Challenging Monocultures via Crop Rotation

Agricultural scientists are advocating a return to crop rotation. They argue that if farmers diversify what they grow each season, they can achieve more sustainable environmental and economic outcomes. Whereas, industrial-scale, intensive and single crop farming depletes the soil, and requires the use of expensive (and potentially harmful) pesticides and chemical fertilizers. In short, monocultures are self-limiting and ultimately self-destructive.

Indoor salad garden, Itoya department store, Ginza, Japan (Photo © Rory Manchee, all rights reserved)

Indoor salad garden, Itoya department store, Ginza, Japan (Photo © Rory Manchee, all rights reserved)

The same concept applies to teams and organisations. If we only associate with people who look, talk, sound, think and act like us, we not only risk group-think, we also promote unconscious collective bias. While it might seem comfortable to only deal and interact with “people like us”, it creates unrealistic cognitive and cultural homogeneity.

I understand why we often talk about “finding our tribe”, but for me, I find connections and shared values among several tribes: partly because no single community can provide for all our needs; partly because at their worst, monocultures can result in in-breeding….

One antidote to organisational monocultures is to promote diversity (especially cognitive diversity), so you mix up the elements that make up a team or an entity. Another solution (a bit like crop rotation itself) is to alternate and rotate roles on a project, within a team or at the executive level. (Some corporate boards already practise this.)

I once had a marvellous CEO who liked to boast that he had worked in every department within the company, from editorial to production, from sales to marketing. Not only did he have a more complete view of the organisation, he also had a much better understanding of how to get each department to collaborate.

At the individual level, alternating roles within the organisation can help them to acquire new skills, develop fresh perspectives, build different networks, gain valuable experience, and avoid going stale.

If you are uncomfortable with the horticultural or biological analogies, then perhaps the work of Michael Simmons is more palatable. From his research, “simply being in an open network instead of a closed one is the best predictor of career success”.*

Another way of looking at this notion of “crop rotation” is through the lens of a corporate turnaround, or a company trying to move from start-up to scale-up.

In the former scenario, the owners, board and CEO recognise that they need to bring in different people, even if only on a short-term basis, to help them:

  • Review the status quo objectively
  • Identify new ideas and fresh thinking
  • Enhance in-house skills and resources
  • Apply a circuit-breaker to unblock the stalemate
  • Join the dots between different parts of the organisation, the market and the client base

In the latter situation, bringing in specialist advisers, or “pop-up boards”, can:

  • Provide an injection of strategic focus
  • Develop a dynamic business planning process
  • Ramp up capacity or capability in a very short space of time
  • Open up new networks or provide access to capital, resources and markets
  • Expand the team’s “bench strength” at critical times

As an independent consultant with a portfolio of interests, I provide an interim resource to my clients, fulfilling different roles depending on their specific requirements. I also serve on pop-up and advisory boards.  And because I am naturally curious, and like to immerse myself in different ideas, I am an “open networker”, meaning that I engage and connect with different people across the various groups of which I am a member. Where I increasingly add value is in joining the dots between otherwise unconnected or seemingly disparate elements.

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* Thanks to Jessica Stillman at Inc.Com for bringing this article to my attention