Women Innovating Change in—and through—Business

Catherine Connelly is the CEO of Merida Meridian, an innovative, natural fibers textile business that creates custom designed, market-ready rugs. Sounds nice and maybe a little boring on the surface, but Catherine has made a huge commitment to building a better work system that calls on people to be self-directed within an overall strategy with a big, built-in promise. She wants them to perform as a jazz ensemble rather than an orchestra, with no conductor leading the performance. In a system like this, how will people deliver on commitments? Better, it turns out.

A Rationale for Taking On this Rewrite of Business’s Sacred Cows

    1. Humans contribute at their highest level and are most creative when they grow and develop and can put something unique from themselves into the work. This produces intrinsic motivation, which exceeds all comparisons with carrot-and-stick methods.


    1. The greatest business successes come from deep connections to consumers and clients, knowing them better than they know themselves and becoming members of their outsourced R&D and strategic thinking teams. This allows them to develop strategies for innovations based on their businesses’ unique characters. Then you challenge your own organization to bring the right technology and creativity to make it possible. Talk about ecstatic customers!


  1. You ask everyone involved in making this happen to make a promise-beyond-ableness that ensures success and compels them to grow in the process. What they learn really benefits their customers within their markets. At Merida, the workforce and the supply teams get stretched into completely new territories with more capability to make the new promises for the next customers when they are done. This is the foundation.

Three Keys to Success: Innovative Practices

    1. Reimage Market Research and Product Design: Set up Buyer Node Teams instead. These are teams of people who are committed to becoming sources of innovation for a particular approach to life by a set of customers that are imbedded in the strategic direction of the business. At Merida, these teams are trend leaders who always want to be ahead and leading others, concept creators who love to wrap everything around a great idea and can be eclectic then in their choices; and bespoke customizers, who never do anything the same way twice, even with new customers. These groups become the customer/client’s constant companions in thinking and creating.


The idea is to bring unique ideas that make the client’s life work so much better because some one is innovating for them and always has their backs. Each person in the organization is on one of these teams, no matter what their role. The groups are a mix of all functions and act as champions for the success of the customer/client. This is radically different from tracking market segments and counting customer satisfaction surveys.

    1. Make Big Promises Beyond What You Currently Know How To Do: At Merida, every person or cluster of people make a commitment—a promise to innovate and create an idea, process or offering that will really make a difference to the customer. These innovation promises are always required to be beyond the person’s current capability or ableness and they are really called upon to figure it out. This starts with not knowing how but knowing that getting it done will really help the client. Some promises are very complex and some are simpler.

For example, knowing that a designer loves concepts with Asian influences may lead someone at Merida to become an expert in Asian art and use it to offer design ideas and methods with which the Merida custom weavers can produce uniquely original products. The designer knows how to target this because her Merida champion has spent time becoming an expert in her life and her customer’s lives.

The Merida champion might be called a stalker if she didn’t have such great intentions. Her promise may or may not be in her current role; at Merida people often cross over and pull teams together in shared promises-beyond-ableness. In this case the champion may even participate in strategy sessions with designers and connect Merida’s weavers directly to the ideas. The process is about relationships and caring deeply for the success of her buyer node. Merida pulls this off even though they manufacture on four continents including many USA products.

    1. Replace All Human Resource Systems: Most modern human resource practices and procedures crush innovation and the spirit it requires. Get rid of performance reviews, incentives and rewards, feedback and ranking systems, and over a hundred other common sacred cows in human resource functions. Instead, use intrinsic motivation practices based on plans managed by each person for their own contribution, including the evaluation. Because they are tied to the customer’s success, the natural incentives that give people real power to pull it off are activated. For example, when a person or team makes a promise to deliver an innovation for the customer, they set up a review team that supports and helps them assess their progress.

Merida is still new to this phase, but an example from Seventh Generation, a non-toxic consumer products company, might help. Susan Johnson, an experienced and successful salesperson, made a promise-beyond-ableness. She wanted to enable the company’s entire sales force along with salespeople inside key distributors to help consumers understand the global imperatives Seventh Generation’s products were designed to address. One of her most successful efforts was with Babies“R”Us. Susan helped train its salespeople to help shoppers meet their environmental objectives. She built into this program the development of critical thinking and reflective capabilities—skills that had strengthened her as a salesperson and could now strengthen the salespeople of a key distributor. This increased the value of Babies“R”Us to their shoppers and gave them a distinctive place in the market. And it gave a huge boost in sales to Seventh Generation.

The amazing thing about working this way, as Catherine constantly points out, is that it makes better citizens. Merida’s people think better, work to improve the lives of others and are not wrapped up in “what’s in it for me.” Merida helps build better democracies and great societies, while their products make the world beautiful, responsibly.

Sign up for a free teleseminar on July 19 and hear Carol Sanford on “The Responsible Entrepreneur.” Sign up for her blog feed and newsletter at www.carolsanford.com.

Carol is the author of The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success, published by Jossey Bass, winner of the International Book Award for Best Business Book (General) and listed on 800CEOREAD Top Five Business Books (General) and CNBC Top Fifteen Best Business Books. The book is based on client success stories throughout almost four decades of consulting to create innovative practices for better businesses, societies and planet.

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