For a long time, I have observed my own recoil from having to deal with managing finances. I understand the basic concepts well enough and can do the basic math required but I have never, until recently that is, been inspired or engaged by financial accounting. With more observation I’ve begun to identify this as a critical link in the chain of successful permaculture implementation.
While working at Wheatsville Co-op in Austin, Texas I was introduced to a new system of financial management with implications far beyond just numbers. With the second largest team in the store and a responsibility over 53% of store sales, engaging staff in the success of the department was critical to the success of the whole store. As a co-operative business, we already had several advantages over our competitors in the arena of staff engagement. But when we introduced Open Book Management the entire “game” changed, nearly over night!
Observations from Wheatsville
Managing anything has inherent challenges. Some of the challenges I faced as a manager at Wheatsville before the implementation of our Open Book Management strategy, I thought of as part of these inherent challenges. Things like: understanding departmental and organizational goals; engagement in meetings and daily routine tasks; creative and proactive problem solving; communication and training; understanding the bigger picture and seeing all the details that make it up; motivation to grow and take on more responsibility; peer accountability; and the desire to always do ones best – all these things I thought were simply inherent and perennial challenges to managing anywhere. If you have ever been a manager… you likely look at that list with a knowing nod of agreement. After a very short period of time practicing Open Book Management however, I discovered these were system challenges that simply required a system design to overcome.
Within a few short weeks of implementing a storewide OB Management system these dynamics within personnel began to shift. Even among long time managers a marked change was evident. Observing this shift, and the potentials being presented within it, I quickly mobilized to implement this strategy on a departmental level.
Almost over night, many of the management challenges I once thought of as inherent began to dissipate. Individual employees, even if not directly engaged in the weekly meetings, seemed to have a better understanding of departmental goals, take more ownership of their work, were more engaged, communicative and motivated, and even seemed to be holding each other accountable. Through this experience I began to observe my own role shift from one of a manager, in the most traditional sense, to a facilitator that simply provided guidance and support to an already engaged and knowledgable staff.
Observations from the Permaculture Research Institute
After leaving Wheatsville Co-op to study Permaculture abroad I was quickly struck by the reality of how progressive and ahead of the curve this new management strategy was. Even in the world of highly progressive and radical ecological restoration, people on the cutting edge of regenerative design science, there appeared to be a very dramatic link missing in the chain.
At the PRI I observed many of the same management challenges I had seen before but now I was equipped with the understanding that these challenges were not actually inherent, or even necessary. Further, it seemed the lack of financial transparency and clarity had created challenges to the Institute’s place within the broader community.
My time at the Permaculture Research Institute was a time of learning. I was a student there and not a manager, or facilitator. I had no leverage to create system changes, nor did I feel confident enough that these systems could be adapted to fit the needs of this organization. At this point, I was simply observing how different this experience was for me when compared to my recent experiences within an Open Book Management framework.
Observations at Rak Tamachat
I had no idea what to expect when I arrived on site at Rak Tamachat in Thailand. Here was a 50 acre Thai farm with only the beginning foundations of infrastructure in place to support a community living, farm transitioning education and training centre. We had a Master Design plan from Terra Genesis International that provided some guidance and a very generous client who was ready to fund the community over the course of the next three years. Beyond that, we had a blank slate.
Hired as a manager and excited about the experiences and tools I’d picked up from working at Wheatsville and the PRI, I was tasked with managing finances and devising systems that would take us on the path toward financial sustainability.
Many elements of this living situation were new to me and required a lot of observation to understand and base my design work. Again, even despite the excitement and motivation of the early days on this new project, many of the same challenges observed in past experiences became apparent. Over time, as the initial excitement began to wane, these challenges grew and became even more apparent.
But, in addition to the challenges I observed resurfacing from past experiences, there was a whole new set of challenges that seemed to revolve around the unique circumstances of community living. As we settled into our new environment, many of the common challenges of community living situations began to surface.
Communities of this sort have an appalling failure rate. The majority of communities fail within a few short years of their establishment for various reasons… many of them having to do with decision making structures, shared vision and goals, communication and financial instability. The longer we stayed onsite, even despite the strong attention we placed on many of these factors and the family like community we had cultivated, these challenges became more evident and more threatening with each passing day.
I knew, based on my past experiences with Open Book Management, that a robust financial plan and a bit of game theory would go a long way to resolving these, and likely many other challenges that had yet to arise within our community. I also knew, that there would be some very interesting challenges to implementing Open Book Management within this new environment. This is the edge of design and, to my knowledge, a completely new approach to some age old challenges within community living and eco-village design.
Jump to the Goals and Analysis section to learn more.