A "True Fact" of Management and a theory of how it can work on a farm

As many of you out there know, Ross and I are in the throes of building our business plan for our farm. The one topic that keeps coming up in every advisory conversation I have with farmers is the issue of management. Not management of crops or land use, no, that's the easy stuff. It is the management of people that is tricky: employees and interns. This issue seems to be the biggest bone of contention on small farms right now: how to manage interns, how is that different from managing employees, should a farm have employees or interns, how much structure should be used, what kinds of structures, how much responsibility should be given and when, should there be rewards, how do you deal with inevitable mistakes? The list goes on and no one seems to be providing satisfactory solutions. I've been spending a lot of time thinking about how I have been managed, both on farms and in other "city" jobs. I honestly feel that I have never been well-managed. As I've considered my previous management experiences from the receiving end, I have come to the conclusion that there is one main issue that has tainted each experience: persistent failure to communicate, which in at least three instances lead directly to a passive aggressive relationship between myself, my employer, and co-workers. A secondary issue has been that I have failed to demand, as well as failed to be given employment and internship opportunities that were sufficiently challenging and mentally engaging to keep me there. It is from these experiential threads that I hope to put together a theory of management.

With these anecdotal experiences in mind, I would posit a list of attributes a good pair of hands on a farm must have:

1) a good pair of hands, strong, stalwart, and willing in all cases to work 2) a good mind, one that can make decisions, problem solve, and can process mistakes 3) a good spirit, a person who can learn to use the mind to inform the hands so the mundane can become profound and so that each task can become a joyful one

Never hire someone you don't pay to also think. If you need a lot of menial tasks done, hire a day-laborer or a good kid from the neighborhood. Smart people who have these three attributes in abundance can make outstanding employees. However, in return for their good qualities, an employer must be willing to create an atmosphere where these attributes can fully express themselves. So, in order to attract and keep a good pair of hands, an employer must maintain:

1) clear and consistent lines of communication 2) clear and consistent expectations 3) clear and consistent space for free thought in balance with boundaries

This last guideline needs a bit of explanation. If you want smart people on your farm or at your business, then what they do every day must be mentally engaging, must require them to think hard and think in genuinely creative ways. This creativity can only come from idleness, time and space to sit and think. When we visited Polyface, one of the best things Joel said to me was that the reason Southern farmers are so backwards is that they don't have a winter to sit and think. It's about disturbance and rest all over again, only for the mind as well as for the land. Folks need to do, but then they need time to stop and consider what it is they've done. Without that time and space, we just keep cogging forward while any improvements are either slow to come or accidental; left more to chance than ingenuity and craft, the very things that, as I understand it, are what much of farming is about. But there's a balance. Farmers, I think, would benefit from giving this space, but I think they would also benefit from being hard-line defenders of boundaries. In every business, there are boundaries, indeed, in any relationship: there are structures and lines that do not get crossed without serious consequences. These boundaries on a farm should be wide to encourage creativity and learning, but clearly articulated and fiercely guarded so as to prevent a lack of understanding about one's place.

If you're in the business of growing food, then just grow food: hire labor, manage them conventionally, get what needs getting done done. But with that simplicity comes the burden of being the person who is singularly responsible for the oversight of just about everything, something much too complex for one person to handle well. One can start walking that fine line of micromanaging, and that's really more work than I think anybody really wants to do. Traditional management is great if you want compliance with standards of how you want things done, but if you want a worker who is engaged with the farm (which is what I think most interns crave), self-direction works better. I am in the business of growing food, yes, but also educating: the cultivation of minds goes hand-in-hand with the cultivation of crops. That means being both farmer and teacher, and not a kindergarden teacher, either. Though some interns or employees may have a kindergarden-level knowledge of farming (since that seems to be the first and last time kids get exposure to farms and farm life), they need not be hand-held. Smart people can figure stuff out when asked to; it's the teacher's job to ask. Of course, this gets us no closer to answering the questions of what do we ask our workers to do and more importantly, how do we ask it.

To address these questions head-on as well as to provide evidence for my thinking that goes beyond the anecdotal, I present a "true fact" about management brought to my attention, as with many good, thought-provoking things, by the good people of TED. If you are not familiar with this organization, you should be. In its most distilled version, TED is an organization that gets a bunch of terrific thinkers together to give an 18 minute speech about their work. In this particular talk, Dan Pink gives some real insight into progressive management strategies that I think, both from his "true fact" and my experience, are very worth pursuing as a core to a management strategy:

Mr. Pink deals with the problem of functional fixedness, that is, we see things and define things based on what we immediately know the thing is for. If you are given a box of tacks, then the box is for the tacks and nothing else; it has been predefined. But seeing a box and tacks, where both are tools to help solve a problem takes a certain openness about the task at hand; indeed, as Mr. Pink says, an ability to see the periphery as well as what's right in front of you. Incidentally, the brilliant animal behaviorist Temple Grandin writes at length about how animals do not seem to have issues with functional fixedness; they tend to see things just as they are, exactly what is actually there, whereas we tend to skim the details out through a kind of mental clumping based on a pre-existing definition of the object. An example of this phenomenon is the Gorilla Suit trick. In this video, put together by the University of Illinois Visual Cognition Lab, the viewer is asked to count the number of times the team in the white shirt passes the ball. In the viewer's careful attempt to get the right answer, he or she focuses intently on the white team's movements to the exclusion of everything else that is going on. Try it yourself. Aiming for total accuracy, count the number of passes the white team makes. Then, watch the video a second time, but this time, don't count, just watch. And here's the clincher, once you have seen the whole picture, you can't ever again fail to see it. Don't believe me? Try it. Once you've done the first part of the trick, try to only focus on counting the white team's passes without seeing everything else. You can't do it. The implication of this little example is that once you start to see the whole, you can't ever not see it as a whole: the periphery is as much in focus as anything else. This phenomenon is exactly what Mr. Pink is referring to in his talk. If we give a person a specific task with a specific goal, that person's understanding and ability to work within the whole system is crippled. Sure, we get the correct number of passes, but what is the cost of what we miss in the process?

The point is, we tend to see what we expect to see rather than what is actually there. To echo Mr. Pink, this is not a feeling, this is not an idea, this is a fact. This is exactly what the overwhelming majority of human beings do and it is exactly this tendency that we must fight as we seek to find new and better ways of doing things.

Consider the application of these facts on a farm. Most farms manage interns by teaching a skill, say harvesting beets, and then are asked to repeat that skill in the future ad nauseum. Later in the day, they are asked to plant seeds in the same way they were taught ad nauseum. They are told to then repair a fence, make a delivery, etc. All are straightforward, menial tasks. The problem with these tasks for interns is simple: so often the reward is not great enough for this kind of work to be done correctly, efficiently, and happily. Furthermore, if you were to ask the intern in this situation to manage the whole farm for even a day, six months in, she or he would be likely to have huge difficulties keeping everything in mind. When all the operations of a farm are rote, that is, memorized and repeated, understood only insofar as direct instruction, then that person's total knowledge may be considerable, but it is also fragmented; rendered unstable because it has yet to begin to engage the mind beyond what is a very narrow cognitive scope. The intern in this situation can count the number of passes and can melt the wax of a candle to stick it to the wall, what I disparagingly refer to as the "git-er-done" method of running a business, but at the end of the day, it's not enough. The question you have to ask as that person's manager is "what are they missing?", and more importantly, "am I presenting the information they need to know in such a way that I am setting them up to miss the big picture? Am I inadvertently creating an atmosphere where thinking through something is actually inhibited rather than encouraged?" Interns seem to be constantly taught what to look at, but not how to look. In a nutshell, that is the difference between an intern and an employee. You can give an employee lots of rote farm tasks because you pay them a real wage that directly corresponds to how well they complete tasks. Employees who do more than rote, such as managers, get paid substantially more in kind because you are asking them to both work and think. But based on what I have learned from Mr. Pink, I would posit that you in fact don't have to pay your interns more to get better results. Indeed, you don't even have to have employees who are rewarded with a more substantial monetary gains for work. What I am suggesting is that interns can be more productive at less cost if you engage them in creative decision making processes in tandem with rote tasks. Punishment and reward does not work in an intern situation. You're rarely going to find that gem of an intern who does rote work consistently well without substantial reward. I find, purely anecdotally, that this is especially true the smarter and more educated the intern is.

So, for all these smart, well-educated willing workers coming onto farms, I would suggest using Mr. Pink's three tools for management:

1) Autonomy Allow your employees and interns the freedom to manage themselves. This does not mean give them free reign to go nuts, one of the features of freedom is clear awareness of boundaries.

2) Mastery Give employees and interns especially the opportunity to gain mastery over one or more aspects of the operation. Give them responsibilities from the very beginning with guidelines and deadlines for aspects of mastery. Most importantly, give them room to fail. Understand that mastery comes from failures. Mitigate the consequences for failure for the business by scaffolding the task for the intern.

3) Purpose Purpose is everything. Most people work best when they clearly understand the purpose of the task, both in the immediate sense and in a larger sense. Make sure your interns and employees always, always, always understand the purpose of what they are doing on both the immediate and mundane levels, as well as how it serves something greater that is meaningful to them.

Put these three words up on the wall of your office and meditate on the ways you can leverage these tools with the people who work for you. I am keen to try a results-only work environment, or a variant thereof. I am definitely going to work to have 20% time or more for autonomous work. My interest in trying these ideas is not just because they are the product of good science and good reasoning; my interest comes from the fact that these are things that, when I have been least well-managed, I have wanted the most. I think there is something in that intuitive pull worth bringing out into the open. I'll let you know how it goes.