What Permaculture Can Teach Us About Organizational Design
I moved into my first house with a yard just before the pandemic, which means that getting deeply into gardening was inevitable. This is when I discovered the gardening approach that spoke to me most: permaculture.
Permaculture, or “permanent agriculture,” is a way of growing plants that aims to work with natural systems rather than against them to minimize maintenance and maximize plant health and productivity. For the remainder of this article, please note that I’m a permaculture newbie and this article should not be used as a source for gardening advice.
Earlier this year, I started reading Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway, an excellent overview of the practice of permaculture. It frames the approach as a design methodology rather than a set of prescriptive rules. As a designer, I was intrigued. Hemenway notes that the principles of permaculture can be applied to almost any kind of organization. This is because, whether we like it or not, human and workplace cultures are just as much natural systems as forests or grasslands, and when we work with nature rather than against it, those systems thrive.
Here are some of those permaculture principles, and how I see them applying equally well to a company’s Design Operations.
1. “Observe: Use protracted and thoughtful observation rather than prolonged and thoughtless action. Design for specific sites, clients, and cultures.”
From a design practitioner’s perspective, this one’s a no-brainer, yet so many companies get it wrong. When you’re evaluated on your ability to meet quarterly revenue goals, it’s easy to become biased toward action, even if that action isn’t productive or well-considered. Good design is 90% learning and 10% doing.
2. “Connect: Place the elements of your design in ways that create useful relationships and time-saving connections among all parts.”
Think of the “design” as the structure of a company. When different functions of that company are siloed, each silo has to be self-reliant, and the result is duplicative work and wasted effort. Communicating and sharing knowledge freely across roles and departments means greater efficiency and ultimately faster delivery.
3. “Each element performs multiple functions: Beneficial connections between diverse components create a stable whole.”
My job title is User Experience Designer. But I also write, program, present, delegate, plan, and make jokes. I’ve worked with people who could animate, edit videos, illustrate, design presentations, and much more. None of these things were in our job titles, but we did all of them at work. A great developer is a huge asset A great developer who can also advocate for the user and help manage a project can be transformational. No person is only skilled at the exact requirements in their job description. Give your team members the freedom to exercise all their skills and watch the team flourish.
4. “Each function is supported by multiple elements: Redundancy protects when one or more elements fail.”
Everyone’s worked on a team where there’s that One Person who knows everything. The person who absolutely cannot quit, or else the entire project/division/company is in trouble. Democratizing your team’s knowledge and skill set isn’t just insurance against turnover, it also allows junior team members to grow in their roles. Sharing knowledge ensures that projects can continue to move forward even when your subject matter expert is out on vacation.
5. “Make the least change for the greatest effect. Understand the system you are working with enough to find its ‘leverage points’ and intervene there.”
Building design maturity in an established organization is a perennial (some pun intended) challenge in the DesignOps community. It seems the initial instinct in DesignOps is to implement a sweeping, comprehensive, multi-step, multi-disciplinary plan that must be deployed simultaneously across every business unit. This is a result of lots of good observational research where one identifies a long list of problems that need to be addressed. And because no one loves matching problems to solutions like a designer.
But even if that approach works in some areas, it will inevitably fail in others. Failed initiatives mean wasted time and energy, and potentially wasted goodwill from the people you’re trying to influence.
A better approach is to analyze the existing system and figure out what change will have the greatest impact. For example, if there’s one senior developer whose opinion is highly valued by the rest of the development team, work to make them an evangelist for user-centered design. If there’s a standard review process that all projects go through, add a UXD review checkpoint. Then evaluate how well each intervention worked and try another.
6. “Optimize edge: The edge—the intersection of two environments—is the most diverse place in a system and is where energy and materials accumulate or are translated.”
I love this one the most because of its deceptive simplicity. The first thing that comes to mind when you think of an edge in a company is the boundaries between roles. The borders between design and development and product and leadership. When people have to communicate across roles, there’s always energy. That energy isn’t always pleasant, necessarily, but even if there is disagreement or conflict, that’s where creativity thrives.
When roles are insulated from each other, each can become stagnant. If Design is unchecked by Development, ideas become impractical and unachievable. Development without Design input becomes human-unfriendly, complex, and unattractive. Any product creation without the input of business leadership is misaligned with strategic goals. And a business that’s run without the input of its employees can become myopic and uninspired.
Creating those edges can be as simple as a weekly or daily cross-functional meeting, seating people from different roles next to each other in the office, having everyone share a common Slack channel, or all of the above. As Hemenway states, “materials” will accumulate there. These organizational edges help form shared understanding, direction, and consensus and make the entire company stronger.
Work With Nature, Not Against It
There’s endless inspiration we can take from the natural world when it comes to making organizations healthier and more productive. The last thing I’ll note is that if you walk into your garden and see your prized peonies wilting or a spruce dropping its needles, you don’t think “Well, I’ll just continue what I was doing and they’ll get better,” do you? Of course not! You think, “What’s causing this? What interventions can I take to remedy the situation?” And if there’s nothing you can do to fix it, you conclude that maybe peonies and spruces aren’t right for your garden. Maybe you should try dahlias and junipers instead. Or perhaps we can help.
The greatest lesson permaculture can teach us is to think critically about the systems we create and operate within, and be ready to adapt to them if needed. Don’t struggle against nature; learn to work with it and watch your garden thrive.
About Cathy Fisher
Cathy Fisher is the Senior User Experience Designer at Nine Labs. She’s worked at startups and in enterprise healthcare technology for the past decade, wearing the hats of designer, developer, and manager as needed. She’s worked intensively on building design systems, developing organizational design maturity, and mentoring other designers. Her passions include weird inside jokes, developing handy tools, and naming icons correctly.
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