Soil – the thinking beyond

I wonder how many organisations are looking to get novel and valuable insights into their strategies, policies and operational delivery, from the growing regenerative horticulture and agriculture movement.  I’m getting curious about this as I delve more into the study of regenerative horticulture. 

The thrust of this movement is the conservation and rehabilitation of the soil.  The report, Soil Health: a security threat profile,  tells us, “Soil is the forgotten everything to humanity. It is the medium that feeds us, clothes us and (traditionally at least) houses us. Yet the past fifty or so years, … we have disregarded the importance of soil, treating it purely as a blotting paper into which plants can place their roots.”  

Writer, Robin Wall Kimmerer, quoted in the report said, ‘This is our work as humans in this time. To build good soil in our gardens, to build good soil culturally and socially, and to create potential for the future.’

As I learn more about soil (part of a horticulture path I am pursuing as a career change), I am seeing multiple parallels and new perspectives on organisational life and learning.  For example, on the parallels:

  • Soil is a medium for growth, thriving, productivity
  • Soil is rich in interdependent ecosystems
  • Soil health requires thoughtful nurturing, not thoughtless degradation

Substitute ‘An organisation’ for ‘Soil’ and you see the parallels.   What’s intriguing is that in learning about regenerative horticulture, I am seeding new approaches to my organisational work.   I am asking myself the question – in what ways is my organisation like soil, how can I keep it regenerating healthily and not degrading?

Regenerative horticulture methods eschew mechanistic approaches to growing plants that focus on improving the efficiency of one specific part of the system:  yield, size, durability, growth rate, decorative merit, and so on.   Treating one part of the soil ecosystem by, for example, adding nitrogen, potassium or phosphorus, results in dangerous imbalances to the trillions of microscopic organisms working together as the soil food web (see image).

The system of a farm, vegetable plot or garden, sits within and relies on interactions with the larger natural system. For example, the crops and plants need insects to pollinate, surface and groundwater to irrigate, microbes to cycle nutrients, and soil to provide a strong and fertile growth medium.

Caroline Grindrod, regenerative agriculture expert and founder of, notes that, ‘Through a rapidly emerging world of plant research from a more holistic and biology focussed lens, we can understand that many of the diseases and vulnerabilities of our modern cropping systems stem from poor plant nutrition arising from dysfunctional soil health.‘

What, I ask myself, are the diseases and vulnerabilities of our modern organisational systems and what do they stem from?  What is the poor nutrition that feeds our organisations?  In answer, what springs to mind, as an example, is the ‘disease’ of inequitable pay systems:  an Institute for Policy Studies Report, June 2022 on 300 top US companies found CEOs making an average of $10.6m, with the median worker getting $23,968.  In May 2022 the UK’s Office for National Statistics reported that across employees as a whole, pay for the top 10% of earners rose by 11.1% in the year to March, compared with a median of 5.5% and just 0.9% for the bottom 10% of earners.

Causing the loss of a functional soil food web and the resulting vulnerable and disease-prone plants and animal are practices including, tillage (the preparation of soil by mechanical agitation of various types, such as digging, stirring, and overturning), leaving soil bare and exposed, use of artificial fertilisers, use of pesticides, the use of antibiotics, a low diversity of species and overgrazing caused by badly managed livestock.

It is not hard to think of loss of organisational functionality through this lens.   Organisational tillage includes agitation by competing projects, changes in strategies, high employee turnover, adoption of fads of the moment, and others. Organisational soil is left bare and exposed by power plays, management inattention, wrong metrics, and other factors.  Use of fertilizers, pesticides and antibiotics is paralleled in organisations by training programmes, performance management systems, and treatment of symptoms not underlying causes.  We are all familiar with the view that lack of diversity in organisations is unhealthy,  and many employees are hampered in their work efforts by being badly managed.

As Grindrod says, the more we damage the soil food web, the more we must lean on energy-hungry and environmentally damaging artificial fertilisers, pesticides and animal medications, to treat the symptoms of sick plants and livestock caused by deficient soils, resulting in the costs of production going up, and the nutrient quality of our food plummeting.  So it is with organisations, though it is not the quality of our food that plummets, but our productivity, wellbeing and resilience. 

To help redress the decades of soil degradation practices, regenerative agriculture and horticulture practitioners adopt principles that treat the soil as a complex series of interlocking ecosystems with elements that cannot be ‘treated’ independently.  The table below shows the widely adopted principles and some starter organisational questions that each principle triggered for me.

Regenerative agriculture/horticulture practiceOrganisational question
Minimise repetitive soil disturbance (tillage)  Where and how are we disturbing things?
Keep the soil covered with organic material (to minimise erosion)Where are we exposed and vulnerable? Where/how are we eroding things e.g. trust?
Maintain a living plant in the soil all year round  Where are we/are we not seeding, nurturing, encouraging people and practices?
Maximise diversity in crops, pasture plants and habitatsWhere are we good/less good at developing diversity of workforce members, ideas, behaviours, experiences?
Integrate livestock or wild animalsWho helps us deliver our products and services who we don’t include?  E.g. contractors in our training courses, delivery drivers who might want to use our restaurants?

Think how organisations might beneficially regenerate adapting, adopting and living principles similar to those of agriculture/horticulture regeneration.   But, before launching into a prescription on this, consider the point that, ‘Every environment across the world is unique and supports a different range of habitats and potential agricultural/horticultural options. The rich diversity of our global cultures has emerged under the particular influences of what food and fibre can be locally and sustainably produced.’

Applying this to organisations suggests that the detail of what regenerates one organisation’s ‘soil’, may not be the detail that regenerates another organisation’s ‘soil’, knowing the organisation you are working with is a pre-requisite, and suggests that getting in consultants to produce speedy solutions to problems may not result in healthy regeneration.  (Note: I am not viewing ‘regeneration’ and ‘transformation’ as synonymous.  I am highly sceptical of transformation projects).

Soil regeneration is a long-term on-going activity usually done by rotating land use.  One farmer, for example, talks of 5-7-year rotation cycles of grasses, legumes, root-crops and grazing cattle.  I wonder how long-term rotation could benefit organisations?  What would it look like? What would form the rotation – people, processes, practices, policies … ? 

Regenerative farming and horticulture can produce great food locally and at scale, while greatly accelerating carbon drawdown, regenerating biodiversity, and managing precipitation to provide greater drought resilience and better flood protection. 

It seems to me that the principles and practices of soil regeneration are readily adaptable for organisational use and will bring new insights and perspectives to conventional ways of thinking about organisational life and issues and will result in benefits of resilience, organisational and employee well-being and meeting ESG aspirations.

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