Holistic Decision Making: Part Three – Putting Your Context to Work

In Part One of this series we introduced Holistic Management and went through the process of defining a whole under management. In Part Two we looked at articulating an Holistic Context for that whole under management, using VEG’s holistic context as an example. Now, in the third and final instalment, we tackle the fine art of leaping back into the flow of life and…

Putting your Holistic Context to Work

Fantastic, you think! I now have myself (or we have ourselves) a whiz-bang holistic context that captures what is most important to this or that whole I am part of managing. Let’s stick it up on the kitchen or staffroom wall and start enjoying its magical power to transform our lives.

Well, unfortunately it doesn’t work quite like that. As intimated above, articulating your holistic context is pretext to actually starting to get to the whole point and meaning of Holistic Management, namely managing holistically. What the holistic context, and the discussion and clarification that happened during its formation, does, is give you a reference or anchor point that then guides decisions and actions. It is like you have now captured the ‘true north’ of your whole, and you can start managing the whole towards it. Let’s take a look at what that looks like, as well as a few other ways we have found our holistic context useful in managing our company.

Keep in mind that managing holistically is for most of us a big change. It is analogous to learning to ride a bike and can take a while to get the swing of. The fruits, or payoff, however, we have found to start flowing during the process of clarifying our holistic context, let alone in its application.

Making Decisions Towards your Holistic Context

Management is decision making. Sound decision making is at the heart of any thriving, successful whole managed by human beings. Holistic Management is a decision making framework, and its whole point is to help decision makers make holistic, sound decisions.

You usually find yourself in the position of having to make a decision in response to a problem, need or opportunity. You discover that a part of your business is losing money, let us say, or you know you soon need to either replace or repair your photocopier, or you are invited to come and present at a conference. Whatever it is, in Holistic Management you don’t reject the ways of making decisions about this kind of thing that you have used in the past. You still do everything you used to do. But you add another layer. Conventional decision making the world over is reductionistic in the sense in leaves out important parts of the context in which the decision is being made. We tend to make decisions based on solving a problem, meeting a need, or reacting to an opportunity without fleshing out the broader context and consequences of that decision. This is where your holistic context comes in.

In general, we find that once you have articulated your holistic context and you are familiar with it, it is like a gentle magnetic field that draws your decisions towards it. It gives your whole both not only its ‘true north’ but a rudder that lets you steer toward it. Over time this becomes more and more unconscious to the point where it can at times seem uncanny in that things in your holistic context are becoming and staying true almost all by themselves. Until that point, however, you must consciously bring your holistic context into your decision making process. Let’s look at how you can use what are known as the testing questions to do this.

The Testing Questions

During a public talk I attended last year, Savory said “you don’t know if any idea is good or bad until you have filtered it in context.” The testing questions help you use your holistic context as such a filter. Each of the seven testing questions (sometimes called guidelines) asks a question that clarifies the soundness of one or another decision you are considering. Here Bruce Ward introduces why they matter:

Here are the testing questions as presented in Holistic Management (p. 268):

Explains Savory, “when asked and answered in quick succession, the testing questions enable you to see the likely effect of any decision on the whole you manage. You do not want to dwell on any one test to the point that you lose sight of the picture formed by scanning them all. With this picture in sight, you can be fairly sure that any decision tested is not only economically sound but simultaneously environmentally and socially sound, both short and long term” (Holistic Management, p. 267). Note the emphasis “quick” here. Savory’s words certainly ring true of our experience – we have found that in many cases we can make large, serious decisions in 5-10 minutes (I’ll give an example shortly).

Many of the (non farm-based) folk we work with find some of the above wording difficult to understand, and it our application of the testing questions we have found it useful not only to rephrase some of the more obscure wordings, but that have found it useful in our own decision making to give some of the questions a slightly different definition or emphasis, and to reorder them. Here are the titles, definitions, and order we use currently:

  • The Move or Most Movement Question – if assessing a single action, for the effort, time and money invested does this action move us toward the statement of purposequality of life statements, and enabling actions articulated in our holistic context?  If comparing two or more actions, for the effort, time and money invested, which moves us most toward these things?
  • The Future Resource Base Question – if you take this action will it lead toward or away from the future resource base described in our holistic context?
  • The Root Cause Question –  if we are considering taking an action to solve a problem, does it address the root cause of the problem?
  • The Energy/Money Source and Use Question – is the energy or money to be used in this action derived from the most appropriate source in terms of our holistic context? Will the way in which the energy or money is to be used lead toward our holistic context?
  • The Weak Link Question – does the action we are considering address a weak social, ecological, or economic link? Is there any sense in which this action could create an undesirable weak social, ecological, or economic link?
  • The Most Profitable Enterprise Question – if comparing two or more enterprises, which returns the most gross profit / the most towards covering business overheads?
  • The Gut Feeling Question – how do you feel about this question now?

Now let’s first look at a real-life example that Allan Savory shared in a talk I attended in Melbourne in August 2013. Hearing him talk through this example really helped me appreciate how fast and easy it is to move through the testing questions. A problem required a decision. The problem was at a game park site in Africa where the private dirt road leading from the main highway to the game reserve headquarters was filling with potholes and becoming bumpy to the point that the drivers of the cars full of tourists were starting to complain.

Take One

The most obvious solution was to have the road graded, so they decided to test this decision, applying the testing questions as follows. Note I’m using the above rephrasings of the question names here, though Savory’s ordering. I am also working from the notes I took while Savory spoke so these are not direct quotes but my potentially fuzzy rememberings:

The Root Cause Question

If we grade the road are we dealing with a symptom or the cause of the problem? We are addressing a symptom of things including poor alignment, drainage, bumps. All grading does is scrape off bumps. So we are not happy with grading from the perspective of this question. Move on.

The Weak Link Question

Would grading the road create a social weak link? – no, not as far as we know.  A biological weak link? This is only relevant when dealing with a prevalence or rarity issue with an organism – so not relevant – move on.  A weak link in the chain of production? – Don’t know (okay to say that or not sure). Move on.

The Thrust or Greatest Thrust Question

Not comparing actions so not relevant (as I’ll explain below Savory only applies this test when comparing two actions, whereas in our adaptation we also consider it even when a single action is being tested).

The Most Profitable Enterprise Question

Not comparing enterprises so not relevant.

The Energy/Money Source and Use Question

Grading the road will be addictive – we will have to repeat in future as we are addressing a symptom and not a cause. The energy will come from fossil fuels and will be entering an ongoing pattern of use and dependence. What about money – where will the money come from? (Let’s just be aware of where it’s coming from). Now where will it go? It will leave our bioregion with the grader.

The Future Resource Base Question

Will grading enhance or take away from our future resource base?  It would lead away as the erosion would continue and part of the future resource base we depend on is stable access ways.

The Gut Feeling Question

So far the questions have been all about what we think, but having given attention to various aspects, we will make the decision based on what we feel. Interesting, we don’t feel so good about this anymore. Maybe we should test the other option that we earlier dismissed, that we could employ locals to do the work manually?

Take Two

Okay, we’ve come back to the earlier dismissed suggestion about paying for locals to hand dig road.

The Root Cause Question

Yes we are addressing causes – because the work would happen by hand it becomes possible to improve the drainage, alignment and so on, in other words to address the road cause of the problem.

The Weak Link Question

No chance of creating a social weak link that we’re aware of, if anything we’d be strengthening links to do with creating local employment.

The Thrust or Greatest Thrust Question

Not comparing actions so not relevant.

The Best Enterprise Question

Not comparing enterprises so not relevant.

The Energy/Money Source and Use Question

In this case the energy to power the workers would be solar energy (via the food they eat) and hence not creating an addiction to a finite resource. What about the money? It would come from the same place but where will it go? If dug by hand by locals in would remain in the community. Indeed, some may directly cycle back through our cafe and shop etc.

The Future Resource Base Question

Yes we’d be improving this not to mention the community flow-on effects of creating local employment (less crime etc).

The Gut Feeling Question

Hey we feel really good about this!

So, having filtered the decision using the testing question they realised the at first untenable option of paying locals to repair the road by hand was actually the decision most consistent with their holistic context, so that is what they did.

To further flesh out how the testing questions are applied, consider another real-life example Savory shared in Holistic Management (p. 328):

“Chris Knippenberg’s mother had offered to give her a horse that her two children could ride. All Chris and her husband Phil had to do was pay the cost of having the horse shipped from her parents’ ranch in Colorado to their farm in Vermont. Chris immediately started pricing transportation, which turned out to be expensive, but the horse was after all a gift, and the horse itself would be free.

“I was a phone call away from hiring the shippers,” says Chris, “when Phil suggested we test taking the horse against not taking it.Well, the gift horse started failing all the tests, particularly the financial ones. This horse wasn’t going to earn us any income on the farm; it would require feed and possibly new fencing and even a shelter. And we knew almost nothing about taking care of horses.”

But the society and culture test clinched their decision. “We want to have a close, caring family where we do things together. With one horse and four people, we would not be able to enjoy it as a family.The horse would be yet another solitary pursuit for one of us. It would take time and resources away from us, rather than bring us together.”

In figuring out how to break the news to Chris’s mother, they noted that their quality of life included strengthening ties with their extended family. “It dawned on us that for the price of shipping the horse out here to Vermont, we could instead afford to fly the whole family out to my parents’ ranch for a week, and spend time with them. They have lots of horses, and all the facilities and expertise, and we could spend a week riding horses together as a family. I was amazed at how clearly the testing enabled us to see what was so obviously the right decision for us.” If you have been slightly overwhelmed by all the factors considered in each of the seven tests, I hope the above example demonstrates how easily and quickly most day-to-day decisions can be made.”

A VEG Decision Making Example

I think examples are the best way of getting a the hang of using the testing questions (and how simple it is to do after a few tries), and the more the merrier, so in the clip below I share how a few weeks back my co-director Adam Grubb and I made a relatively significant decision as to how we invest about 400 hours of our time later in the year. In this clip you’ll also get a feel for how we have refined a version and order of the testing questions that best works for us, based on our past experience.

Not getting too Carried Away

One final point to make here is don’t get too carried away with the import of the testing questions. The success of applying Holistic Management hinges more than anything on the extent to which the decision makers have a genuinely shared commitment to the holistic context. As Savory puts it, “your holistic context is more important to decision making than an infinite understanding of each of the tests will ever be. And as you increasingly gain commitment to achieving your holistic context, most of the decisions you make, even if you do not consciously test them, will automatically tend to take you toward it. If half the readers of this book were to learn the testing guidelines to perfection and could run through them with 100 percent accuracy, but had a holistic context to which they only paid lip service, they would fare no better than before. If the other half were committed to a holistic goal in which they had a great deal of ownership, but could only perform the testing with 10 percent accuracy, I would back their decisions every time” (Holistic Management, pp. 271-272)

Furthermore, “as you become increasingly familiar with the seven tests through practice and begin to appreciate their value, you will automatically start to test every decision you make” (p. 270).

A New Perspective on Decisions

In this clip I talk about how my perspective toward decisions has changed in the process of managing VEG and other wholes I am part of holistically. Decisions have become precious and enjoyable – how about that!

Getting Back in the Game and Staying Open to Feedback

A crucial aspect of managing holistically pertains to what happens not only after you have articulated your holistic context, but after you have used it to make a decision, and you have acted on that decision. All the above work can come to nothing if you do not keep in mind that your decision, in spite of having tested it holistically, might be wrong, and that if it is wrong, you need to pick up on this early on and take action. Here is a diagram capturing how we think about this essential feedback loop:

 

Consider several quotations from Holistic Management where Savory explains the relevance of this final, crucial step in managing holistically (using slightly different language):

“Once a plan is made, monitoring becomes essential because even though the decisions involved have been tested, events rarely unfold exactly as planned. Monitoring can mean many different things, but in Holistic Management it means looking for deviations from the plan for the purpose of correcting them” (p. 335).

“In any situation we manage, we should be monitoring in order to make happen what we want to happen, to bring about desired changes in line with a holistic goal.The word plan becomes a twenty-four-letter word: plan-monitor-control-replan, with positive action following each step. All hope of reaching any goal or objective without great deviation or waste depends on this process: Once a plan is made, it is then monitored. If results begin to deviate from what was planned, then control is instituted and the deviation is brought back to plan. Sometimes events go beyond our control, and there is a need to replan” (pp. 335-336)

“When your monitoring shows that no change has occurred where change was planned, or if any change occurs that is adverse to plan, and thus your holistic context, take action immediately. If control is quick, a simple adjustment may be all you need to get back on track” (p. 336)

“A plan, no matter how sound, serves little purpose unless its implementation is monitored and deviations are controlled. Otherwise, even assuming no lapses at all in management, unpredictable events sooner or later render the best plan irrelevant or even destructive. Some will ask, “Then why plan in the first place?” We must plan, monitor, control, and replan simply because it is the only way we can make happen what we have said in our holistic context we want to see happen” (p. 341).

VEG Problem Solving Process Summary

Drawing on everything we have now covered above, here is how we approach problems these days.

  1. Clarify the situation and get on the same page about it. Research or otherwise gain relevant missing information as necessary.
  2. Brainstorm and note all possible solutions we can come up with. Unleash our collaborative creativity!
  3. Use our holistic context and if necessary the testing questions like a blowtorch to whittle down the solutions and ultimately choose one or a combination
  4. Enact our solution and monitor for any evidence that it was not appropriate or it is deviating from plan in which case act to get it back on track or make a new decision

The Tick-Dash-Cross Technique – Using your Holistic Context to Conduct Rapid Organisational Health Audits

In this clip I talk through a technique we have started using that is made very easy with a diagrammatic portrayal of one’s holistic context.

Conclusion

I am captivated by the depth and scope of Holistic Management and its potential to facilitate our trajectories through the massive cultural transformation we are right now all in the midst of. We started using it as a business management tool. My wife and I have since used it in guiding the directions of our young family, I am increasingly using it in managing my life, in forming new ventures, and in facilitating its adoption and use with a non-profit organisation, a farm, and various other groups. I don’t need any more convincing. It works, it (or anything else that does what it does) is a key part of the solution human beings desperately need to navigate not only current circumstances but the, well, let us say interesting times ahead, and though I don’t think it is the whole story, my spine did tingle when I read Allan Savory stating:

I would stake my life on the premise that if millions of humans in all walks of life would merely start making decisions holistically, toward holistic contexts they are genuinely committed to achieving, most of the problems we face would evaporate (p. 272).

I do hope that this article has been of some value for you, and that it has shed light on the holistic context behind VEG’s every move. Finally, I very warmly welcome any feedback or corrections any of you out there would be kind enough to offer me. Thanks for reading, and may that we will all continue to improve at making decisions that take us where we most deeply want to be, including a world that benefits, rather than suffers, by having us around.