Holistic Management in Practice: Condition-making

Tré Cates, managing director at nRhythm, explains how Holistic Management can create the correct conditions for positive, meaningful change in natural and social environments.

There is so much I could write about Holistic Management or, as Allan Savory says, “Managing Holistically.” The work and friendship of Allan, Daniela Howell, and many more Holistic Management educators and practitioners have profoundly impacted my life. I am truly grateful! 

I have spent much of my career starting and managing organizations. However, in late 2009, a friend of Daniela introduced me to the Savory Institute. This chance introduction changed the trajectory of my life. I did not grow up on a ranch or a farm. My agricultural experience was limited to opening gates in a pasture on my way to the fishing hole. Despite my lack of knowledge, I was invited to join a group of people passionate about restoring the world’s grasslands!  

Not long after joining the Savory team, I realized how this approach could impact organizational management. However, I had yet to gain experience applying this work. So, I spent the next several years learning, observing, and implementing Holistic Management in natural and social environments.  

I would like to share the wisdom I gained one day from Allan. The specific conversation we had was momentous. While walking together at the Africa Center for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe, we noticed a plant species that many land managers and scientists would consider undesirable. The plant was thriving. A typical management approach would be eliminating it using technology or a tool. As you know, Allan is not a typical land manager or scientist. What he said next changed my life forever. He asked this simple question: “What conditions were needed for that plant to emerge?” Now, you might think there’s nothing special about the question. But it was paradigm-shifting for me. 

Most of our strategies and management approaches are designed and implemented with a single goal: productivity. With this view, the immediate eradication of the plant would be more important than understanding the conditions or context for why it was thriving in that specific place and time. Instead of focusing on what I did not want, Allan’s question shifted my attention to thinking about how the existing conditions contributed to the life of undesirable vegetation. I realized that if we desire different outcomes in the landscape, we must change the conditions to create better outcomes. This was the exact moment I gained insight into the flows and cycles of ecological function. In a living system, outcomes are natural consequences of ecological conditions. In understanding this holistic, interdependent living system, I began comprehending the power of changing conditions. We have the power to change conditions through our decision-making.

As most of our systems are designed based on our industrialized success, we have refined our management to just tweaking the mechanics. We think within what I call the max/min principle. All of this is rooted in a linear process engineered by great mechanistic thinkers who aim to maximize productivity while minimizing inefficiencies. However, this is not a mechanistic problem but one of complexity, with many interdependent relationships with emergent outcomes. Seeing the deep interrelated connections, we understand why some species thrive and others do not. If we change those conditions, we change the outcomes. The typical management approach only addresses symptoms. This may be a perfect solution for complicated mechanical problems, but not complex ones. What would have happened if Allan had used glyphosate to blast the unwanted plant? He would have killed it without changing any of the conditions that created it in the first place. This sounds like many of our experiences establishing national policies! In contrast, Allan refocused my energy and attention on the health of the landscape and why undesirable species were thriving there.  

Now, let us consider all our social and organizational systems as complex. What could we do differently because most of our management approaches are designed to address mechanical, complicated problems? We could see our current issues through a living system lens. Consider the behaviors of specific staff, customers, or partners. Would their behavior change if we shifted the conditions? When most organizations are designed to benefit a few individuals, why are we surprised by the adverse reactions of staff or customers? Our current educational, economic, and societal designs create conditions for short-term, opportunistic thinking, resulting in unhealthy, unintended consequences. What if we changed the underlying conditions? How can we alter the existing conditions to achieve more equality and equity? How can we create conditions that result in healthy soils and waterways? How can we modify conditions to ensure engaged, thriving communities? Finally, what conditions are needed for robust local economies?

This shift in perspective is pivotal: a watershed moment. The more we recognize the need to be condition-makers, the more the outcomes will take care of themselves. Holistic Management has always been about condition-making through our individual and collective decisions. I leave you with this parting question: “What decision can you make today that will begin to create the conditions for the abundance you want to experience in the world?”