If you spend much time on this site, you’ll notice I spend a lot of time talking about failure. I’ve written about how most gardens fail, most action organizations fail, most community gardens fail, most businesses fail, 90% of intentional communities fail, and farms fail at a higher rate than any other business!
This site is a total bummer! Good thing I post all those pretty pictures from our garden!
That’s because I am a Permaculture designer, and Permaculture is all about solving problems by DESIGN. That means recognizing that a lot of our problems come because we have systems that were designed to fail. In Permaculture, we call that a “type 1 error.”
But to turn that around, failure is good! Failure is a great teacher. Think about nature. Nature is based upon failure. Nature fails countless times in trying to solve a problem, to create a new species. The trick is to learn from failure, learn from others’ failures, and try our best to design well so that we create an ecology for our goals where we are very likely to succeed.
Many farmers who come to it to learn how to have a more successful, easier farm are initially frustrated that they have to learn about all this social ecology and organizing stuff, so much so that there are folks now putting up courses to teach “permaculture without the social junk!!!”
But most farms don’t fail because the plants decide not to grow. If you choose the right plants, they’ll grow!
Most farms, gardens, businesses, and organizations fail because of the people. They fail because the social support structure was designed to fail.
So how do we create a social ecology where our efforts are likely to thrive?
Well, we can start by getting rid of some of the big type 1 errors that are the reason social systems often fail.
I’ve read deeply into the Peramculture literature, and the research on the topic as it pertains to businesses, farms, non-profits, coops and organizations and what I’ve found resonates with what I have observed over my last 25 years since my first job as an organizer.
The Big Social Type 1 Errors
1. Engagement Failures
Probably the biggest reason projects fail is because they fail to engage with the support they need, be it financial support, labor, volunteers, time, an audience…
While this sounds like common sense, the vast majority of projects or organizations that get started, are started specifically around ideas with low engagement. Why? Because if there were a lot of people with a lot of resources already interested in the project, probably somebody would already be doing it! So the challenge is to find a way to make sure we are really connecting with support.
2. They Fall into the Entropy Trap
Entropy is the quality of things that go into disorder, lose energy and lose functionality over time. For example, it takes energy to turn a pile of useless metal and plastic into a car. And that car constantly wants to turn back into a useless pile of metal and plastic! So to keep it functioning we have to keep putting time and energy into it. Same with houses, bridges, streets, businesses, organizations, and even relationships. If we have more of these than we can afford to put energy into, then some of them will revert back to chaos and dysfunction.
Often, projects use initial energy, interest or funding to take on too much up front, and when entropy catches up, they experience “volunteer fatigue” or “donor fatigue.”
Combine that with a failure to engage with solid support, and project failure is guaranteed.
3. Internal Conflicts
And the final major killer of projects and organizations are internal conflicts. Experts frequently say internal competition and conflict is more destructive than external. In fact, having competition with another business or organization can actually be constructive. But competition within an organization is a death knell.
Within the often Hippie-ish circles of Permaculture, green business, environmentalism and activism, there’s sense that the problem is too much competition, and not enough cooperation.
We think of it like this: Cooperation = Good. Competition = Bad.
But the reality is that things are not so simple in nature, or in life. In the real world, most of our interactions, relationships and projects have a mix of cooperation and competition, and these can be helpful or harmful.
In reality, while pure competition can indeed be a drain on individuals, relationships, the earth and society, competition can often be very constructive, even cooperative!
Think of the friendly competition within athletics or a workout partner, where the competition helps motivate improvement.
And while true cooperation has been proven in dozens of studies to yield the maximum results and maximum satisfaction, the truth is that even within a supposedly cooperative endeavor, humans will often choose to compete! The result is passive aggression, sabotaging, burnout, and failure. Much of this is caused because people within the group aren’t getting their needs or goals met.
So, with that in mind, we can select a number of “patterns” to help us design these problems out of our efforts.
For example, one great tool is found within the Permaculture principle “obtain a yield.”
Often, when we design a project, our first thought is “who will support it with donations and volunteering?” Already, that is doomed to failure, with guaranteed poor engagement, built-in entropy, and almost certain conflicts!
Instead, our first thought should always be “how will people obtain a truly valuable yield from this?”
First, if people can obtain a truly valuable yield, then they will show up! You will have people who will engage with your efforts.
Second, if people are obtaining a yield from the project, then they will show up to keep the project moving, overcoming the entropy trap.
And third, most internal conflicts also come because people are trying to meet hidden or personal goals within the project. For example, in a non-profit, someone may be motivated by recognition, by building their reputation, or perhaps by building a resume.
Don’t think they’re being selfish! They deserve to obtain a yield, to be happy, to build their resumes! When it is a problem is when we stigmatize that as selfish and force the behavior to become passive aggressive or hidden.
The most destructive person to have around a project is the person engaged in “comperation,” pretending to be cooperative or even selfless, while actually focussing more on meeting their own personal wants. That’s why this sort is often the villain in many of our stories! (At the extreme, this sort of person might be a “prosocial narcissist.”
But if we are setting out in actually promoting that people SHOULD have explicit personal goals to obtain a yield from their actions, then the behavior is out in the open, and we can actually act to support it. I have very often heard people express both that they do not have any motives beyond to act cooperatively for the good of the world, and that they dislike when people want to benefit. This is literally not what cooperation is! Cooperation is working for mutual benefit. It is enlightened self interest. And we should want to help the individuals we are involved with get something out of their efforts!
Just that one design feature of making sure people can obtain a yield goes a LOOOONG way towards reducing internal conflicts.