “I was about to quit…But I attended the Zingerman’s Experience seminar and I listened to the part about creating a vision and realized I did want to keep my business going and that I did have some ideas about what my vision for the future of my business was. That vision included the look, the feel, the food, the descriptions, the finance piece…and a pretty complete, sensory description of my deepest thoughts about my creation.”

    Instead of tossing it in, Masterson turned it around—her store today is doing well, it’s a financially viable, sustainable, healthy business with a lot of happy staff, that’s well grounded in the community. And as a postscript to the story, Laurey also went on to become president of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce.

    Getting an Idea Off the Ground: Renée Malone, owner of the consulting company Kick the Moon, says, “When I enrolled to attend the ZingTrain Small Giants seminar two months ago, I was feeling the weight of a stalled dream upon my shoulders. A year had passed since I began negotiations with a prospective business partner and we still didn’t have an arrangement! It was during the visioning exercises that it dawned on me that I had to build his vision of our partnership before any decision would be made. …In the end, we finalized our business agreement. We have a deal. And this week, I launched my dream, our dream.”

    I feel good that we have been able to take what Lippitt was teaching and bring it—through ZingTrain and through staff members who move on—to the business world in practical and helpful ways. Because while most of our day-to-day work may be mundane, the vision is special—it’s a picture of the beautiful ‘cathedral’ that we’re all working together to build. And it helps keep us excited to overcome the inevitable challenges that come up.