An old adage is that if all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail. General managers experience this as a “silo problem.” Each functional specialist has a different perspective, but few comprehensively grasp the situation, and personal experience shapes our thinking (worked for me). Not inquiring more broadly and deeply confines us to familiar “solutions.” Perhaps we see no reason, don’t know how, or are just afraid – obliged to have “answers” for subordinates to avoid looking incompetent.
Even those of us really trying too often employ half measures to regenerate nature, and ourselves. We’re bogged down in the doctrine of yesteryear, Quantity over Quality. We need to reverse that: Quality over Quantity, Always. What’s the problem?
An economy consisting of private enterprises, non-profits, and government agencies also has a type of “silo problem.” Each organization frames any problem within that organization’s expertise. Solutions that appear to doom whatever it does – or sells – are rejected. Any new proposal that can’t be monetized appears infeasible if the organization lives on money. When money rules and motivations can’t resolve issues common to everyone, they breed social and environmental crises.
Start with a crisis in the news – the NRA’s thinly veiled marketing campaign for the struggling firearms industry. The NRA’s solution to any problem is rationalized into “more guns,” favoring quantity of firearms over all other considerations.
(In my rural town, all ranchers need varmit killers. Many need commercial hunting to supplement ranch income. Fear persuades gun owners that mandatory registration is a prelude to confiscating everybody’s firearms. Fear takes options to reduce carnage “off the table.”
Social crises dominate our attention, but the biggest common crises are environmental. Often, under media radar, they feed social crises. For example, the prolonged draught in the conflict-ravaged Middle East stresses people without any shooting going on.
Companies fear that limiting use of natural resources and regenerating ecology will end life as they know it. They’re right. Neoliberalism, or market-based competition is played by rules they know. A very different kind of thinking has to emerge, but fear prevents us from diving deep into exploring new ways of life. Unless we are hermits, we’re all hypocritical because we must function daily within a system that keeps us blinkered inside its system of logic. Major change has to venture outside this closed, fragmented system of thought.
We’re all in this together, but cloistered in isolated silos, we don’t know it. Entrapment in commercial logic diverts our concentration from seeking “nature’s point of view” We have to shake our fear; then try new ideas, and do it collectively. One person can’t overcome systemic problems. For example, is an effective recycling system operating so that all the stuff you send to recycle is actually processed?
The Principles of Compression Thinking are intended to bridge the gap between intent and action, but mean little in the abstract. They come to life by guiding specific actions. Convert them into questions to ask when making action decisions.
Assuming that you buy off that overuse of resources and ecological damage is already acute, let’s unpack just one principle, “Quality before Quantity, Always.”
Take as an example rotational grazing of cattle. Neglecting many particulars, the idea is to concentrate cattle on one pasture patch, let them eat the forage down, but not to the nubs; then move to the next patch where forage has regrown lushly. The trampling loosens soil so it absorbs more water, and cow patties fertilize it. Over time soil begins to regenerate. Experience with this is that cattle fully mature, the land needs little or no fertilizer or chemicals, and you can pasture more cattle on the same amount of land. A study of the method concluded that the extra CO2 absorbed by the soil offsets the methane emitted by the cattle. Rotational grazing is one method of “carbon farming” that promotes plants pulling CO2 out of the air and putting it in the soil.
To formulate questions, quality is much broader than conformance quality for a production part or work process. Quality before Quantity implies quality of all life, human life and natural life. Question how your action will affect that quality on everything: people, workers, customers, nature – all stakeholders, now and as far in the future as you can project. Another way to think of this is opting for long-term “total effectiveness” over short-term quantity of output. What kind of questions do you ask?
Here is a sample:
- When has rotational grazing reached nature’s limit for that land? How will you know if you are starting to degrade soil instead of regenerate it?
- What’s more important: maximum soil regeneration or more cattle raised?
- How geographically dispersed should grazing operations be located to minimize the farm-to-fork distance (minimize total supply chain transport)?
- In northern climes, how are cattle fed in winter? How might this apply to a haying operation?
- What is the effect on pollinators and other wildlife?
- Can the system work on a small scale, for a few head of cattle for local use? (Think scale-down, rather than scale-up.)
- Is it adaptable to an “old-fashioned” diversified farm?
- If rotational grazing is used for a dairy operation, at what scale, on what milking schedule?
- Cattle grazing is only part of agriculture. What else should be done to regenerate soil? On farms. In towns. In institutions like school campuses?
- If one of nature’s primary needs is to regenerate depleting soil (and sequester more CO2 in it), how does rotational grazing fit into a larger scope initiative?
- Would large-scale CO2 sequestration in soil induce fossil fuel producers and users to double-down and grow, putting even more CO2 in the atmosphere?
- How can farms escape the grip of subsidized commodity markets (thin margins)?
No farm, factory, town, or business is independent of its surrounding world. We have to stop evaluating them as if they were. To cue off John F. Kennedy, ask not what the world can do for your business, but what your business can do for the world.
A kernel of a template of general questions to cue you in any situation is here. We invite you to help us extend it and make it more useful. And you may find Vigorous Learning Dialog to be a useful map.