[00:00:07.700] – Rob Brodnick
Welcome to the positive turbulence podcast. Stories from the periphery. Here we journey to the edge to talk to turbulators about their experiences creating positive change. Hi I’m Rob Brodnick, your co-host.
What can an anarchist with a “useless” degree in History teach you about business? Turns out a hell of a lot! Meet Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses a thriving enterprise based in Ann Arbor Michigan. This 65-million-dollar-a-year business started out life in 1984 as a small deli (Zingerman’s Deli ) in a college town with an, at the time, unstated vision of creating something cool and unique that was a great experience for every person who walked through the door.
[00:00:49.500] – Karyn Zuidinga
Hi I’m Karen Zuidinga your co-host. The desire for cool and unique, along with a great experience, led Ari and co-founder, Paul Saginaw, to evolving that deli into not a chain of not delis as, 99 percent of other business owners would have done, but into a community of synergistic businesses. An ecosystem if you will. While the story is compelling in itself what’s even more interesting are the learnings, insights, and reflections about business that Ari has to share. All of it through the lens of an anarchist and historian. Stay tuned. You’ll most certainly be inspired to reflect on your mission and vision, and you may even want to bring a little anarchy to your work.
[00:01:28.220] – Sponsor Message
This episode of positive turbulence is brought to you by the amazing people at Menlo Innovations whose mission is to end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology. For the paired programmers at Menlo, joy is designing and building something that actually sees the light of day and is enjoyably used and widely adopted by the people for whom it was intended. Learn more at MenloInnovations.com.
[00:02:04.820] – Karyn Zuidinga
So, I live in Vancouver B.C. I’ve never heard of Zingerman’s, Zing Train, or all of the Zing Things.
[00:02:23.180] – Ari Weinzweig
Well, you’re not you’re not the only person who never heard of it.
[00:02:25.900] – Karyn Zuidinga
How do you start with a deli in a in a college town… how does that naturally evolve into – I could see, you know, the creamery, I could see a lot of sort of spinoff businesses that support the deli, but I’m struggling with it with the bigger picture. How do you get to a press and training programs? It’s not so much history that I’m interested in, it is evolution and how you evolved to all these connected businesses.
[00:02:51.370] – Ari Weinzweig
History informs that evolution because it’s mindfully chosen not accidental. The reason the history is important is because we basically designed, you know imperfectly, what we had in 1993. We opened the deli in 1982. There’s an essay that you may or may not have seen in Part 1 of the leadership book series that I did called Twelve Natural Laws of Business. The first natural law on the list is that every healthy organization of any size or sort, in Vancouver or West Virginia doesn’t matter. All of them have a vision of where they’re headed. They may not call it a vision. They may not use the terminology, or the way we define it here, but in somebody’s head they have one. And Paul and I, in 1982 when we opened the Deli March 15th, we had one in our heads. We didn’t call it a vision per say. I’m a history major. All history is made up after the fact. So the key elements of that vision I would say, in hindsight, were from the beginning we wanted something that would be unique. I can say a lot more about that now. But it’s been true from the beginning is that I really didn’t want something that was a copy of New York or Chicago or L.A. or Vancouver. We wanted something that would be unique to Ann Arbor and to us. We wanted great food and great service and a really positive place for people to work. I like unique things. Last year wrote a little pamphlet called The Art of Business Its my belief that business and life are like art or music. I’m drawn to the originals and not very much the copies. In the food business it’s not like the seventh unit of something is evil. But it’s really generally not like you’d be totally blown away [by the seventh unit]. The owners are not there, you know, the energy is fine but it’s not great.
I’m much more drawn to when you walk into somewhere and there’s only one of them and it’s super cool. And you’ve never really experienced anything quite like it. And I think that’s true in music. I think it’s true in art. I think it’s true in social change. And I think it’s true in business. So that that was really what we wanted.
You know the general wisdom when we opened was we were likely doomed to fail because Ann Arbor had a dozen delis close in the previous decade. The neighborhood was considered a bad neighborhood. There was no parking. Still [no parking] to this day. And up until cell phones, which is actually the first two thirds of our existence, people didn’t have a phone in their pocket all day so it wasn’t that easy to find. Later we were considered geniuses. It turned out that Ann Arbor really needed a Deli, and it was a really outstanding location that called for what we were doing. That pattern has been repeated with pretty much everything that we’ve done.
I like to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke the science fiction writer, from what was then Ceylon now Sri Lanka, (its in Part 3 of the Leadership Series said all revolutionary ideas go through three stages. Stage one is its completely impossible. It’ll never work. Stage two is it might be possible but it’s not very practical. And stage three is I was behind it from the beginning. That’s that’s been repeated for us. And I think it’s repeated everywhere. There’s always resistance to anything that’s in the making that’s going to be great.
In the summer of ’93 one morning, mid-morning, when I should, by all rights, have been inside setting up the sandwich line to get ready for the lunch rush, Paul sat me down on the bench in front of the deli and he kind of looks at me and goes “Okay, in ten years what are we doing?” And you know, I didn’t know what we were doing I just needed to get back to work. But he didn’t know what he wanted to be doing really either. But he had an instinctive sense that we had in essence fulfilled that original vision.
In hindsight I’m sure he couldn’t sleep for months worrying about it. And you know, he was like “Well we’re we’re only open in one place, people are opening on campus, they’re copying us. We’re turning down these offers from other cities. Is that crazy? What should do we do?” In our current language he was asking, what’s your vision. And I didn’t really have one. I don’t think he had one either. But he realized in essence we had fulfilled that vision and attained what you could call midlife in your personal setting. So that question started a year long argument, conversation, etc. that ended with us actually writing a vision for the first time using basically the form that we now use all the time. We’ve learned a lot more since then. But the basic format of it was what we now do and that was where you where you write a description of the future as if you’re already in the future.
We wrote one for 15 years out so it was called Zingerman’s 2009 because we wrote it in ’94. That vision described a community of Zingerman’s businesses where each business would be Zingerman’s business. So one organization but each would have its own specialty. That would allow us to grow but keep the uniqueness of the deli. Each business would have a managing partner in it. Somebody who had a real passion for whatever that business was going to do and was going to be in there for the duration. The whole community of businesses would operate in a synergistic way so that in essence the sum of the community would be greater than the total of the individual parts. If you added them up. So where Zing Train came from. One of the many many benefits of writing a vision is when you share it with people. Good people want to be part of an inspiring vision. We had known Maggie Bayless, who’s the partner in ZingTrain, or one of them now, from the restaurant world. When I started washing dishes and Paul was th e general manager and Frank from the Bake House was a line cook. Maggie started, not long after, as a cocktail waitress in that same restaurant. She was a German lit major from Overland College but she had gone back later to Michigan to get her MBA. She did that and went to work at GM for a few years which she says was long enough to make sure she didn’t want to do that work. Then left there and went to work in a small consulting firm here in town in the belief that the dysfunction would go away. But she discovered dysfunction wasn’t tied to size. And then she says she would go home and lament to her husband “why can’t I find something in my new passion for training that works the way Paul and Ari work?” And that was around the time when we started to share this vision. So she came and said “What about doing a training business because as you grow you’re going to want somebody who understands training better.” So that’s really where it came from.
[00:09:50.080] – Rob Brodnick
It was that year you went from no we’re not going to have a copy of the deli in Ypsilanti and Traverse City and all the different places we could, to… something else and the community businesses emerged. I think it’s fascinating. How do you hold this loose federation together? What’s the stickiness of it and how do these support each other to be more than more than the sum of the parts?
[00:10:15.430] – Ari Weinzweig
Well I think in the context of focus, again focus obviously has its benefits, but the focus to the detriment of what is a natural complexity of human and environmental or ecological existence is a mistake. I’ve started to work more and more with the idea of business also as ecosystem and in nature there is a lot of connectivity. Nature is not hierarchical but corporate mindset is hierarchical which is why it teaches you to find the one thing. So in essence we need to create systems and culture both that connect people but still allow them to create their own space and to live as who they are either individually or collectively. And those connections make an enormous difference. So s ome of them are we have a vision for the whole organization. So we govern the organization by our partners group which is all the managing partners which is I think 18 now and then 5 years ago we added what we call staff partners. So these are three non-partners that become, in essence, part of the partners group for two year terms. We use a consensus model for decision making there. That’s really where the organization in essence is run. It’s not where these businesses are run but it’s where the organization is run. And Paul and I are part of that consensus. So we’re in the group with everybody. So you have all of that. The Zingerman’s name is universal to all of it. People know they’re part of the organization and then there’s a lot of classes and training that crosses over businesses like customer service or visioning.
[00:12:00.140] – Karyn Zuidinga
The sense of openness is coming through very clearly. That sense that openness, collaboration, consensus driven models. I’ve been inside organizations that talk a lot about consensus and they use terms like co-design, consensus, collaboration — all the good “co” words — and they talk about them but it doesn’t actually happen.
[00:12:21.720] – Ari Weinzweig
Well, its hard. I think it’s all hard. It’s just the hierarchical autocracy is also hard it’s the just hard people are used to. It’s really just about treating people well and having positive place [to work]. It’s about people and getting out of hierarchy. This is a quote from Howard Ehrlich that I like a lot. It’s something along the lines of “Who’s going to start the anarchist revolution?” Then his answer is, “Everybody. Today. Right now.” Just by how you treat people is already a step towards a positive future. Waiting for the other people to do it first just doesn’t work.
[00:13:01.400] – Rob Brodnick
I’ve heard you talk about this before, and I realized Ari, that it’s a mindset shift. As you begin to shift your mindset, as I was trying to discover and understand what you were saying the points you’re trying to make, I started to get it a little bit. I heard you advocate that if you live a good life and you live in balance with nature that there’s these natural principles that start to become clearer. I think you’ve articulated them as the natural laws of business. How did that process go for you? I mean from doing the right thing to all of a sudden having a framework to operate from. Can you about that a little bit?
[00:13:37.880] – Ari Weinzweig
I think Paul and I were you know we’re always fairly mindful of trying to run a good business, you know whatever that means. And as we grew then we started to realize each in our own ways at slightly varying points. Studying leadership or understanding organizations or learning about business itself was as important as the food. And not that the food’s not critical because it’s still critical. We started with two employees but when you have 20, and then 40, and then whatever, it became as important to work on the organization itself and on our abilities as leaders as it was to work on making the food better. So, you know, the more we studied, the more we learned. The more we learned, the more we studied. And that’s still going on. To this day. When we started ZingTrain in ’94 then it pushed us to take it to an even to a higher level because we started to teach it, about a year later, to the outside. And you know like anything when you have to learn it at a level where you need to be able to teach it, then it pushes you in a good way to be able to explain things more effectively than one would do if one’s just standing next to somebody coaching them on what to do.
The idea of natural laws specifically came from Paul who used to talk about it in kind of a general sense and then eventually I took that and started to put more detail to it. That’s where the list of 12 Natural Laws of Business came from. I’m actually working on another list of more natural laws that I didn’t know about at the time. But the whole idea of it is just that all healthy organizations are living in harmony with those twelve laws. They don’t have to know they are. And they don’t have to understand it per se they just do it because it seems like the right thing. But in the same way that as a history major I can honestly say I don’t quite understand how gravity works. But I do know which way my phone’s going to go if I let go of it. I make my decisions accordingly. So it doesn’t really matter that much if I understand it or not unless I want to be a physicist or start designing airplanes.
In the context of business it’s just people have an idea, they have a dream. That’s their vision. They make products that they really believe in. That’s natural law #2. Have compelling products and services. So if you go down the list it’s just stuff that I will suggest that really every organization that’s getting to greatness, and I don’t mean necessarily making the most money, but getting to greatness of their choosing has a vision. Every human that is getting the greatness of their choosing has a vision. And whether that’s a vision of great parenting, or a basketball team, they all have it. Right on down the list.
So then out of that I just kept moving more and more in that direction. Then starting to realize that when you violate nature on the planet we know that a lot of problems come. And then it dawned on me one day when I was getting ready to present at the INC. magazine conference on the natural laws business, it dawned on me that organizations who were violating nature hence violating the natural laws of business were violating human nature. And that as a result they were creating a comparable energy crisis only this one was in the workplace. And it’s a crisis of human energy. Everybody’s familiar with it. I mean it manifests as apathy and cynicism and disengagement. All those things that we all read about and try to avoid in our own organizations. Hierarchy is unnatural. But in organizations with industrial thinking have all been trained to go up the chain. But the problem is at the top we don’t know what we’re doing. We know a lot but there’s a lot we don’t know. And it [hierarchy] teaches organizations to basically close out 95 percent of the ability that they’re paying for. Which is, you know I never went to business school, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense. So it’s really then following that through and understanding. Even the person we just fired last week still is a good human being and they still know stuff that would help us.
The more we work with that the more it makes sense. So when you’re asking how you hold an organization together one of the many things we do is what we call one plus one work. Where the first one is people’s main job. The plus one is optional but it’s where they might teach a class, they might be on a cross organization work group, et cetera et cetera. But it’s where they’re getting into a second piece of work where they are using a different part of their skill set, or their brain. Where they’re meeting different people. You’re creating these connections across business lines and not just through the hierarchy. In nature that’s what’s going on. Like everything serves multiple purposes in nature nothing does only one thing. But the mythology of the corporate industrial model is that your job is to do X. Answer the phone, pack the boxes, make their coffee and then they want you to focus on that and don’t want to bother you with anything else. But it is it’s actually unnatural.
[00:18:34.120] – Sponsor Message
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[00:18:57.850] – Karyn Zuidinga
Talk to me briefly Ari about the difference between mission and vision. I know you covered that off in your book But I think its really important. When I was reading that I was like, Oh! Now I get it!
[00:19:08.640] – Ari Weinzweig
So I’m actually sitting within 10 feet of where probably eight or nine years ago I was walking from where I am right now over across the street to the coffee company and a guy pulled up to park. He gets out of his car and he goes, hey you! I kind of recognize him. I didn’t know his name really, but he goes I’ve just finished reading your first book. And it was great. And he goes I got to tell you, like you know he was like my age, he says “I’ve been reading business books for 30 years but this is the first time in my entire life I understood, I actually understood the difference between mission and vision.”
I’m not here to tell other people what to do. I mean they can all do what they want to do. But the general use of the two, I’ve never understood the difference either. And I’ve never actually met anybody who understood the difference. They all just keep doing it because they get told they’re supposed to do it. And I’ve come to believe it’s a little like the emperor’s new clothes. Nobody, nobody actually understands it.
But as we do it the mission statement, as you said, it’s in part 1 of the book But the mission statement essay is meant to answer four questions, and these are commonly discussed out there in the world, what do we do, why are we doing it — which is now commonly just talked about as purpose, who are we that’s doing it, and for whom are we doing it. So, what do we do? Why are we doing it? Who are we? And for whom are we doing our work?
So as we view it, the Mission is like the North Star because you can always move towards it but you never arrive. It’s not really that specific. Our Mission talks about bringing people a great experience which has been super helpful for us because it’s one of the pieces of our organizational health. We teach everybody that we’re all 100 percent responsible for the quality of the experience that we bring. And that’s our job. That’s the number one job that we have. Or the most important part of all of our jobs is to bring everybody great experience and when we do that we’re living our mission. It’s like the North Star. When you feel confused tired and overwhelmed, which I generally do all the time, I just take a deep breath and remind myself that I’m just here to bring people a great experience. It’s not rocket science, it’s not neurosurgery. Just be nice to people and every 9 year old could do it. But that Mission doesn’t really tell you what you’re actually doing. And so the Vision is different because as we do it, a Vision has a specific time constraint. It’s way more detailed and much longer.
Our Mission is I think six lines long. Most of the world is doing vision statements that, as you alluded, look a lot like a mission statement that I don’t really understand the difference. Our Visions, like what our Vision for the year 2020, which we wrote in ’07 is 9 pages long. Because it’s a description of the future that you want to create, not what you could create, but what you want to create. And it’s a blend, which is a lot of where I think a lot of the power is, is it’s a blend of, yes it’s got some numbers in there, like roughly how profitable you are, roughly how big are you. Because it said 12 to 18 businesses. I don’t think it mattered if it’s at 11 or 20 but it’s not 200 or 2000 or 2. Right. So you have some sense of what we’re creating. But it also has emotion in it. How do people feel when they work here? How does the community feel about us? It’s a story basically. And when you bring the emotion and the data together I think that’s where the most power is. Because there was nothing in our Mission Statement that would preclude us from opening 2000 Zingerman’s delis all over the world.
You can make a logical argument that that’s more aligned with the Mission. But the question of the Vision is what kind of life do you want to create? Not what’s possible. What’s inspiring for you? And what do you believe is true to who you are? And that’s a whole different question.
[00:23:05.930] – Karyn Zuidinga
Is there a risk of limitation in defining the Vision?
[00:23:11.090] – Ari Weinzweig
Yes, there’s a risk. What I learned the hard way is everything’s risky. So not defining it is risky. You don’t know where you’re going. Defining it is risky. And yes you are choosing implicitly what you’re not going to do. When you describe what you are going to do. And that does come up when I teach visioning fairly regularly. Usually I just look around the room at people’s ring fingers and pause and I go, “Aren’t you limiting yourself? Aren’t you missing a lot of opportunity?” They all kind of sheepishly smile and go yes. And I’m like, “Okay, what’s the difference?” You know if you work at anything half heartedly then you’re not going to get to greatness.
The Vision essentially is like the cathedral that we’re working to construct. You know the classic whatever fable. The guy who goes to the construction site of the Duomo in Florence and he sees all the people working. He approaches one person and asks, what are you doing? And the first guy says I’m laying stone. And he walks to the second person, what are you doing? And she says I’m building a cathedral. So in essence is there any difference in the actual work? No. They just put mortar down and stones down and then they go home and they come back and they just keep doing it. But emotionally, you know, obviously there are differences. You understand that you’re creating something amazing. Even if all you did is put ten layers of stone down without your layers of stone it wouldn’t exist. And you could in your mind imagine this much greater thing. You can imagine people going into this. I’m not religious but you can imagine people going into the cathedral to pray and the inspiration that comes with it, and the community role that’s going to play, and it’s all in part because of your work. Right. And so when people understand that it changes their relationship to their work, and to the organization, and really to themselves.
You know what happens in many cases, and it could have happened to us also, is in essence you didn’t write down your vision. You didn’t put a date on it because you didn’t know about visioning. You started your business the way we did and in essence you completed the vision. Which is when Paul sat me down on the bench that day to ask me what I wanted to be doing. Without pausing to write a new vision, what I’ve started to teach is basically, it’s like the cathedral has been completed but the workmen keep coming. They need to get paid so they just keep adding and keep building and building.
And so in Part 4 the book which has an essay on further thoughts and learnings and beliefs about visioning I realized metaphorically — I don’t know if you’ve been there. I actually haven’t been there I’ve only read about it. But there’s some placein San Jose California called the Winchester Mystery House. It was started as a mansion in the second half of the 19th century by Samuel Winchester, who’s the guy who invented the repeating rifle. When he died unexpectedly his widow went to a mystic to find out what to do next. And the mystic said all the souls of the people killed by your husband’s rifles are going to come and get you. The only way out is that you need to continue the construction of this mansion that he had begun before he died. And as long as you’re doing the building the souls won’t harm you. So for like thirty eight years they just kept building. It ended up with like one hundred and sixty rooms and there’s like bathrooms that don’t work and staircases that lead to nowhere. And windows that open into other rooms not to the outside. And it’s you know it’s a big mess. But the point became only to keep building not to make elegance and beauty. — That’s what I would suggest actually happens, and has happened, to countless organizations. A lot of big ones that started with whatever, like You know Mr. Ford who started his company and whether I like all of his business principles or not, he had a vision in his head. And that’s true of most of those giant companies. They were started by somebody and they had a vision in their head. But we’re now 80 years or 100 years or 50 years down the road and that vision is long since been completed and they’ve added a pool to the back of the cathedral, and somebody added a second story, and they tore off one of the walls. And each thing on its own seems logical. But the elegance and amazing design that that human had in his or her head when they started it is now long since lost. So that’s the difference.
[00:27:53.870] – Rob Brodnick
Afraid to step off the path that someone else had set you on. And just like with the Winchester widow,it was fear that was keeping her in constant state of building and renovating. The souls were looming.
[00:28:09.780] – Ari Weinzweig
It’s not even like the ideas themselves. In her case that was the only motivation. I’m not doubting that there’s merit to what people do. Does it fit? Is it coherent and consistent with this amazing thing you’re trying to build? Because of the visioning process is time constrained, then it tells people, like okay, the vision is done. Now what are we going to do? That opens the door to redesigning. But if you don’t go through that exercise you just keep adding on.
[00:28:40.650] – Rob Brodnick
So let me let me ask you a couple of questions Ari. Part of it is the concept of the podcast, Positive Turbulence, we’re looking at things that disrupt the status quo, or are unexpected or different.
[00:28:54.100] – Ari Weinzweig
We fit that Bill. We fit that bill really really well.
[00:29:00.030] – Rob Brodnick
I’ve identified a couple of things I wanted to ask you about. One you’ve already foreshadowed and anticipated several times. You introduced yourself, and you do often, as a lapsed anarchist. The first time I heard that I got this feeling of oh this is could be disruptive and negative. And yet, we’re talking about the positive outcomes of this. But as I heard you describe it, it really clicked and made sense to me. So maybe for our listeners, what is this anarchy and how does it lead to good things?
[00:29:31.150] – Ari Weinzweig
I studied Russian history here in Ann Arbor, at the University of Michigan. I studied particularly the anarchists — U of M has the largest anarchist collection in the country on the 7th, and now also 8th floor of the graduate library. It’s called the Labadie Collection I was drawn to it for any number of reasons: respect for individual uniqueness, freethinking, and creativity, and all of that kind of stuff. But when I got a job as a dishwasher, because there is nothing you can do with a history degree except more school and get more degrees, which was not depressing or shocking, I knew that when I got it. I was supposed to go back to school but I never did. Then I started prepping and line cooking. I was a pretty good dishwasher in hindsight. And then at some point, whatever two years in, I I took a job managing the kitchens. I tried kind of naively leaving everybody alone in the hope they would just do the right thing. Which is a little bit embedded in a lot of anarchist stuff. And of course that failed. And so I started to say jokingly I was a lapsed anarchist because I still believed in it but I didn’t practice. And that’s just sort of stayed like that, for I don’t know, 20 years.
And when I would bring it up at business conferences people don’t know, like you don’t know. Not out of malice, but they don’t know anything about anarchism. They have mostly negative beliefs [about it]. Which is it’s about throwing rocks, and chaos, and burning down buildings. And it’s actually not about any of that at all. In the same way that Christianity isn’t all about the Crusades, and Islam isn’t all about 9/11, and the United States isn’t all about the My Lai Massacre. So there’s always outliers of problems. But ten years ago or so when I was working on Part 1 of the book, which we’ve been referencing, I got asked to speak at the Jewish Studies department by Deborah Dash Moore. She was then the head of the department and the previous year I had written like a ten thousand word essay about Jewish Rye bread because I also write about food. And she had read it and she thought it would be great if I come talk to the department and she was going to call it Anarchism on Rye. I’d studied Anarchism but I was doing this other work. And I thought, okay that sounds interesting. But as is often the case in academia we agreed that I would do the talk like 8, 9 or 10 months in advance of the talk. So there’s no rush on my part to figure out what I was going to say. But the clock ticks in a good way. And so then it was like 2 or 3 months out I’m like you know at business conferences nobody knows who the anarchists were. So I’m the expert in the room. But I’m going to Jewish Studies and they all actually have studied Emma Goldman and all these people. I’m going to look like a total idiot because I haven’t looked at my books in, literally, decades. So I dug out my old books and I started to reread stuff and it really blew my mind. Two reasons: one because even though I hadn’t thought of it ,or been conscious of it, much of what we had already created was aligned with what I was reading. And I had something in my head at a subconscious level. And then it even more blew my mind because I started to realize that a ton of what is now called progressive business was actually stuff that they were writing about and talking about a hundred years ago but they were going to jail for it. You know Jim Collins, he got on the bestseller list but it’s actually very parallel. And self organizing work teams, and learning that hierarchy is not helpful, and respecting every individual, and people doing work they believe in, and all of that stuff, was stuff that people like Emma Goldman were talking about, very controversially, one hundred years ago.
Essentially anarchism is the opposite of chaos. It’s the opposite of violence and it’s not about being disorganized it’s all about organization. It’s just about involving the people in the organization in designing what they’re part of. So instead of the industrial model which is all about hierarchy where the bosses go and design it but don’t involve the other people. This is where you’re treating everybody like the intelligent, creative, human that they are. And they participate in running the organization of which they’re a part. In essence anarchism is a belief system. Emma Goldman was writing about this 100 years ago. Our work as organization is to help everybody get to greatness. The work of our organization is to honor the inherent uniqueness of everyone. There’s no two people that are alike. But the industrial model is the opposite. It’s very dehumanizing. And much of society has embraced so many of those beliefs and doesn’t even know it. So people have learned to stop saying how black people are, or how Jews are, but they still say stuff all the time like how the millennials are which is just completely dehumanizing and unnatural.
And for me then as I started to study more how are we unconsciously allowing hierarchy to get in our way organizationally. How do we teach people a different set of beliefs? How do we build kindness and generosity and care into everyday interactions? How do we treat people in a way that respects who they are and helps them become themselves? In essence, that is anarchism. We’ve done stuff like all our meetings are open. Which is 180 degrees counter to what most people would believe to be right. But honestly, why not? Unless it’s on some top secret security issue, or you’re working on some product… in the food business there’s not a lot of food secrets. So I don’t really care. But I get it. If you’re in technology and you have something that takes five years to develop the product and you really don’t want everybody to know. But that’s a tiny percentage of the world’s meetings. If there’s a new employee at the coffee company they might have some good perspective on what we should do. And you’re missing that perspective when you only close it off and limit it to the hierarchy.
[00:35:44.330] – Karyn Zuidinga
This is perhaps going to be an awkward segway but I’m going to give it a shot so…
[00:35:48.020] – Ari Weinzweig
Many segues are awkward.
[00:35:49.480] – Rob Brodnick
[00:35:55.400] – Karyn Zuidinga
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and innovation and the differences between organizations that are say very product focused. I’ve spent a lot of the last 20 years inside tech organizations and they’ve got one way of approaching creativity and innovation. They like to yell about “fail fast to succeed.” They talk about methods like Lean and Agile and there’s a lot there’s a lot of hype. And there’s a lot a lot of failure. Like 80 percent of new products fail. Despite all this shouting.
I feel like you’re doing something you’re very innovative. You’ve been around for a long time now and you continue to innovate, and continue to change. I feel like you are doing something different than what I’m seeing.
[00:36:51.080] – Ari Weinzweig
That’s not awkward. Why do you think that was awkward?
[00:36:54.110] – Karyn Zuidinga
Because it wasn’t fully formed.
[00:36:58.880] – Ari Weinzweig
So one of the key beliefs or principles of anarchist thinking which I’ve written about a lot about is that the means that we use need to be congruent with the ends that we want to achieve. We need to be congruent with the ends we seek to achieve. So to the contrary, the way you did the segue was totally congruent with the concept of creativity because you took a chance to say what was in your heart. And, you know, with the normal anxiety that might be wrong. So actually it was a beautiful segue.
Yeah I agree with you. I wrote about creativity in Part 3 of the book I tell the story in that essay, of which I never really thought about it at all until around 2009 or ’10, when all of a sudden, not like overnight, but I mean fairly consistently over a period of months, we started to get all these inquiries for me to speak about creativity and/or innovation. I was already speaking quite a bit and were already ZingTrain, and I was saying that I don’t know anything about creativity and people are like, what are you talking about? What you guys do. And I’m like, I don’t know, whatever. I don’t think about it. And then you get another inquiry. And then I start feeling bad, like maybe there’s something wrong with us. We have all these internal classes but we don’t teach creativity. Maybe we’re, you know, messed up. And then more questions come. And people started asking things like, do your employees get 20 percent creative time? I’m like, No. And they’re like, well when are they supposed to be creative? I’m like, I don’t know, all the time. Aren’t you just creative? Then they’re like, well who’s in charge of creativity?
[00:38:44.720] – Rob Brodnick
Can you point us to the place in the hierarchy where creativity resides?
[00:38:48.470] – Ari Weinzweig
And that’s what they’re looking for! No one is in charge of creativity! And they’re like, ell where does it when does it happen? I’m like, hopefully, all day. As I would tell some of those anecdotally to some of the people who work here they would all laugh too because it’s so incongruous with how we exist. But like many things when they happen, and if I’m on my game, then it pushes me to think and reflect more and I started to realize what was going on. In 2009/10, you might have blacked out, but was when the economy crashed. And I realized with the creativity, all those big organizations basically their creativity had atrophied. And then when the economy crashed they start calling for a speaker to come and bring it back. In the same way you want your coach to get you in shape in three weeks. It is not going to work. And then I started to study creativity. So what I would now say which is very aligned with anarchist thinking, and not only anarchist thinking, is that everybody is born creative. It’s just society beats it out of us. So again when you live in harmony with nature, and you’re working in a healthy ecosystem, creativity is just there. Rollo May said the opposite of courage is not cowardice it’s conformity. That’s a lot of what anarchism is a reaction to. The pressure to socially conform. The opposite of that is to stay who you are. And that means that everybody’s different. You’re always doing creative things.
[00:40:21.740] – Karyn Zuidinga
But it’s a lot of work too.
[00:40:23.640] – Ari Weinzweig
Everything’s work. That’s the thing. And work has gotten a bad name. But I think good work is creative work. And that the belief, because of the industrial model, a frontline job is in creative work is unhelpful and unhealthy. And so by involving people from the get go, if they’re willing to be involved in helping run the organization, then you end up with people like Joey Quick that works here who started as a busboy. I think he’s been at the Roadhouse for five years now. He’s a server but he’s also he’s on our governance committee helping design governance for us. We are a 65-million-dollar-a-year company and he chairs the service group at the Roadhouse They’re working on systems for service. Instead of just being a waiter you’re doing all this other work too. It’s still important. But rather than isolating the one from the other, it’s much more like in nature where a tree serves multiple purposes. It provides shade, and provides fruit, that provides an anchor in the soil. There’s dozens and dozens of things that the tree is doing. It really needs to be the same for people. It’s all work. It’s just which work do you want to do when you write a vision. You’ve chosen the work that you want to do. When you’re doing work you’ve chosen to do it’s a whole lot more fun. Your engagement and relationship to the work will be totally different than if you’re doing work that you think is terrible. Wendell Berry, who I’ve never met but is an amazing writer, who’s now like 85 and lives still in his town of his birth, in Kentucky, said that it’s clear that the major American aspiration and, probably in Canada too, is to attain unemployment. Everybody lives for 5:00, the weekend, retirement. And it’s true. The belief is like the only people that work are the people who aren’t rich enough to not work or workaholics. But everything’s work. Raising kids and staying home is work. Doing your garden at home is work. And so the difference is that you chose it, and you see beauty in it, and you see benefit in it, and you believe that it’s meaningful.
Work can be like that at work too. And is there repetition in it? Of course! LeBron James’ work is mostly practicing, and lifting weights, and working out, and watching game film. Parenting is not all glamour as anybody who has kids knows. Gardening is a lot of digging in the dirt. It’s just when you have a vision in your head of this amazing garden you’re going to create it’s inspiring. And then you start studying plants. And then you’re trying to figure out the interrelationships and how do you keep them healthy. It’s all really cool but then people go to work and their brain turns off.
[00:43:19.480] – Rob Brodnick
There’s, I believe, a trajectory in your your work Ari. Where some of the last book left off. I’ve read your recent article, The Art of Business and the role of the arts in business that’s a connected concept to Positive Turbulence. We advocate using the arts to create inspiration and see the world differently and understand metaphor and whatnot. Can you talk a little bit about where maybe your writing is going with that?
[00:43:45.790] – Ari Weinzweig
My point is that they’re one and the same. It’s all art. It’s all music. And it’s all poetry. And great business is great art and bad business is bad art. And that’s not to say you can’t make money from bad business in the same way that people make money from bad art. And that the person who basically copies the innovative musician but does it in a way that gets their music out more probably makes way more money but people who are paying attention to music are still going to be drawn to the one who who did it first in a cool way. So, yes, I think it’s all art. And then when you start to think about your life as if you’re an artist even if your job is sweeping sidewalks I think it’s a lot more interesting.
I mean there’s beauty everywhere. I believe when we start to look at our lives as we’re creating beauty, we pay way more attention. When I spoke to a group of 18 year olds I’m like, look you’re making music. What music do you want people to listen to 50 years from now? Because people are still listening to the stuff. Mozart wrote, or Bob Dylan did, or the Beatles. And it’s not updated. It’s the same song that Bob Dylan wrote in 1964. It’s the same song we’re listening to now and it’s amazing. And that does not to say there’s not 18 year olds right now making amazing music. I listen to a lot of it. But, you know, if you look at your business as if you’re creating this amazing thing that’s going to create beauty, that people will appreciate, and be positively impacted by for the ages. I think it’s a whole lot different than what’s the cheapest structure we can build and get out of here with a lot of money. So just starting to realize that. And then starting to encourage people to look for the beauty because it’s around us. And then to create beauty because the more beauty there is, the better it’s going to go. And beauty could be and how you greet the person next to you, and how you treat your significant other when you get home, and you know all of that.
John O’Donohue, the late Irish philosopher and theologian, said that the world is suffering from a crisis of ugliness. And I believe he’s accurate. And he said that long before the current political situation. So if we’re suffering from a crisis of ugliness then the antidote is more beauty. Right? And this is aligned with anarchism too because it’s not about taking over and changing everything. It’s just tiny little acts that you create more and more beauty in your in your ecosystem. And out of that, it doesn’t fix the whole world’s problems but you can’t fix the whole world’s problems is too big, you can just work on your own space and be supportive of other people working creatively on their space. And ultimately a lot of people working caringly and creatively creates a meaningful change. And whether that’s working for human rights, or whether that’s working to honor people of every ethnicity or race, whatever, which is important work. But that’s art too. And it’s honoring the beauty in each of those people.
[00:47:01.410] – Rob Brodnick
I love it. Fantastic. Thank you.
[00:47:02.360] – Karyn Zuidinga
Wow. Thank you so much Ari. It has been a lovely, lovely conversation.
[00:47:06.260] – Ari Weinzweig
[00:47:08.000] – Karyn Zuidinga
Before we thank our episode and contributing sponsors. I want to encourage you, our lovely listeners, to stay tuned for this episode’s Positive Turbulence Moment coming up in about 10 seconds.
[00:47:19.210] – Sponsor Message
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[00:48:01.100] – Rob Brodnick
And here’s our Positive Turbulence Moment where Ari makes the deep connection between anarchism and progressive business.
[00:48:09.170] – Ari Weinzweig
The most recent pamphlet that I did is the Emma Goldman pamphlet. I referenced her quickly before, but J Edgar Hoover called her the most dangerous woman in America 100 years ago. Which if you want positive turbulence, I think that she would have been a poster child for it. She was way ahead of her time and I’ll just read you one little quote from her which is one of the ones that really cemented, or whatever the word is, in my head the connection between anarchism and progressive business. She wrote this in like 1910 or 1911 about anarchism. But when I read it I’m like this is what we’re trying to create in the workplace. She said, “Our goal is the freest possible expression of all the latent powers of the individual which is only possible in the state of society where man is free to choose the mode of work, the conditions of work ,and the freedom to work. One to whom the making of the table, the building of a house, or the tilling of the soil, is what the painting is to the artist, and discovery to the scientist. The result of inspiration, of intense longing, and deep interest in work as a creative force.
My email is Ari@Zingermans.com and if people want to reach out, they can.
[00:49:26.320] – Karyn Zuidinga
If you want to share a Positive Turbulence Moment, or otherwise comment on what you’re hearing, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We welcome your thoughts. Be sure to tune in next episode when we’ll be talking to Lily Degama, The Food Waste Doctor and Chesta Tiwari, a food waste expert who will turbulate how you look at food. You can also head over to positiveturbulence.com to find out more about us, get a transcript of this episode, learn about our wonderful sponsors, positive turbulence, our guests or check out our very cool and very diverse reading, watching, and listening to list. Until next time keep the turbulence positive!
~1200 Words, 5 Minute Read
We spoke with Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, a thriving enterprise based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This 65-million-dollar-a-year business started in 1984 as a small deli (Zingerman’s Deli ) in a college town. At the time, they had an unstated vision of creating something cool and unique that was an excellent experience for every person who walked through the door.
The desire for cool and unique, along with a great experience, led Ari and co-founder, Paul Saginaw, to evolving that deli. Not into a chain of Zingerman’s Delis as 99 percent of other business owners would have done — but into a community of synergistic businesses. An ecosystem, if you will. While the story is compelling in itself, what’s even more impressive is the learnings, insights, and reflections that Ari has to share. All of it through the lens of an anarchist and historian.
Read on, you’ll be inspired to reflect on your Mission and Vision, and you may even want to bring a little anarchy to your work.
- The first Natural Law of Business is that every healthy organization of any size or sort has a vision that is a detailed description of the future.
- A Mission is your North Star. It answers 4 questions: What do we do? Why are we doing it? Who are we? And for whom are we doing our work?
- A Vision has a specific time constraint, and it’s very detailed. The Vision is a description of the future that you want to create, not what you could create. It’s a blend of data and emotion. Data like size, dollars. Emotion like how do people feel when they work here? How does the community think about us? It’s a story. Bringing the emotion and the data together is what creates a powerful, compelling vision that people want to be a part of.
- Hierarchy is unnatural to human behavior. In business, the hierarchical autocracy is the “hard” people are used to. The more you can do to get rid of hierarchy, the better off your people will be, and therefore the better off your company will be.
On Origins and Vision
While their early Vision was unstated, Paul and Ari wanted to create something cool and unique. The result was Zingerman’s Deli. After about ten years in business, they had mostly achieved that Vision and needed to decide what was next. Should they create a franchise, expand to other locations, look for a buyer? While all of those were viable options, none really appealed to them so they sat down and worked for over a year to create a vision of a future that they wanted to create that was 15 years out. Their goals were: 1) to allow for growth 2) to remain true to who they were 3) to stay away from the pull of merely copying what they had. The result was Zingerman’s Community of Businesses.
Both Paul and Ari are not afraid of trying something new, something that others say is impossible. Ari quoted Arthur C. Clarke, on revolutionary ideas: “All revolutionary ideas go through three stages. Stage one is its completely impossible. It’ll never work. Stage two is it might be possible, but it’s not very practical. And stage three is I was behind it from the beginning.”
That pattern has been typical for Zingerman’s. With Ari saying, “There’s always resistance to anything that’s in the making that’s going to be great.”
The basic format of the Vision they created — and it is what they teach in ZingTrain — is they wrote a description of the future as if they were already in the future. That Vision described a Community of Zingerman’s businesses where each business would be separate but under the umbrella of the Zingerman’s community. One organization but each related organization would have its specialty. That allowed them to grow but keep to the uniqueness of the deli and the Zingerman’s brand. The whole community of businesses would operate synergistically. The sum of the community would be greater than the total of the individual parts.
A Vision has a specific time constraint. It’s way more detailed and much longer. The Vision essentially is like the cathedral that we’re working to construct. It would be best if you defined what you are building, how long it will take, what materials you will use, and what it will look like, and how you will know you are done. When it’s done (or close to done), you need to create a new vision. One that builds on the past Vision, assuming you completed it, but one that is new and creates a new plan for the future.
A lot of organizations flounder and ultimately fail because they complete their visions but then don’t create a new one.
On Hierarchy and Engagement
Hierarchy is unnatural. But industrial thinking reinforces it with ideas like career ladders, escalation of issues, etc. The problem with it is that too much pressure/emphasis is placed on the people at the top knowing everything, and of course, they don’t. For people lower down the corporate ladder, they are only allowed to contribute a small percentage of their ability.
On Anarchism, Creativity, Work, and Business
Essentially anarchism is the opposite of chaos. It’s the opposite of violence, and it’s not about being disorganized; it’s all about organization. It’s just about involving the people in designing the organization. Instead of the industrial model, which is all about hierarchy, where the bosses go and create it but don’t involve the other people. Anarchy is where you’re treating everybody like the intelligent, creative, human that they are. And they participate in running the organization.
When organizations work in a hierarchical model, they tend to close off and limit perspectives from people lower down the ladder and outside of the organizations. In doing so, they are also cutting off their creativity and essentially atrophying the creative muscle of the organization.
When you live in harmony with nature, and you’re working in a healthy ecosystem, creativity is just there. According to Rollo May, “The opposite of courage is not cowardice; it’s conformity.” That’s a lot of what anarchism is a reaction to the pressure to conform socially.
Work has gotten a bad name. It’s just which work do you want to do? When you write a vision, you’ve chosen the work that you want to do. When you’re doing work you’ve decided to do, it’s a whole lot more fun. And so the difference is that you chose it, and you see the beauty in it, and you see the benefit in it, and you believe that it’s meaningful. Work can be like that too.
On Beauty, Work, and Anarchism
John O’Donohue, the late Irish philosopher and theologian, said: “The world is suffering from a crisis of ugliness.” The antidote is more beauty. And this is aligned with anarchism. Because it’s not about taking over and changing everything. It’s just tiny little acts that you create more and more beauty in your ecosystem.
It doesn’t fix the whole world’s problems, but you can’t fix the entire world’s problems is too big. You can work on your own space and be supportive of other people working creatively. And ultimately a lot of people working caringly and creatively creates a meaningful change.
Here are links to each of the companies in the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses.
- Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (ZCOB)
- ZCOB Mission and Guiding Principles
- Planet Zingerman’s
- Zingerman’s Deli
- Zingerman’s Bakehouse
- Zingerman’s Roadhouse
- Zingerman’s Coffee Company
- Zingerman’s Bake!
- Zingerman’s Catering & Events
- Zingerman’s Mail Order
- Zingerman’s Creamery
- Zingerman’s Candy Manufactory
- Zingerman’s Cornman Farms
- Miss Kim Korean Restaurant
- Greyline Zingerman’s Event Space
- Zingerman’s Food Tours
- Zingerman’s Press
- Bio and article list in The Atlantic
- How Food Empire Zingerman’s Was Built on Anarchist Theory – Eater.com
- Zingerman’s Ari Weinzweig on Changing Beliefs And Buidling a Hopeful Business – Forbes
- An Aranchist’s Guide to Doing Good Buisness – Financial Times
- Ari Weinzweig – The Power of Beliefs in Business – Talks at Google (Video)
- MackinacPolicy Conference 2019 – (Video)
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