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Holistic Management For Life

Assimilating permaculture design as a fluent part of your repertoire takes years of practice. Along the way you inevitably adapt the way you design to suit your style and context of application.

These two statements apply equally to Holistic Management, or managing holistically (as founder Allan Savory prefers to phrase it). Managing holistically is a process for making decisions that are ecologically, socially and economically beneficial in the short, medium and long term. As with permaculture design, managing holistically is something you do in a logical sequence of steps or phases.

I have found that managing holistically helps permaculture projects more fully and consistently realise their promise. Darren J. Doherty put it well in observing that: ‘Permaculture by nature has not been that strong on decision-making, holistic management hasn’t been that strong on landscape design and landscape planning. So we’ve got two methodologies, which on their own are extraordinary, and together, can be so symbiotically powerful it’s just breathtaking.’

In this article I’ll share the key steps involved in managing holistically, as informed by my own applications and adaptations over the last few years. Though it was developed by Savory to help land managers make better management decisions, managing holistically is something anyone can use whenever decisions are being made.

Step One: Clarify What You Are Trying To Manage

The first step is to clarify what it is that you are trying to manage, for example: a permaculture course, event or project; an enterprise or organisation that you are involved in; your household or family; your own life. Once you have done that, you can tune in to two important aspects of this thing, this whole: the decisionmakers and the available resources.

The decision-makers are the people directly involved in making management decisions. In a family, business, project or farm, there will usually be multiple decision-makers, and it is important to be clear about who these people are, and to ensure that they are involved in the process from the beginning. When setting out to manage my family holistically I sat down with my wife. When setting out to manage our permaculture design company I sat down with my co-directors.

Having clarified what you are managing (what Savory calls the whole under management) you now do – with the decision-makers – an audit of the resources or sources of support available for managing it. This includes anything that does – or could – contribute to the forward movement of what is being managed, for example:

  • qualifications and skills of decisionmakers and other people involved
  • people who aren’t decisionmakers but nonetheless support the project or task in some way
  • physical resources, such as land, buildings, tools and vehicles
  • money, including possible sources of credit, even if you don’t ever draw on them.

I always find this step empowering. It is surprising to realise just how much help is available.

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Step Two: Articulate A Context

Next you need to – with the decision-makers – identify, and articulate clearly, a context for the thing you are managing. Savory calls this a holistic context, but I’ll just use context. The context defines a desired destination, and has three main sub-steps as outlined below.

A: Quality Of Life Statements

Identify how the decision-makers need to feel if their quality of life is to be enhanced and not reduced by being involved. For example, jot down some words or phrases that capture what the decision-makers most want to be true of their experience of being part of this whole. I find that there are usually between about five and eight quality of life statements for any given whole. Here are a few examples.

me

  • ‘I am healthy, vibrant, alive and in my body.’
  • ‘I am living my life fully, earnestly, openly and in a way that enriches the lives of others.’

family

  • ‘We are a close family.’
  • ‘Our children are happy, confident, free-thinking and learning skills relevant to the future.’

company

  • ‘We are professional, organized and unrushed.’
  • ‘We have a business culture based on mutual respect, open communication and complementary diversity.’

All these statements capture something that is fundamentally important to the relevant decision-makers.

B: Enabling Actions

After making quality of life statements, you need to commit to the enabling actions required to realise them. If quality of life statements are ends, enabling actions are means towards those ends.

For my personal quality of life statement ‘I am healthy, vibrant, alive and in my body.’ my enabling actions are that I:

  • sleep well
  • eat amazing, nutrient-dense food in balance and moderation
  • lead an active life
  • make enough time for solo reflection
  • stay well hydrated.

If any one of these is not pursued, then I’m unlikely to realise that quality of life statement. If I am serious about being healthy, then I need to attend to the enabling actions.

As a family, for the quality of life statement ‘We are a close family’, some of our enabling actions are to:

  • go on fun adventures
  • give each other space when needed
  • communicate openly and honestly
  • make time for, check in with and support each other.

As a company, the quality of life statement ‘We are professional, organized and unrushed’ is enabled by (among other things) ensuring that we:

  • don’t take too much on
  • agree clear expectations with our customers
  • are well prepared for each job
  • present well.

C: Future Resource Base

The first two sub-steps in identifying the context are about how you’d like things to be now, or as soon as possible. The third is about what needs to be in place long into the future, if you are going to be able to continue to do the things you need to do to realise the identified quality of life statements. People often behave in ways that undermine – degrade or lose – their future resource base, for example: civilisations their soil; companies the goodwill of their customers; or individuals their mojo, burning themselves out in the name of one cause or another.

Here are some future resource base items for the three wholes I’m using as examples in this article.

Me: the happiness, health and fulfilment of my wife and children; my daily hug quality and quantity; the lushness, productivity and diversity of the ecosystems I influence.

Family: our relationships with extended family; the fertility, balance and depth of the soils we depend on; our health.

Company: the health of the working relationships among team members; the competence of our staff; the goodwill of our customers.

In each of these examples, these things are necessary, or need to improve, if we are to be able to continue taking the enabling actions our desired quality of life depends on; in other words, if we are to have a future.

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Dan with VEG co-founders Nathan Edwards (L) and Adam Grubb (R).
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Dan, having fun adventures with his family Ciela, Nikka and Manda (L-R). Image by Dan Palmer

Getting On With It

If you decide to manage holistically, I suggest taking it in steps, when you have the energy. Don’t spend so long on each that it becomes a chore. If you can get the context roughed out, even if you start with just a few words or phrases towards some quality of life statements, that is enough to begin. Then you can start managing holistically, and in the process your context will evolve. In my experience, although the process of forming a context feels useful, when you begin using it, it is so powerful you never look back.

You can apply your context whenever a significant decision is on the table: in addition to doing whatever you usually do, filter the decision against your context.

Humans tend to focus decisions on solving a problem, and tend to act on such decisions in ways that have unanticipated negative outcomes, whether or not the problem gets solved. These unanticipated outcomes then become new problems. And so the circle goes on, and real progress eludes us.

By managing holistically you can make decisions not only to solve a problem or meet an immediate need, but to move towards your articulated context; what matters most to you, individually or collectively. Further, you can test decisions before you act on them, to minimise negative outcomes.

And you can seek feedback: if a decision is not having the desired effect, or is creating issues, you can act to bring things back on track.

Managing holistically has become essential to my permaculture design work, as well as at a personal and family level, and I share this summary with the belief that many others will find it useful too.

Dan Palmer co-directs – with Adam Grubb – the Melbourne-based permaculture design and education company Very Edible Gardens (VEG).

For more information see:

• Holistic management: a new framework for decision making (Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield, Island Press 1998, second edition) www.veryediblegardens.com/iveg/holistic-management

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