Tuesday, January 10, 2012

People's Pops Vision Quest

As small-business owners, we spend a lot of time scrutinizing and discussing other businesses. What makes walking into Buvette, Do or Dine, or Porsena so heart-warming? What specific elements render the Hotel Saint Cecilia so magical? What puts Costco at the top, and Wal-Mart at the bottom, of employee-happiness rankings, even though they’re in the same business?

One of the organizations I’ve most admired over the course of my biz-ucation is Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which opened thirty or so years ago as a Jewish deli and has now grown into a “community” of 13 businesses (coffee roaster, cheesemaking dairy & publishing house, to name a few), still based in Ann Arbor. These peeps take corporate culture creation to another level, so I read founder Ari Weinzweig’s “A Lapsed Anarchist's Approach to Building a Great Business” with deep and abiding interest, marking up my copy until it was more ink than paper. Then I sent copies to Dave & Joel.

Last month, having spent enough daiquiri-sipping beach time to have gathered a modicum of perspective on our 2011 season, we got together for a “visioning” exercise that the book describes. Before meeting, we each spent an hour individually painting the most positive shape we could imagine our business morphing into in five or ten years, if everything we did from now til then went absolutely perfectly. Then we shared our visions.

A small business can either run you, or you can run it. There are so many daily fires to fight that years can elapse before you lift your head and take stock of where you’ve ended up. The point of the visioning exercise is to set down goals and chart a course to them, allowing you to move ahead proactively rather than reactively.

To no one’s surprise, our visions matched very closely. Even the three of us had never formally “visioned” together before, we’ve spent enough time discussing and debating our philosophies and dreams for them to have meshed into ones we hold collectively, and our business is very much a child of that. Despite that, it feels really good to set our sights on a landmark ahead, instead of adrift in an infinite sea.

It’s hard work, analyzing who you want to be (and, just as importantly, who you don’t). But that’s what gives organizations like the Saint Cecilia and Zingerman’s their identity, and determines why the people who work there care and love it.

The harder work is still ahead, though: holding ourselves to that vision and executing it.