Farming as a Metaphor for Workplace Culture

Michael Wade has an interesting post considering how non-agricultural workplaces can resemble farms.

Workplace cultures are in large part a reflection of the underlying metaphor driving the organization, whether by design or chance. When much younger, I used and advocated the “business is war” metaphor. I have been much more successful (and much less stressed) organizing around a farming metaphor. For truth, there can be times of battle on the farm that, as in the war metaphor, require the immediate and drastic mobilization of resources: the barn is on fire, the locus are coming, a tornado approaches. Life on the farm is more than endless summer days spent blissfully feeding magic ponies and dancing under rainbows. One must be prepared to “take up arms” and employ non-farm related tools and tactics in order to deal with any short term crisis that may occur.


Photo by Lucy Chian on Unsplash

The World Needs More Booths

Remember face-to-face conversation? You know, sharing thoughts, talking through concerns, sketching out ideas, and having intelligent discussions without the overblown internet persona outrage? You have instant feedback through facial expressions, tone of voice, and spoken word. You have instant ability to clarify a particular point, on the spot. You get a better “read” of where the other person is coming from. And, you get better engagement in the conversation. – Rick Knowles

Conference rooms, court rooms, hospital rooms, elevators – these are some examples where the space presupposes a particular way of behaving and communicating (or, in the case of elevators, not communicating.) The informal setting of a booth, however, allows for a comfortable space to let some of the usual barriers to conversation fall away.

 

Many of the most memorable conversations and exchanges of ideas in my life happened in restaurant booths. They weren’t all good, but most of them were and all of them were important. Add in a good cup of coffee and they can be incredibly creative spaces. Perhaps it’s just a lucky spacial anchor thing. However it happened, the result is that booths, particularly coffee shop booths, are my go-to spaces for near-instant solace and creativity. So much so that when we kicked off a major home renovation some years ago it included, among many other things, a breakfast booth off the kitchen. The design of the booth was completed by the same designer/builder of the booths at Racine’s Restaurant – perhaps my second all-time favorite Third Place behind The Market. (Sadly, neither Racine’s or The Market survived the government lockdowns of 2020.)


(Image credit: johnny_automatic)

Root Causes

The sage business guru Willie Sutton might answer the question “Why must we work so hard at digging to finding the causes to our problems?” by observing “Because that’s where the roots are.”
Digging to find root causes is hard work. They’re are rarely obvious and there’s never just one. Occasionally, you might get lucky and trip over an obvious root cause (obvious once you’ve tripped over it.) Most often, it’ll require some unknown amount of exploration and experimentation.

Even so, I’ve watch as people work very hard to avoid the hard work needed to find root causes or fail to acknowledge them even when they are wrapped around their ankles. It’s an odd form of bikeshedding whereby the seemingly obvious major issues are ignored in favor of issues that are much easier to identify, explain, or understand.

One thing is certain, you’ll know you’ve found a root cause when one of two things happen: You implement a change meant to correct the issue and a whole lot of other things get fixed as a result or there is noisy and aggressive resistance to change.

Poor morale, for example, is often a presenting symptom mistaken for a root cause. The inexperienced (or lazy) will throw fixes at poor morale like money, happy hours, or other trinkets. These work in the very short term and have their place in a manager’s toolbox, but eventually more money becomes the new low pay and more alcohol has it’s own very steep downside.

Morale is best understood as a signal for measuring the health of the underlying system. Poor morale is a signal that a whole lot of things are going wrong and that they’ve been going wrong for an extended period of time. By leveraging a system dynamics approach, it’s relatively easy to make some educated guesses about where the root causes may be. That’s the easy part.

The hard work lies with figuring out what interventions to implement and determining how to measure whether or not the changes are having the desired effect. A positive shift in morale would certainly be one of the indicators. But since it is a lagging indicator on the scale of months, it would be important to include several other measures that are more closely associated with the selected interventions.

There are other systemic symptoms that are relatively easy to identify and track. Workforce turnover, rework, and delays in delivery of high dependency work products are just a couple of examples. Each of these would suggest a different approach needed to resolve the underlying issues and restore balance to the system dynamics behind a team or organization’s performance.