Terroir: The Second Harvest (Workplace Culture)

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January 3, 2017

What if every one of our learning organizations made employee satisfaction and joy as critical to our bottom line as our public service, education, experiential, and financial goals? In late October, at the fall meeting of the Association for Managers of Innovation (AMI), I learned about two Ann Arbor, Michigan-based companies where this is preached—and practiced.

This post is the second to share some impressions from the fall 2016 Association for Managers of Innovation (AMI) conference held at the end of October in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The meeting theme was Terroir: Cultivate Innovation, and our group did a “deep dive” into the workings of two local businesses: Zingerman’s and Menlo Innovations.
The last post [Terroir: The First Harvest] introduced the companies, their founders, their missions and core beliefs, and their deep commitment to their local community—as well as their strong belief in addressing broader societal issues. Now, I’d like to dig a bit deeper into each company’s internal culture, a dimension that each CEO deems essential to a successful bottom line. These executives have created the workplaces that they themselves want to inhabit. Each believes—and has proven–that a positive and transparent workplace results in positive business outcomes. Each practices ‘open book’ management: all employees have access to (and understanding of) key metrics and indicators (including financials).

Menlo Innovations

Can you envision a software development company where all planning documents, progress reports, assignments, and financial metrics are up on the walls and maintained by company staff?

At Menlo Innovations, most communication and information sharing (especially among employees) is decidedly low tech. Face-to-face encounters with people, whether customers or staff, are at Menlo’s core. Menlo founder Rich Sheridan considers ritual and artifact important company cultural attributes. Menlo is dog- and baby-friendly. Each morning at 10, a ‘bong’ signals the “daily standup” where the entire staff gathers in a circle. Pair by pair, staff gives brief updates of their current work, challenge, or question. Each reporting partner grasps one of the two ‘horns’ of a plastic Viking helmet, the company’s iconic artifact, passing the helmet around the circle. This all-staff meeting takes less than 15 minutes, but spawns priority follow up conversations and actions.

Inspired by Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory at nearby Greenfield Village, Sheridan believes in open workspaces, where eavesdropping on others’ conversations is seen as an innovation tool. Hard-and-fast Menlo rules: Never write code alone. No earbuds. Sheridan notes:

“Pairing is the foundation of our work style and our learning system. Two people sit together at one computer, working all day on the same task at the same time. … These pairs are assigned by our project manager team and switch every week. Pairing fosters a learning system, builds relationships, eliminates towers of knowledge, simplifies onboarding of new people and flushes out performance issues.”
This is the tip of the iceberg. Sheridan’s philosophy and work processes are explained in detail in his book, Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love. http://menloinnovations.com/joyinc/


Can you envision a food and service company where all 700+ employees know and are able to report on financial projections, revenue, expenditures, and profit margins? (If necessary, each staff member has access to a financial literacy course that gets them up to speed.)
At Zingerman’s, founder Ari Weinzweig believes that, from day one, each new hire should have opportunities to understand how the entire business works. At the ten companies comprising Zingerman’s, (which include ZingTrain, a training institute for other businesses around the world), each hire is considered ‘leader material,’ and democratic practice is the norm. Weinzweig believes that workplaces need to generate positive energy. He sees Zingerman’s as a place of ‘higher learning’. “The more we teach, the more we learn. …The more we teach and learn together, the more effectively we connect with each other, strengthen our culture, and improve the lives of everyone we interact with. We thrive on sharing information lavishly.”

Weinzweig’s “12 Natural Laws of Business” include:

People do their best work when they’re part of a really great organization.
If you want staff to give great service, give great service to staff.
To get great performance, you need to give clear expectations and training tools.
Great organizations are appreciative and the people in them have more fun.

Here’s a link to a video about Zingerman’s produced by the University of Mississippi’s Center for Documentary Projects, in conjunction with the Southern Foodways Alliance:

Points to Ponder

After spending time at each of these companies, I found myself considering how our nonprofit learning organizations stack up. How many of us are in museums, libraries, or other organizations where everyone understands and has access to key metrics? Where transparency and open, internal communication are core values, and all staff can easily learn the status of every project and initiative? Where we believe that employee understanding of the entire organization strengthens the whole entity and contributes to its success? Where leaders prioritize staff learning and professional development? Where they value fun and joy as a central part of the work experience?

In my experience, we often fall short in creating open, positive, truly democratic work cultures—and our organizations are not the better for it. We in nonprofits can learn and benefit from the lessons of companies like Menlo Innovations and Zingerman’s. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a statement long attributed to business management guru Peter Drucker. Although some now dispute its origins, its veracity as a principle still stands.