I recently joined a new group on Facebook called Organizational Permaculture. Dan Mezick, who started the group, defines organisational permaculture as
… a permaculture approach to elevating levels of team and group learning in organisations. It’s taking advantage of what is already there, and using it. It leverages the often ignored, underutilized, undervalued, abandoned, or otherwise unleveraged human cognition that is readily available to power a task at the group level.
So far, the Facebook group has been in a state of incubation, bringing together a lot of interesting people but with no active discussion. So, I thought I’d get the ball rolling by sharing my thoughts on what organisational permaculture promises to be.
I first came across the term permaculture on the blog of Euan Semple, a consultant specialising in the social web. In a post he linked to a documentary called “A farm for the future” by the British filmmaker Rebecca Hosking. The film introduces some of the environmental challenges that modern farming faces, and permaculture as an approach to solve these challenges:
Linking to the film, Semple remarked:
What struck me watching this wonderful film was the degree to which arrogance and fixation for imposed order was what got us into trouble in the first place and how much humility and willingness to learn from apparent chaos is what will get us out of it. Any parallels you may draw with organisational life are totally intended.
Those words stayed with me: How can the ideas of permaculture be applied to our organisations?
I’ve been ruminating on that question on and off since then. And I am excited to find that others are struggling with the same question.
See, the thing is, just as modern farming is proving to be unsustainable, so are our organisations. They aren’t helping to solve the problems we face. Instead, they allow these problems to grow bigger and more difficult to solve. Governments, banks, schools, NGOs, corporations. All of these organisations are as much part of the problem as they are part of the solution when it comes to the global challenges we face such as climate change, financial crisis, education reform, poverty and inequality, healthcare and security.
But this is not because these organisations are broken. As the American organisational researchers Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky have observed, “the reality is that any social system (including an organisation or a country or a family) is the way it is because the people in that system (at least those individuals and factions with the most leverage) want it that way.” Or as their colleague Jeff Lawrence puts it, “There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organisation, because every organisation is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it gets.”
This is amply obvious if we draw the parallels between our organisations and modern agriculture as Semple suggests:
1. Both focus on measurable short-term gains
Just as our farmers only tend to consider this year’s harvest, most organisations don’t plan more than a few years ahead. Companies are expected to deliver profits every quarter. Public sector organisations are expected to show increased efficiency. In all cases, the focus are on short-term metrics that can be measured easily, while disregarding intangible factors (as organisational expert W. E. Deming said, “You can only measure 3% of what matters”).
2. Both disregard long-term sustainability
This focus on the short term means that both farmers and organisations ignore the stock of the resources on which they depend. Farmers don’t recycle nutrients in the soil, ignoring the fact that gradually this will make the it poorer and poorer. Similarly, organisations tend to consider their employees as “human resources” that can be expended, ignoring the mental and physical illnesses that such exhaustion leads to.
3. Both believe that control is prerequisite for efficiency
The central task of farmers and managers is to achieve compliance. Farmers seek to dominate their fields and crops through plowing, artificial fertilisers, pesticides. Managers seek to control the work of their employees through various tools such as Management by Objectives, quotas and incentive pay. The fundamental notion is that all desired actions are the results of such control. And that control is the only way to achieve the predictability and efficiency necessary to secure production and profits despite varying circumstances.
4. Both prefer a single way of doing things
In order to make it easier to obtain and maintain such control, both farmers and organisation opt for simple one-size-fits-all solutions. Diversity is considered a problem to be solved. Farmers prefer huge fields of a single crop such as wheat and corn in order to make it easier to manage, no matter what the local landscape or environmental context might look like. Organisations prefer to use the same processes throughout in order to make it easier to optimize, no matter what the local culture and customs might dictate. Such optimization for one-size-fits-all not only tends to be a bad fit, it also leaves the whole much more vulnerable to disruption.
5. Both believe that all problems can be solved by adding more energy
Farmers and managers emphasize technical or mechanical problem solving, as if their farms and organisations were machines to be fixed. The simpler the machine is, the easier it is to fix. And fixing it usually means adding more external energy. Energy usually means more money. For farms, this would be money for buying bigger machines and using more fertilizer. For organisations, it would be more funds for new employees, new projects and new technology. Unfortunately, just as adding more artificial fertilizer just exacerbates the problem of under-nourished soil, adding more money to an organisation rarely solves the problem but often just reinforces the structures that created the problem in the first place.
I find that organisational permaculture promises a different approach. A way to build organisations that enable people learn, develop and flourish together. Organisations that allow people to be autonomous, purposeful and self-assured. Organisations that make people healthier and happier by their being part of it. Organizations that are resilient and which will be able to help solve rather than exacerbate the challenges that we face.
I hope that this group will provide a fertile space to share ideas on how to develop such an approach.