I have just finished reading one of the most important books I’ve ever come across, Holistic Management by Allan Savory.
Savory is a wildlife biologist, farmer, and cofounder of the Savory Institute, an organization that teaches and supports regenerative land management. I read the book because I admire Allan Savory’s lifetime commitment to understanding the delicate complexity of our environment. He has successfully restored ecosystems and land on several continents using animals. His work, and the work of others like him, can restore and revive our planet, if we can muster the political will and willingness to give up some of our cherished and destructive ideas about how to manage land and animals.
Savory is an enormously important teacher for farmers. I became familiar with his work because of my interest in permaculture. This particular book, however, is a blueprint for managing any complex system, not just a farm.
I’m a great planner, goal-setter, and list-maker, but I’ve never seen any decision-making or management process like this, and as I read the book I marveled at how intuitively right it feels. Policies and standard operating procedures are so often inadequate, not enforceable, and ineffective, in spite of hours and hours of committee work and good intentions. This book explains why.
I picked up the book around the same time I was deciding to get more proactive with my writing. I recognize that I need a plan, but feel overwhelmed by all the moving parts and how to use my time and other resources effectively. What about work-life balance? I do, after all, have a job. What should my priorities be? How much time will I need for each aspect of writing? What about money?
As I read Holistic Management, I took copious notes. I could see Savory’s framework for decision making was more complete than any I’d seen before, and specifically suited to complexity.
After finishing the book, I created a document using Savory’s model. Now comes the hard part. I need to apply his bare outlines to my own situation. It occurred to me that might be an interesting process to make visible, as this is a kind of decision-making most of us have never seen before, and who doesn’t have something to manage, a household, a family, a business, finances, a life?
The first step is figuring out the whole under management. Right away, we’re in new territory, because Savory realizes that any system is not a series of separate boxes, but a dynamic, nonlinear, and complex series of overlapping wholes containing people and resources, including the land on which the system exists. No matter what we’re trying to manage, the land will be part of the whole under management. Water cycles, mineral cycles, soil, animals and plants sustain every human activity, and creating management plans without acknowledging that truth has led us to climate change, catastrophic pollution, diminishing resources, and the destruction of billions of acres of land around the world.
Holistic management of anything must take into account the effects of our choices on the environment.
The whole under management includes decision makers, physical resources, people as resources, and financial resources. I’m the decision maker for my writing plan. For physical resources, I listed our 26 acres and the buildings on it, as well as the soil, water, plants and trees. I added technology to that list as well. For people as resources I listed friends, family, my partner, a professional support team, my community, and readers.
It didn’t occur to me until later to add myself as a resource. Typical!
Financial resources include money earned, inherited, borrowed, or dollars generated from my resource base, that is dollars earned from writing or the land under my management.
Working with the concept of wholes under management provides a new frame for decision-making that depends (surprise, surprise) on the recognition that effective planning means sharing power. When we approach management from the position of power-over others, including natural resources, we have failed to create a successful, sustainable policy or plan before we’ve even begun. Any system that ignores the needs of any part of the whole is doomed to failure, maybe not in the short term, but certainly in the long term.
This is particularly true in the context of relationships, as in a family or community. If we feel disempowered, our investment, loyalty, trust, and level of participation all diminish. We may, for a while, choose to comply with whatever it is the Grand Poobah at the top (power-over) demands, but sooner or later that system will fail and the Grand Poobah will fall. Unfortunately, this kind of pattern is hugely expensive in terms of lives, health, and resource.
Savory’s holistic management model is specific, complex, and requires time. The very first step – identifying the whole under management – can’t be speeded through. If we get that piece wrong, everything that comes after will be flawed. If we can’t define all the moving parts, we’ll never be able to figure out how to support them in working together, and we won’t notice or respond appropriately when things go sideways. And things always go sideways somewhere, at some time.
Defining the whole we are trying to manage forces us to step back and look objectively at our situation. Are we being too reductionistic in our view? Are we appropriately addressing the complexity of the entire system we want to manage? On the other hand, are we trying to manage aspects of a situation that are not ours to manage? Are we taking on, or allowing others to force us into, responsibility for parts of the whole that are not rightfully ours?
Take it from an experienced people pleaser. Trying to manage an interpersonal situation we’ve been coerced into, even if our intentions are the best in the world, is doomed to painful failure. Most people don’t want to be managed, even if they say they do. If we can’t get decision makers and human resources on the same page, our policies and plans will always dissolve. In such a case, perhaps the whole needs to be redefined and refocused on where our power rightfully lies.
I worked with Holistic Management a chapter at a time, and now I’m filling in the decision-making framework a piece at a time, feeling my way into mastery of this amazing new tool.
As I think about the whole(s) I want to manage in my life, I watch patterns and interactions in my workplace, the push-pull of politics as President Biden takes power after the disastrous last four years, and the ways I interact with my partner. All are complicated systems encompassing overlapping wholes. I’m looking at life through a new lens.