Terroir, The First ‘Harvest,’: Nurturing Values, Vision, and Community in Ann Arbor

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un-terroir-au-croisement-de-la-vallee-du-rhone-et-de-la-provence-fond-backgroundDecember 1, 2016

Terroir, The First “Harvest”: Nurturing Values, Vision, and Community in Ann Arbor, Michigan

It’s the holiday season, when wine often flows freely, and we set aside time to celebrate with family, friends, and colleagues. In this post (and the next), I’m going to share some fruits from a recent gathering with a new ‘family’ of sorts, the Association for Managers of Innovation (AMI). The meeting’s theme was Terroir: Cultivate Innovation. As you may know, “terroir” is a French word that refers to “the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.”

At the AMI meeting, the goal was to taste, feel, and smell the ‘terroir’ of business innovation in the Ann Arbor region through immersion in two Ann Arbor-based businesses, Zingerman’s and Menlo Innovations, with a side trip to The Henry Ford, the history attraction in nearby Dearborn. I came away with insights about organizational values, practice, and culture that transcend the corporate world and are relevant to all of our informal learning organizations. In fact, I returned home wondering why more museums and libraries don’t practice the transparency, shared leadership, and customer service that these companies exemplify.

What is AMI?
The Association for Managers of Innovation is a non-profit learning community of individuals who foster and leverage creativity and innovation in organizations and society. AMI has  a worldwide membership representing a diverse range of backgrounds including industry, non-profits, academics, consultants and government organizations. I’ve been a member for three years. http://www.aminnovation.org/

Our Host Businesses
Zingerman’s [http://www.zingermanscommunity.com/about-us/] (co-founded by Ari Weinzweig, with Paul Saginaw) has been an Ann Arbor institution since 1982, beginning with a small deli (still in operation) and now comprising ten food and training businesses that have more than 750 staff and over $55 million in annual revenue.

Menlo Innovations [http://menloinnovations.com/our-story/] is a computer software company whose founder Richard Sheridan was deeply inspired by his childhood visits to The Henry Ford, especially the Menlo Park lab of Thomas Edison and its interpretive emphasis on Edison’s “open space” approach to management and innovation. The founders of both companies participated throughout our meeting, and we had sessions at each of their headquarters.

[We also spent a day at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, where we focused on the conditions (‘terroir’) that enabled the innovations of ‘ordinary people,’ such as the Wright brothers and Henry Ford, throughout American history.] The Leaders: Weinzweig and Sheridan
Each founder is passionate about his business beliefs, community involvement, and employee empowerment. Each has written about his business beliefs and practices, and each is a sought-after speaker. Weinzweig has authored a series of books, including four volumes of a Guide to Good Leading (part 4, The Power of Beliefs in Business, was published in 2016). Sheridan published Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love, in 2013. Each has rooted his business in the Ann Arbor area and remains fiercely committed to serving the local community, even as the scope and reach of each enterprise has expanded nationally and internationally. Zingerman’s and Menlo Innovations have missions that focus on positive social impact, doing “good” and “doing well.” Our group spent considerable time on-site at each, hearing from many staff members and seeing them in action.

Mission and Vision: Shaking Things Up

At Zingerman’s and Menlo Innovation, the mission statements focus on the customer and public benefit.


Zingerman’s three bottom lines are great food, great service, and great finance. Although each of its ten businesses is different, they all share the same mission:

“We share the Zingerman’s Experience
Selling food that makes you happy
Giving service that makes you smile
In passionate pursuit of our mission
Showing love and care in all our actions
To enrich as many lives as we possibly can.”

Instead of a short (elevator-statement-like) vision statement, Zingerman’s has an aspirational, multi-page narrative that paints a vivid, textured picture of the company in future years. The current Vision 2020 includes commitments to sustainability, growth, learning, passion, service, “intentional technology,” and authentic relationships with staff and customers. An excerpt: “We must be profitable in order to survive but our primary purpose is to contribute to a better life for everyone we touch.”

Menlo Innovations’ mission is “to end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology.” The company does this by creating software that is widely adopted and “enjoyably used” by the intended end users. As Sheridan says, “We have a laser beam focus on the business value of joy.” To achieve its mission, Menlo has adopted a “ a unique set of practices that include High-Tech Anthropology®, paired programming, and working in an open and collaborative environment.”
Like Zingerman’s, Menlo emphasizes quality and authentic relationships, with customers, ultimate users, and among staff. Its service orientation is built on a set of values, the most important of which is likely the belief that “the most expensive type of project failure is building software that no one ever uses. A close second? Software that is usable only by ‘power users.’” The company “High-Tech Anthropology® team works to make each product customer-friendly.
Many client needs that the company’s software has addressed support medical devices or applications that enable individuals to gain control over their diseases or conditions. The company is small, around 70 employees, with clients principally in the region but now including more far-flung locales. Currently, Sheridan and his team are taking a page from Zingerman’s and are in the midst of developing a detailed vision statement that will describe Menlo Innovations on February 11, 2017, the 180th birthday of Thomas Edison.

All in all, these two companies represent local enterprises that have been successful in marrying fierce commitment to high quality customer service, deep investment in community well being, financial success, and transparent, metric-driven, learning-focused, organizational culture. Trusted and valued organizations that prioritize learning, service, and community engagement don’t live exclusively in the nonprofit sector. In many ways, Zingerman’s and Menlo Innovations exceed our organizations in their investment in their employees’ growth, full participation, and leadership at all levels. That is the subject of my next post.