Thursday, May 01, 2008

Down On The Farm

In his 2007 TED talk, Michael Pollan discusses the arc that has taken him from his garden to his truly illuminatory set of books (from Botany of Desire to In Defense of Food) and what he has learned about our relationship with nature and our food.

Why is this here?

It reflects where we go wrong in designing our organizations. We attempt set up a system where we take people and insert them into a machine that is designed to bend their will to a strategy. There are capital inputs, information, and time. The people and technology output goods and/or services, receive the revenue, pay the bills, and take care of the customers.

This sounds great, until in practice you realize that the strategy decided on by the executive leadership loses it's effectiveness at the front lines, except for rare cases. (Southwest Airlines comes to mind here.)

Check out this key point from Pollan:
[Another TED talk on ethanol] helped me understand industrial agriculture, which of course is a Cartesian system. It's based on this idea of that we bend other species to our will, and that we are in charge, and that we create these factories, and we have these technological inputs and we get the food out of it or the fuel or whatever we want.

[tells an amazing story about the Salatin PolyFace permaculture farm] This is a different way to think about nature. And a way to get away from zero sum notion, from the Cartesian idea that nature's winning, or we're winning.
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Next Dilemma, TED, March 2007
What Salatin does is create a situation where his animals and the grass that they graze on maximize their "desires" and, in turn, produce a truly incredible bounty of food with respect to the amount of land and the investment put into it.

The cows are not slammed into a barn, given a bunch of corn (which is not good for them), shot up with antibiotics, and fattened until they are "market-ready." Rather, they are moved from small plot to small plot, grazing on brand new delicious grass that they is there desired delicacy.

Chickens then follow them into that same plot a few days later, feed on their delicacy (fat maggots), and they defecate as they scatter the cow manure across the lot - which acts as fertilizer for the grass.

Amazingly, the grass itself contributes to this cycle. It was tall, just before the cows enter the plot. After they leave, it sheds much of it's root system (due to the root-shoot ratio). Fungi, worms, and the like digest the dead roots into new soil.

Just a few weeks later, the grass is again luxurious and tall, ready for the next cycle.

Businessfolk would do well to take a close look at these methods. We can continue to scale our organizations based on executive strategy, adding more capital and more people to execute the decisions of the central structure.

The problem with that approach is that the changing relationship of the organization to its capital and the importance of engaging your employees and customers at a more basic level (similar to meeting the desires of the cows, grass, and chickens) are changing.

My gut tells me that the answer lies in creating organizations that satisfy all the parts like Salatin's farm does. You might think of the executives as the farmer, the cows and chickens as the employees, and the grass (and animal feed) as the capital inputs. The customers are the same ones who want a Polyface chicken so badly that they drive out to the farm to pick it up. (To read more about the farm, check out the excerpt from The Omnivore's Dilemma on Mother Jones.)

Why should we care about this?

Well, as a designer, I've run into too many situations where organization were ill-suited to ingesting and assimilating what the customers and employees really need to be fully engaged. This is not a knock on any executive, manager, or employee. Rather, it's just the truth of how the information flows and responsibility distributed in most organizations today.

Through methods like mental models, we can get into the thought processes of all involved and figure out where disconnects or misunderstandings lie. I am building a practice around these models and how they can align an organization's resources and people in way most effective for both the company and the customers.

I hope you'll come back at some point as I explore these and similar issues in ways that show why such a practice is necessary and how it can be carried out.