Designed to Fail: Avoiding Projects that are Doomed to Low Engagement

Hands down, this has got to be the #1 reason why most “ethical or “green” projects, businesses, farms, non-profit organizations and activism efforts fail: We start on a road trip with no gas in the car and no plan to get any. 

And that was exactly the path to failure that Lillie House Permaculture was on when we decided to use the design process to rework how we organized our efforts. In this article I’ll tell you exactly where we were going wrong, and how Kim and I changed that to make our business and activism far more successful overnight. And without that change, I’m afraid Lillie House Permaculture would not have been long for this world. We had poor sales of our nursery stock, design services and produce (which mostly got composted,) and poor attendance of the classes we were offering for FREE. On multiple ocassions, we had a dozen or more people scheduled for a free class, which I would spend hours lesson planning and prepping materials for, and literally NO ONE would show up! We’d struggle long hours trying to organize people to implement a single Permaculture project or engage in some environmental cause and never seemed to get anywhere. Now, we have a supportive community and we feel proud that we’re supporting them in return. We’re supporting the creation of over a dozen forest garden projects just this year, and supplying them with thousands of dollars of plant stock and produce samples. We’re making a decent living charging for our classes and programs, and many of them sell out! We’re now offering our first few rounds of test-classes online, and so far, those have sold out, too. 


Last time, I discussed the Permaculture idea of “type 1 errors,” endeavors designed to fail. 
So this time, I want to discuss the most common type 1 error invovled in project design, businesses, non-profits and activism efforts: the failure to engage that too often leaves us burned out and cynical, stuck blaiming others for not caring enough, showing up or helping out. This is exactly the error we made in our programs. 
But what if we can turn that blame around and accept the feedback that people didn’t show up? Most of the time, people WANTED to show up, they cared about what we were doing, but when it came to prioritizing the time and resources, they simply had other priorities. 
Let’s face it, the modern world is tough, competitive, strapped for time and resources. 
So we realized that if we really want people to show up, we have to give them a good incentive, we have to make it so worth their while that they can’t NOT show up. In Permaculture, we call this principle “obtain a yield.” We’re not the only ones who need to put gas in our tank to get where we’re going. We have to design things so that volunteers and supporters can put gas in their tanks, too, because without that fuel, eventually they’re going to stop showing up. 
When we get that right, we’ve super-fueled our project so that like the sun, or a wildfire, in burning it creates its own fuel. 
Now, back to those projects that are destined to run out of gas. Look at this chart:
As you can see, the hortizontal axis at the bottom is pretty simple, with small numbers of people on the left, moving towards increasingly large numbers on the right. The vertical axis is more interesting, Intensity of Interest, how much people want to support something. When it comes to supporting our projects, there are really just two meaningful types of support we’re measuring here: volunteering and donating. Are people actually interested enough to give the project resources or volunteer time? How much they’re willing to give will depend upon how passionate they are about the cause or product. Low levels might be a few dollars or a few hours. Large levels of interest might equate to thousands of dollars or more, or perhaps people who want to make a living out of supporting our work. 
Based on that axis, we can put any project or product into one of these four quadrants:

By the way, this is our Permaculture adaptation of a common tool in business, used to test the viability of a business or product. It’s something that Kim and I have been discussing quite a bit, and it’s equally useful for testing the viability of any project or non-profit endeavor that needs more support than one person alone can provide. 
Lets look first at the upper right hand box. This is the promised land, and very rare. This is where you’ll have a large number of people willing to give a lot of time and support. For example: Houses. A very large number of people will actually work a significant portion of their lives for the priviliege of owning their own home. And in fact, most people in our society actually work providing goods or services in this category! Cars, refrigerators, washingmachines… if you have a project or product that falls into this category, congratuations, you’re pretty much guaranteed support and success. Unfortuantely, endeavors that fit this bill are very rare. 
Next, check out the lower right box. If your project is here, people might not be super excited about it, but they’re at least willing to give you a few bucks here in there. But luckily, there are many, many of them. For example, Coke, Pepsi, McDonalds, Starbucks. There are very few people who are passionate about giving their money or labor to these companies, but millions of people are passionate ENOUGH about their products to give them small amounts of money on a recurring basis. This quadrant also defines a large number of non-profit endeavors, especially the large aid organziations. 
Next, the upper left quadrant, where only small numbers of people are interested, but BOY ARE THEY EVER!!! In today’s world this is the most interesting quadrant, and with the internet and globalization connecting people like never before, this is the quadrant that is radically changing how funding and marketing work, as has been pointed out by many critics. Innovative projects might not be able to find large numbers of people to support them, but if you want tap into a few very passionate people, then you can accomplish a lot! These people may be “angel investors” willing to contribute large amounts of money, volunteers who’ll invest a lot of their time, or even folks who want to turn your cause into their own source of right livelihood. Often these are professional or career organizations, or passionate hobbies tied strongly to self-identity and personal development. The fact that they are so niche actually helps them build identify, since we define ourselves most strongly by these narrow interests. You know, things like homesteading or Permaculture….
And from a Permaculture perspective, efforts in all three of these quadrants USUALLY allow participants to “obtain a yield” – often fulfilling multiple needs. They may help people eat, find housing, meet potential mates or friends with similar values, find personal development, and search for identity. (Hint: people invest a great deal in their identity, and people associate their identity with niche lifestyles, compelling brands, and inspiring people.) 

 (Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs from Wikipedia.) 

And yet, most of our “good deed” efforts fall into the lower lefthand quadrant. This quadrant will have a small number of people with only a small amount of interest. Worse, we design our efforts to be one-directional in terms of support, with volunteers and doners doing all the giving and us doing all the taking. We don’t even make an effort to connect with their needs! There are a few people who may show up for an ocassional meeting or donate a few bucks, but unless your project can survive on that level of support, your project isn’t going to get far. 
But when you think about it, this makes perfect sense: we look around, we see something that seems important TO US, and notice that nobody is doing it, so we see an opening. Meanwhile, most of the stuff that would be in those other quadrants is already being done! There’s a reason why this stuff – even if it’s important – isn’t getting done. There’s just not enough interest. Which is why business start-up teacher Ramit Sethi calls this sector the “Labor of Love” sector, it only gets done with the love and sacrifice of one (or a few) individuals. 

This is even more common in the days of the internet! Why? Because on the internet we can find many people who share our passions, whether they’re community gardening or local produce, or climate change, so we start to assume there’s broader, deeper support in our own geographic area than there actually is. Everyone in our online community might think that community food forests are a great idea, but do the people in the neighborhood where we want to build one? Are they passionate enough (or have access to the resources) to chip in their time and money, or put up with maintenance or social problems that may occur? 

Most of the non-profits and community organizations I’ve ever been involved in or even personally organized myself have fallen into this lower left category! And in a lot of ways, this is exactly where Lillie House was a few years ago. 
“But this is important stuff! Somebody has to do it!” Well, maybe, maybe not. But is the answer to throw our hands up in the sky and curse humanity’s apathy?
Or can we redesign our efforts to better connect with people’s real needs and passions, provide real world opportunities that can motivate people to volunteer and contribute? 
So if you need support, you need to “sew your seed” in fertile ground to get it. I can say for sure that our success greatly improved when we started moving our efforts out of the “labor of love” box, and into other quadrants where we were more likely to get stuff done, and then designed a community around those efforts. 


Questions for your project:
1. Which category is your project in? 
2. How many potential supporters (customers) do you realistically have and how much do you expect them to contribute to your cause? 
3. Are you asking them to just give or just volunteer, or are they able to “obtain a yield” too? Is the project supporting them in a way they’ll be able to maintain their commitment? 
4. What real direct needs is the project meeting for its supporters and contributors? (Hint: more is better!)
5. If the project is in the lower right corner, is there a way you can also tap into more passionate individuals and offer them inventive to support the project at a high level? 
6. If the project is in the upper left corner, is there a product or service you can offer to meet the needs of a more mass-market audience? This entry level could help build a pool of new “high level” supporters while tapping into broader support. 

Why Our Best Efforts Fail

You just want to do something good for your community, something that will help feed people and demonstrate what people can accomplish when they work together. So you apply for a grant and turn a dumpy old waste lot into a community garden! But if your community garden is like most, what you get is arguments, complaints of theft, untended, weedy pest-ridden plots that neighbors and city commissioners complain about, fist fights, racial tensions and 2 years later it’s back to being an empty lot. No surprise, really, as some experts believe over 90% of community gardens fail in a few years time. And stories of theft and violence are common among experienced community gardeners and organizations alike.  
Or maybe you decide to start a small farm, because our food system is fubar and you want to make a difference while feeding people healthy food in your own community! You do a bit of math and see that with nearly perfect yields and boutique CSA prices you’ll be able to make $5,000 in a summer – enough to pay your bills – what could go wrong? As it turns out? Everything: a few crops fail completely in the spring drought, insects and weeds move in, unhappy CSA customers start leaving so you’re working 60+ hours a week trying to make up sales at the market and local restaurants, neighbors start complaining about the aesthetics of your over-run garden, you’re not actually paying your bills so you have to decide between employment elsewhere and fulfilling your CSA obligations…. The end result? A failed farm and a whole harvest of burnout. 
Or you try to start a non-profit to do who-knows-what for the good of the community. Everybody LOVES who-knows-what!!! You’re an immediate celebrity, with everyone congratuating you on doing the thing, and even the local news paper runs an article featuring you and your non-profit! So, you start looking for money and a board and all of a sudden, you find everyone’s really busy and they’re already giving their money to 4 other different organizations in town. You’ve only raised 1/10th of what you’ll need to do who-knows-what and after creating a waiting-list of would-be participants nobody showed up for your first volunteer day. Without funding everyone’s pointing fingers and the board members you do find hate each other in 6 months time. It takes 4 meetings to decide whether or not to use arabic or roman numerals in your bylaws and instead you end up going with friendly-looking icons of some sort, TBD later. With everyone facing burn-out meeting attendance lags and soon stops altogether.
Or maybe it was an important protest march that nobody showed up for. Or a boutique restaurant that never found patrons. Or a class nobody wanted to attend… Of couse things don’t ALWAYS fail this way, but far too often I’ve seen friends, family, and community members get stuck with failure or burnout. And I’ve been through it myself, too.
And after all these go wrong, we have to pick up the pieces. We figure out some way to claim victory, declare “mission accomplished” and if we’re lucky we even get a nice follow-up piece in the paper. 

It’s easy to blame all those other lazy, incompetent, no-good people. They just don’t care enough. Humans are just inherently bad. Rampant apathy in a crumbling society. I mean, that makes us feel better. We’d rather make the excuse of stereotyping a whole freakin’ species as horrible monsters that deserve disaster than accept that just maybe the failure was our fault.  

But if we always put the blame off on other people, it means WE are powerless to fix it. Or rather, the only path to “fixing” the problem is through conflict with the people we’re holding responsible. (Eg. American politics.) And it gives us a cynical, delusional view of the world corrupted by incompetent or unethical (or even sociopathic) people. If we accept feedback and apply self regulation, then we move that problem, that failure, into the sphere where we can actually do something about it: ourselves. 

Permaculture provides us with an alternative to the powerless perspective of the blame game: systems design.

As a form of applied ecology, Permaculture starts with the approach of recognizing system-level failures and the redesigning the system to naturally get the results we want. We can begin with the idea that the people involved are good, well-intentioned and competent people, but that the project was not designed to support them, or worse it was designed to ensure failure. 
Permaculture founder Bill Mollison called this a “type 1 error,” an endeavor designed to fail. 

Take for example the farm project I wrote about earlier. At least they did a little math to assess feasibility. But they designed and launched a project on high hopes and the expectation that a best-case scenario would barely allow them to pay their bills, and with unrealistic goals for fulfilling customers’ needs. They never had a chance. 

And with a well-known record of failures, struggle and conflict, anyone who starts a community garden, small business, or organization without accounting for their likely troubles has also begun with a type 1 error. 
I would guess that 80 – 90% of these endeavors were designed to fail, and if the only way they make it is with luck. 

And there’s one type 1 error in businesses, community organizations, or activism efforts that is more common than all the rest. It’s going on a road trip with no gas in the car: the project wasn’t designed to connect to the resources it needs to launch and sustain itself. 

Next time, we’ll discuss why this is so common and why we fall into this trap. For a quick teaser, check out this chart: 

We may think our effort is important, but does anybody else? Most efforts that fail were designed for that lower left-hand box. Our best efforts never had a chance to get any support…. 

Permaculture Design Certificate Course, Fall/Winter 2016

Growing a Regenerative S.W. Michigan

Since it was first created by Bill Mollison, the Permaculture Design Certificate Course (PDC) has always been a catalyst for transformational change. many of the nation’s most forward thinking eco-villages, farms, and regenerative enterprises had their start at PDCs. 
And now we want to bring that transformational energy to S.W. Michigan in a special PDC that’s focussed on the resources and opportunities available in our region and the greater Great Lakes biome. 
This PDC is being organized in cooperation with Van-Kal Permaculture and Lillie House, and will be held in downtown Kalamazoo, with a few field trips to other local Permaculture sites. 
For more information, dates, curriculum and instructor profiles, please visit:
Or check out these three ways to be involved:
1. Audit the PDC. For farmers, organizers and activists who don’t want to be certified, but who would like to be involved in the organizing experience, we have an opportunity to audit the course for $400. 
2. Full PDC. This is the full certification, with the submission of an passing design project. The cost is $1,100. For our Community Supported Forest Gardening members the cost is $900. 
3. Complete Designers Membership, PDC plus 2017 Forest Gardening program. This takes the conceptual design knowledge of the PDC and combines it with the practical, applied knowledge to transform your project into a Permaculture oasis, including a start on the plant material. For new members, the PDC cost is $900, and the complete package cost is $2,000. 
You can reserve your spot, at:

PDC – Auditing the PDC

For community organizers, market gardeners, farmers, and those working in Food activism, we’re making a limited number of spaces available to audit the PDC.

This is a tradition that goes back to Bill Mollison, intended to make the course accessible to a greater number of people.

When you audit the PDC, you can attend the courses and participate, but you will not submit a design project, you will not get feedback/mentorship on your design and you will not get certification.

If you decide you want to submit your project and pay the additional fees at a later date, we’ll review the project, give you feedback and submit your name for certification and listing on Permaculture Global.

The cost to audit the course for this season will be $400, payable in two payments of $200.

To enroll, please fill out the registration form, here. Please make sure to note that you are auditing the course, or you may be billed for the full PDC tuition. Reserve your space by making your first payment below. 

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Social Permaculture – Designing the Relational Landscape 3: Buildingthe Regenerative Community you Deserve

Hey human! Your life is an ecosystem, whether you want to admit it or not. 
Sure, you got the internet on your freakin’ phone, but you still look at it with biological eyeballs, set in a biological body that’s dependent upon a network of interconnected species for survival. 
In fact, there’s more NON-HUMAN DNA in your body, than human. You yourself are an ecosystem of 1. 
So, is your life a healthy ecosystem, or an unhealthy, dysfunctional one? 
Healthy ecosystems are rich with diversity and interconnections, they’re deeply mutualistic and interdependent, and they’re continuously growing in diversity and connectivity. 
According to many social ecologists and researchers such as the Dunbar group, healthy relationship ecologies, the kinds of ecologies found in happy thriving communities and folk societies, might have those same features. People are brought together in their interdependence, their mutual reliance, so they feel responsible for each other, connected to each other’s happiness and well-being.
Others, such as Dimitri Orlov have pointed out that individuals in such diverse interconnected communities are much more resilient, weathering life’s storms with greater happiness, grace and security.
The design tools of Permaculture are intended to turn poorly functioning systems into rich ecosystems, so they offer us an opportunity to mindfully evaluate our relationships, helping us create a life that is better for ourselves and everyone around us, both the ones who chose us and those who are stuck with us. 
As an observation exercise, let’s look at some of those Permaculture tools in the context of our relationships. This is the same process many Permaculture Designers use to evaluate a landscape or organization, but let’s use this as an opportunity to think about our relational landscapes.

Ecological network analysis – In Permaculture, we’re always trying to take fragmented, poorly connected systems with lots of wasted opportunities, and redesign them into efficient networked ecosystems. In the modern world, we often have friends and family who provide certain services, and yet we miss the opportunity to support those friends with our business. Or perhaps two good friends share a passion for martial arts, yet miss the opportunity to practice together and learn from each other, while investing in their relationship. 
Do I have needs that could be met by people in my support network? 
Which of those needs are currently being fulfilled by distant, sociopathic corporations who don’t care about me? 
Do my “peeps” have needs that I could be meeting through formal or informal interactions? 
Do I have interests/hobbies/needs that could provide a better interaction with my network? 

(A general diagram of social Permaculture zones)

Zones – In the landscape, zone analysis maximizes our time and energy by placing the elements that require the most attention and get the most use closest to the home. In the relational landscape, ordering our relationships by zones might help us mindfully ensure that we’re investing our time and energy into the relationships that mean the most to us in a busy world where we all have less time and energy to spare. It also gives us an opportunity to make sure that we’re investing in relationships that support our goals and worldview. 
In this case, I’ve ordered these hypothetical zones around the Dunbar Group’s research, which documents human relational behavior in folk societies.
Zone 1: (3 – 5 people) Close relationships, spouse, close friends and family. Dunbar’s research suggests that single people typically have 5 close relationions and married people will each have 3 other close relations a piece (with some possible overlap.) When you think about it, who else would you rather support with your time, money and energy than these people? In most human societies the interests of these close friends would be deepy aligned and interdependent, yet, in our society, we often fail to invest in our closest and dearest friends. Oftentimes, we invest more time and money in grocery store clerks and daycare providers than we do with these best friends!
Zone 2: (Inner circle, “band” 30 – 50 people.) In Dunbar’s research, people organize into “bands” of 30 – 50 people, typically to work together for mutual benefit. These are our friends and family. Again, these people would be natural alliles, yet we seldom think to ask for their support, or to support them in their endeavors. Do these folks have any under-met needs you could help fulfill? Do you have an unmet need that one of them could help you with? Can we kick Walmart to the curb and start giving our money to the people who really deserve it? 
Zone 3: (Dunbar’s Village) Primates, like many animals seem to have a natural congitive limit to how many people they can really have a relationship with. Based on brain size and complexity, Dunbar guessed this number would be about 150 people. That number turned out to be a very good predictor of human village and community size. It also seems to be a good number for a self-supporting community, in that a village of 150 people can be quite specialized and easily meet everyone’s needs within the community in an ecological network. Many Permaculturists are suggesting that we try to recreate our own villages (though not necessarily in a shared geographical place) based on this number. When we start thinking this way, we’re no longer thinking about just making money. We’re thinking about how we can use our life’s energy to meet the needs of our community, and build richer, more rewarding connections. 
Zone 4: Beyond the village. Beyond Dunbar’s number, we can no longer KNOW people, so we begin to think of them as stereotypes. This is important for us to appreciate, because this is when it gets very easy to justify exploiting people, or mistreating them for our benefit. How can we connect with broader communities in positive, mutually beneficial ways, meet their needs and bring resources into our “village?” At Lillie House, we often think of how we can offer tools for people in this “zone” to support their own villages. Most importantly, you should only do business with people you have a positive impression of. If you’re doing business with “those people,” (insert negative stereotype here) whoever they are, you’re probably going to be a jerk to them. 
Zone 5, the world. Permaculturists often describe the ideal world as a tapestry of villages. At this zone, we’re connecting to the broader network of villages around the world…. How can we support each and empower each to have its own autonomy and self-reliance? 
Perhaps the most important “take home” here, is that people in our inner zones will naturally be the most likely to want to support us and make sure our needs and desires are met, while relatioships in our outer zones will likely be more purely transactional. Your mom might buy your new Online Polyculture Design Course (ahem ) simply because she’s your mom. But Tom Timbuktu who doesn’t know you from Sam will think twice before buying your $50 watch for $20. 
So if you want to create a truly thriving community network of support for a project, farm, business or organization, this model of zones could be one of the most important things you can do. It was this model alone that allowed us to convert a poorly organized assembly of products and services nobody wanted into a tiered order of products specialized to a variety of “zones.” And that transformed us into a successful business overnight. 
Sectors: In the landscape, sector analysis balances the energies that flow in and out of a space, welcoming life-enhancing energies and turning away negative energies. In our relational landscape, we can do the same, evaluating which energies we want more of and which are negative or unsustainable to us. Our relationships aren’t always going to be “energy positive.” Sometimes, rewarding relationships require investing in people in need or crisis. But in Permaculture one of our principles is to “obtain a yield,” recognizing that you can’t get where you want to go on an empty tank, and a mindful approach might suggest that we can better support friends in need if we are well-fulfilled and our needs are met. 
Which energies in your relational landscape most feed you? 
Which are draining? Is this the most effective place to be spending your energy? Could you possibly help/accomplish more by spending your energy in a different way? 
Which people want to invest in you? How to you make it easy and mutually rewarding for them to invest in you? 
Who do you want to invest your time, energy and money in? How do you make that process easy and natural? 
What kinds of energies and support are missing? (Such as support for your Permaculture goals.) How can we invite these into our lives? 
I could write (and I have indeed written) much more on this topic than would be useful in the context of this blog. 
For those who want to get the benefits of applying this kind of design to their lives, I hope you will look into our Fall-Winter Permaculture Design Certificate Course, as we’ll be doing exercises in exactly this kind of life design.