Over 20 Terrific Years of Using Bottom Line Change

A wonderfully gentle and effective way to manage organizational change

Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5

Thirty-three years ago, the creative consultants at a small company called Dannemiller Tyson Associates (DTA), published their collective creation entitled, Interactive Strategic Planning: A Consultant’s Guide. Long out of print, the spiral-bound book is just shy of 200 pages, printed, it seems, by a local copy shop in what would have been the 1990 corollary to what I wrote a few months ago about self-publishing. While DTA’s publication probably didn’t win any design awards, the organizational design processes within are absolutely world-class. Chapter One opens with a set of questions that are at the core of all of DTA’s good work:

How do we create an organization of excited, collaborative people—committed to doing things that make sense instead of engaging in blind obedience? … [How do we] get them all working toward the same results? … How do we get all the “arrows” pointed in the same direction? We believe these have become urgent organizational questions as we enter the ’90s. All these years later, those organizational questions are still just as urgent. What follows is a little reflection on our imperfect adaptation, long embedded in what we do here in the ZCoB, of the approaches that DTA designed. They called their work Whole-Scale® Change. Our approach is known as Bottom Line Change®, or, BLC. You can read about it in great depth—how we use it, why it works, and how you can put it to work in your world—in the pamphlet “Bottom Line Change: A Recipe for Effective Organizational Change.”

I have BLC on my mind this week for a range of reasons. Reflecting on what I wrote last week about the importance of gentleness in our organizational ecosystems, I’ve been thinking that Bottom Line Change is a wonderful example of just that. Rather than the usual autocratic tendency to disrupt, BLC is a system that encourages people to act gently and caringly. Then, this past week, Maggie from ZingTrain began teaching a newly introduced interactive workshop around the subject. And finally, just the other day, I got an email outlining a new BLC at the Roadhouse. It’s nothing dramatic—just about a proposed change to take the nuts out of a dish on the Just for Kids menu in order to make it easier for the many young folks who come in with nut allergies. It may seem like a small thing, but the fact that it went to the staff, asking for input before any decision was made, demonstrated to me how deeply BLC has been embedded in our organization over the years.

Taking time to do this work of Bottom Line Change to gather input and ideas from everyone impacted before a decision is made, does, of course, “slow down” leaders who are trained to be “decisive.” For many, it will feel completely counterintuitive. And yet, by investing a bit of BLC work in advance of the decision-making, the assistant manager leading this change will end up with more support, a sounder decision, and much more effective implementation. Suggestions to improve the original BLC write-up have already come in from a handful of front-line staff. To those who are used to more autocratic ways of working, BLC may seem clunky. In my experience though, it’s actually the opposite. It takes more work up front, but over time, quite simply, things go better with BLC. Which has been true here in the ZCoB for well over 20 years now.

In “The Story of Visioning at Zingerman’s,” I share the tale of how Paul and I got to know Stas’ Kazmierski back in 1993 when we were stuck struggling our way through what, in hindsight, I would call “organizational midlife.” Stas’ is the one who taught us to do what we now call visioning. As I write in the pamphlet,

Stas’ and his teachings were instrumental in creating the true and now maybe magical story of Zingerman’s. The way we wrote [our vision for] Zingerman’s 2009 was in great part possible, only because of the wisdom that Stas’ had shared with us in 1993 and 1994. … In that moment of uncertainty about our future, Stas’ quietly showed us a path to save the day.

We speak regularly around the ZCoB about how visioning changed our organizational lives. Without what we learned from Stas’, there would have been no “Zingerman’s 2009 Vision,” no Community of Businesses, and the odds of even still being in business seem pretty low. Visioning, though, wasn’t the only thing we learned from Stas’. He also taught us the basics of what we evolved into Bottom Line Change. BLC, in its far-less-obvious-to-the-world way, might be just as important a contributor to the health of our organizational ecosystem. And the approaches that underlie it are all in Dannemiller Tyson’s Interactive Strategic Planning.

Thinking back on the beginnings of BLC all those years ago, I was reflecting that while we rightly give Stas’ enormous credit for contributing so significantly to our ecosystem here at Zingerman’s, we rarely refer to the ecosystem of which Stas’ was a part at the time we met him. In the same way that Zingerman’s would not be Zingerman’s if we had not opened in Ann Arbor, Stas’ would not have known what he knew if he had not been part of Dannemiller Tyson. And that a lot of what Stas’ taught us about BLC was what he had learned from Kathie Dannemiller.

Kathie was born in Detroit on April 27, 1929. Her father was a union organizer, and Kathie spent her professional life engaged in the work of positive community activism. After high school, she moved 40 miles west to attend the University of Michigan, and, like me and so many others, she ended up staying in Ann Arbor for the rest of her life. In 1984, she and Chuck Tyson founded Dannemiller Tyson Associates. Fortunately for Paul and me—and actually anyone who’s benefited from Zingerman’s over the years—the two new partners decided to sign a lease for office space for DTA at the corner of Detroit Street and Catherine Street, just up the block from the Deli.

Before starting DTA, Kathie had worked at the University of Michigan in the Office of Student Affairs. During that time she met Ron Lippitt, whose work at the Institute of Social Research in the ’60s and ’70s formed the basis of what we now know as visioning. The two collaborated on many projects, and it seems clear that each of their approaches impacted, and was woven into, the good work of the other. She went on to work as an internal consultant on quality improvement at the University. Later, she began consulting on the side with Ford Motor Company before finally making the break to start her own firm in 1984.

From the start, Kathie and her colleagues at DTA conveyed their deep commitment “to help organizations uncover and engage the combined knowledge, wisdom, and hearts of their people to meet the challenges of a challenging world.” Their approaches were designed to tap the wisdom that they—and we today—know is present in every human being. While most consultants of that era engaged only with a business’ executive team, the folks at Dannemiller Tyson worked elbow-to-elbow with everyone at every level of the organization. Kathie shared:

The driving force of my personal work in organization development has been to help every voice be heard. How we do that is always different, but for me, the method has been to work with microcosms of the organization, get them listening to each other in a way that brings out each person’s truth and accepts it as truth, then combine yearnings of everyone into a compelling vision of where we need to be going together, and then to come up with our own answers as to what will get us there. Probably the most important truths for me are encapsulated in that statement: Let every voice be heard and each person’s truth be true.

In the early years of developing their change process, Kathie and her colleagues had been working with Ford. The upper-level exec who hired them wanted to change the culture he had inherited by increasing involvement, “but he felt his managers would kill all the emerging creativity and energy. They had been carefully trained and rewarded to ‘kick ass and take names,’ not to be collaborative.” He engaged Dannemiller, he told them, to “quickly train his managers to be more participative.” In what I now see as a brilliant bit of organizational design maneuvering, they used the introduction of a new method of organizational change as a way to adapt the culture to be more inclusive. They regularly reminded everyone involved that they had responsibility for the outcomes.  As the DTA folks write, “True, Ford is a huge company. But each person can turn quickly as an individual. In a belated glimpse of the obvious, we realized that what we were doing was particularly effective … most especially, for getting things implemented.”

Randy Albert was the first consultant, aside from the two founders, that DTA hired. He was also, he reminded me the other day, the person who introduced us to Stas’, who had just recently joined DTA. Randy reminisced:

Kathie was amazing. She was so generous. Really, she was a genius! I feel like she was to DTA what John Lennon was to the Beatles! She was a voracious reader. She would always read with a question in mind. She was great at adapting other people’s work to fit into what she was doing. And she had this amazing ability to bond with almost anyone in two minutes. And that’s old-school auto executives 40 years ago. She would always say, “I’m not worried if they like me. I want them to like who they are when they’re with me.” Kathie was great at finding value in anyone and everyone. When a client executive was underwhelming, we thought of our role as calling them into greatness, and often succeeded. When clients assigned particularly quirky and unproductive staff to our team, we would look at them as an art form and find something to appreciate about them, ultimately calling them into greatness as well. Kathie was the main driver and glue for these and the other values I’ve shared with you. That’s what made her a genius!

Kathie was always very involved in the Ann Arbor community. In fact, she was one of the founding board members of The Ark—our amazing local music venue, founded back in 1965. After Kathie passed away in December of 2003, the Ann Arbor News wrote that she had:

… devoted herself to bringing about progressive change in the local community, in business, government, and not for profit organizations, and in the lives of thousands of people she encountered across the globe. Her passionate, engaging and direct style affected many people profoundly both by what she said and did, and how she listened to them, helping them discover new ways to move forward. 

In 1982, the same year we opened the Deli, Dannemiller Tyson began the work to really clarify and document their organizational change processes—processes which, four decades down the road, form the basis for Bottom Line Change. Writer Margaret Wheatley wrote of their work that it offered “a very valuable map to the New World of organizational change. … They lead us to the capacity and to a future where people know how to work together in relationships that give birth to new possibilities.”

When we do our work well here in the ZCoB, we use BLC for changes large and small. The latter is one place, Randy Albert reminded me, that our approach diverged from Kathie Dannemiller’s: “She was really only interested in the large-scale change projects,” he shared. “The biggest group I remember was the session they did for the Dearborn Assembly Plant at Cobo Hall with 2,241 people!” Here, we use BLC for change of all sizes; something really small like taking pecans out of a kid’s dessert, or bigger changes like the rollout of the Zingerman’s Perpetual Purpose Trust and our Statement of Beliefs. It’s so integrated into our existence that, after all these years down the BLC road, it’s a rare day that I don’t see a draft or two of a BLC. What do I love about BLC? Just to start the conversation, here are a dozen reasons:

  1. BLC teaches folks how to initiate, lead, and effectively implement change. Since change happens everywhere, and will be happening for the rest of our lives, this is a critical and helpful life skill to have.
  1. Since the first steps of BLC here are to share “the compelling reasons for the change” and a vision for what things will look like after the change, BLC helps us to both clarify our dissatisfaction with the status quo and to do visioning work to write out a story of a more positive future.
  1. BLC models our belief that we are all leaders. If someone here is frustrated or has a creative new idea, one of the quickest things they can do is start by drafting a BLC. They may not be the decision maker, but that doesn’t mean they can’t initiate the process. As Kathie Dannemiller used to say of DTA’s approaches, “Anyone can do it!”
  1. BLC teaches everyone how to think like a leader. The five steps in the BLC recipe are simply what an effective, inclusive, leader would do to improve their organization.
  1. BLC actualizes inclusion. The system itself, as per Kathie Dannemiller’s decades-long dream, requires us to involve as many people as possible in the conversations that come before a decision is made. You might have been here a month but your opinion still matters!
  1. BLC is based on the belief that diversity makes for better decisions. Systemically, it requires us to reach out to everyone impacted. In the process, we demonstrate the positive power of diversity in a very down-to-earth and practical way. Randy Albert shared that Kathie Dannemiller did an amazing job of inviting and incorporating diverse perspectives. Randy offers: “She was so sincerely caring that she could give people very direct and harsh feedback, and they would genuinely thank her for it. She was always a bit amazed at what she could get away with, but again, it was because she gave that feedback with absolute clear love behind it.”
  2. BLC beckons people into belonging by regularly asking for their input at all stages of the process.
  1. BLC can help shift an organizational culture from a place where victims all too commonly abound, into organizations where more people than not become proactive about pushing past problems.
  1. BLC is built around humility. It begins with the beliefs and knowledge that none of us alone have all the answers, and that only by working together can we really come up with great ways to go forward.
  2. BLC increases hope! Every time we do one, we hit on all six points on the Hope Star: It shows people a better future, it helps them see how to get there, it shows people how much they matter, it helps them see how their work matters, it shows them how small steps are the keys to success, and it reminds them in a wonderful way that they are part of something far greater than themselves.
  1. BLC helps redistribute power. Because anyone in the organization can start one, power is more equitably and evenly shared! BLC teaches us active citizenship: As Grace Lee Boggs writes, “Our will has been to act like consumers, not like responsible citizens.” BLC makes it harder to stand aside. Got an idea? It’s a direct line to draft a BLC.
  1. BLC leads us to take more time before we make a decision, but once we do make it, BLC gets better results. How? Buy-in is higher, collaboration is increased, the vision is more dynamic.

This is, of course, only the beginning of all the benefits the BLC process brings. BLC reinforces many of the other things we already teach and work on here at Zingerman’s. It also pushes us to practice visioning, to work systemically with dignity, and to focus on positive beliefs. It helps us practice collaboration and enhances our creativity. And as I said above, it helps us learn to move through the organizational-change world with gentle, effective energy rather than make announcements that get a lot of attention but generally lead to very little effective change.

Dannemiller Tyson’s work was radical in its day, and, although we use it widely now, remains so today. As her partner Robert Jacobs said,

In the 1980s, change was viewed as a mysterious, theoretical, and complex subject. Kathie Dannemiller’s original intent … was to demystify change and serve as a guide for individuals, groups, and whole organizations in creating their preferred futures. She wanted something simple enough to speak to the average employee. 

I believe BLC has helped make that happen here. When it’s woven into an organization’s culture and systems, it becomes very clear that anyone who’s interested absolutely can do it! In a world that seems driven to move towards division and divisiveness, BLC has proven itself an effective, teachable, repeatable recipe that can be used to bring people together and help make change a positive experience! By using it, we can make real what Kathie Dannemiller devoted herself to so many years ago—working, as she loved to say, with “one heart and one mind.”

We are living today in very challenging times. Grace Lee Boggs once wrote, “In times of crisis you either deepen democracy, or you go to the other extreme and become totalitarian.” Examples of the latter are easy to find. Look at Vladimir Putin in Russia, autocratically-inclined members of the American political spectrum, or, on a smaller scale, the many frustrated bosses who have run out of patience and just want to make a decision and get on with things. I get it! I often feel the same way. My commitment to Bottom Line Change helps me regularly to steer clear of that unconstructive, but all too common, course of action and work in gentler ways. BLC, when we commit to using it, is one small but significant way to deepen organizational democracy Grace Lee Boggs was leading us towards. Consultant Barry Camson said Kathie Dannemiller’s work was, “​​a knowing, deep and abiding commitment to the roots of organization development as a democratic practice, which support the empowerment of people to achieve their full potential as individuals and as groups and to live in a humane way.” All these years after we began using it, that is probably, in our own Zingy way, what BLC has become.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that there will never be an easy time for an organization to begin using BLC. We are all busy, we all have more things to do than time allows, we all have hopes and dreams and families and a wealth of other things we want and/or need to do. In his great new book, The Song of Significance, Seth Godin asks, “How to change the systems we’ve worked so hard to build for generations? The answer begins simply with: we need to choose.” If we make that choice, as I’ve detailed above and in the “Bottom Line Change” pamphlet, a whole lot of good things can come of it. What Kathie Dannemiller and her colleagues wrote of their work is also true of what we do here with BLC:

We are not suggesting we have some magic formula that leads to all the right answers. What we have outlined above takes a lot of work, dedication, and follow-up. … What we can say is that when people are treated like adults, are well informed, and asked the right kinds of questions—it does feel like magic to see how far they can move and how much they can accomplish.