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An evolution, not an event: how the WSU/Kellogg project started and where it's going

Don Nelson is the principal architect and project director of the WSU/Kellogg holistic management training project. The following are excerpts from a recent conversation.

This has been an evolution over a long time. When I first got this job here as an Extension Beef Specialist at Washington State University in 1989, I developed a program in the state of Washington called Strategic Ranch Management. It was a four-day training program that took a whole-ranch approach, looking at all aspects of the operation and trying to get the big picture first before we got down into managing the details. It included goals and purpose.

About 1990 was when I took my first holistic management course. I took all of the courses that were available and I started building more and more of holistic management into the Strategic Ranch Management program.

I had a team I was working with farm management specialists, Natural Resource Conservation Service people, forage and range people, veterinarians and so on. We were taking a team approach to doing the program. When I initially proposed these four-day programs my extension counterparts said, "that's a great idea, but, first of all, you're not going to get ranchers to spend four days at a program, and secondly, you're sure not going to get them to pay $250 to come." Based on traditional extension programs, that's probably a fair statement. But I said, if you give them something you want and need, and they feel it's a good value, I think they'll be there.

I did nine of those programs over four and a half years. I had about 180 ranchers and some agency people go through these programs. I never had one of the participants say the program was too long or cost too much.

The more of these I did, the more holistic the approach became. Then I became aware of the initiative the Kellogg Foundation was funding called Integrated Farming Systems. I started putting the concept paper together, and I put together a team of people I had been working with in the Strategic Ranch Management program to come up with a collaborative proposal.

Kellogg came back and asked us for a full proposal. We had initially proposed a three-year project, and Kellogg came out to WSU. They wanted to have some evidence of commitment and collaboration and also administrative support in the university here, but also producer support and participation. We had 26 people in the meeting--wall-to-wall people, and a good representation of ranchers. One person from Kellogg made a comment after she had heard the discussion for a while, "Just let me summarize for a minute what I'm hearing here. The object or purpose of this project is to demonstrate that holistic management works."

Dave Duncan raised his hand and said, "Excuse me, ma'am, we aren't going to demonstrate that it works. We know that it works. I've been using it for eight plus years. What we want to do is to expand that circle and to get more people using holistic decision making." They were fairly impressed with that statement. Right there on the spot they recommended we extend this from three years to four, just because of the scope of what we're trying to do.

They were looking for projects that had a strong leadership component and that were focusing on institutional change and policy development. Institutional change is definitely something that Kellogg sees as important. One of the big challenges relative to institutions is the land-grant university system.

Change is a challenge, because there is a lot of inertia in organizations this size, and also when you don't have 100 percent commitment from people at the top of the organization, that makes it even more difficult to initiate change. My belief is that you've got to be patient. For change to occur in big bureaucratic institutions, the motivation or pressure will usually have to come from the outside. We talk about transformational change, and that starts at the belief level--the assumptions of how the world operates. Typically the pressures from inside result in mere modifications--you change some strategies and actions. It's like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The ship's still sinking but things are a lot neater.

This transformational change, about getting the pressure from outside--we're keeping up a presence internally, doing some facilitating, that keeps things moving--but our real focus is building the capacity of the people that we're working with on the outside that are constituents, stakeholders in this institution, that are feeding back into this institution, saying you need to be doing more of what we're doing in this project. That will create more movement over time. Transformational change comes from outside.

Lessons learned

Sometimes the things that are most challenging provide some of the bigger lessons. One of the things is, don't get pushy. Be visible, be available, demonstrate some success, and leave the door open so that people can come in when they're ready. You've got to start with people where they are. Initially some of this stuff is pretty threatening--whether it's fear, whether it's fear of loss of power, whatever it might be. The other thing is, the more you can avoid naming a process, at least initially, and let people experience some of the positive things, then they become more interested in learning in more detail what it was, and what they did. But if you say, okay, we're going to use Holistic Management, this is the only way to make decisions--inferring that they've been making decisions wrong all of their life--right away, you set up this resistance, and it's counterproductive. You can't separate the process from the product--they're part of the same whole. To get so hung up on the process, or a process, I think diverts people away from what the real purpose is.

When you start moving the way you want to go, right away you create restraining forces within the organization. For one reason or another, there are things that are trying to hold you back from moving forward. One way to approach that is just mount a massive assault and try to overwhelm the restraining forces. One thing that does, it strengthens the restraining forces right off the bat. Secondly, you can't keep up that massive assault for very long. When you weaken and start dropping back, you get pushed back to where you were, or maybe even further back than where you started from.

The other approach that seems to be more effective is to maintain that driving pressure and then work around behind to remove some of those restraining forces. Even if you don't convert them, if you can just keep them from resisting, and then once in a while you'll get a convert that provides more energy to drive forward.

In chaotic and complex systems, there's no one simple answer for what you're trying to accomplish. There's a lot of things working together to create movement.

Another strength is, what we're doing is based on fundamental laws and principles that apply universally--it doesn't make any difference whether you're talking about managing natural resources, working in a community, families, organizations, whatever--these basic principles of human dynamics, and the fundamentals of how natural systems work--are universal. It's not something that you can only use in a small part of your life. So that's what really starts changing people. They find that once they internalize these things, they are changed as a result.

A lot of these concepts are foreign to people because they're somewhat abstract and ambiguous in terms of outcome or product. What is the product you're going to produce? We're not sure what it's going to look like, but we know what some of the characteristics are going to be.

Form needs to follow function. You need to determine what your function is, what your purpose is, and the structure ought to be something that is consistent with that outcome. Oftentimes we take an existing structure and it doesn't fit, and it's hard to change it.

One focus of the project is training the trainers. The other focus is creating networks, creating relationships, creating trust so that you've expanded your circle of influence.

When we sent out applications to get participants for this project, one of the things we asked was a commitment. In return for the investment that the project was going to make in these people in terms of building their individual capacities, we asked for a commitment from them to serve as role models, mentors, and teachers of others. We need a big team of people out there to make this happen. We've all got our own influences in different circles. There's been an emphasis on the statewide network, the regional network, and the management support groups within those regions.

It goes way beyond building capacity in individuals, but that's where it starts. That's consistent with Covey's approach, which is holistic--it starts at the personal level, and then moves to the interpersonal, managerial, and then organizational. The individuals are the ones that are going to have to take responsibility to start making things happen. It's going to take a group of interdependent people to really get to where they want to go. The diversity is important, the synergy that comes out of that.

We're not trying to do this in a year. It's an evolution, a process. We're creating a learning organization. All of us involved with this project have been changed as a result. This is a process, not an event. The vision is that this is going to continue on in some form after the Kellogg funding is gone. The impacts and the relationships and the positive outcomes, the desired outcomes that are being created--people are not going to want to go back to where they started from. One way or another, we're going to keep this alive and moving.