Part 2 of a 2-part series calling for Big Ag innovation in sustainability
Dear Ag Sustainability Coordinator,
Perhaps this isn’t your exact title, but if your job responsibilities include helping farmers meet the changing demands of our climate and the American consumer, I hope you’ll read on.
In my last post, we established that 1) our greatest hope for ag sustainability success lies within Big Business, and 2) Big Business isn’t traditionally so good at generating transformational ideas. This is a bit of a sorry situation for a whole lot of Ag Sustainability Coordinators! (Especially those that are a team of one, relatively newly appointed to their role, and up to their eyeballs in committee meetings.)
But never fear! Where agriculture impacts the environment, Agren offers answers (at least that’s what our marketing consultant says). And anyway, I do have some ideas. I offer these suggestions as someone who has worked alongside “traditional” soil and water conservation for 15 years, as an Iowa farmer, as a strong proponent of production agriculture, and someone who is deeply motivated by the process of innovation. This is not meant as criticism, but rather encouragement. So much opportunity lies in your hands! Your job is so important to the future of the ag industry!
1. Be intentional. Intention nor innovation happen by accident. They happen on purpose and are motivated by people with purpose. Innovation, like many business functions, is a management process that requires specific tools, rules, and discipline. Innovation requires intention. Be intentional!
2. Think like an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are obsessed with building things. They view the world differently than others. While this quality may not be inherent to you (it hasn’t always been to me), the entrepreneurial perspective is something that can be learned. There are scads of books that will bring you great inspiration and insight to this world. Some you might try: Rework by Jason Fried, The Lean Start-up by Eric Ries, Crazy is a Compliment by Linda Rottenberg, or The One Thing by Gary Keller.
3. Stop going to meetings, start being strategic. If you heed the advice of #2 and start reading up on entrepreneurship, you’ll notice some common themes. Perhaps foremost is the importance of focusing on that one big thing. Have a singular, strategic focus. Don’t get distracted by everything everyone else wants you to do. You don’t have to go to every meeting or be part of every committee. Get beyond the daily “firefighting” that all managers deal with. Carve out sacred time each and every week to think long-term.
4. Be a leader, paint a vision. At this point you may be thinking, “nice ideas crazy lady, but I’m a staff of <insert personally appropriate # here> in an organization of <insert exponentially larger # here>.” Guess what, you still can make a difference. All visions start with one person who is bold enough to think about things differently. One person who is passionate enough to believe there’s a better way and to lead others forward. You know the issues, you have access to the farmer, you know the strengths and weaknesses of your organization, and you likely have some attention from your executive team. Who’s better positioned to paint the vision for “how”?
5. Talk to your customer. How often do you talk to the growers you serve (or those you buy from)? How about the field agronomists delivering service and advice to those farmers? Do you know the problem you’re actually trying to solve? The barriers to implementing the solution you’re building? Design a system that provides real value to the end-user. They’ll be far more likely to use it.
6. And finally, my own personal gripe, PLEASE, stop thinking of everything like a project. I get it, really I do. It’s a place to start. Projects are much easier to get your head around than solutions. The have goals and objectives, timelines, and budgets, partners and defined roles. I’ve been involved in a whole lot of conservation-related projects over the years. And we did some really, really great work. And then one project was done, and another started. Similar objectives, new resources, new partners (more meetings), new staff, new budget, new timeline, etc. And guess what? Projects don’t scale. They aren’t built that way. You might think of your “project” as a “pilot”, but if you don’t have a vision for how the work you’re doing will grow to include all the growers you serve, it’s a project. It will end. And you will start it all over again. It will never scale, because you didn’t design it to. You have to think bigger! Please think bigger!
So, what do you think? Admittedly, I’m a bit of outsider as to the challenges you may face as you look to innovate solutions within a large organization. In my world, the function of innovation requires intention, but the institutional barriers just don’t apply.
But these things I do know… Speaking as a farmer, we need your help. Speaking as a conservationist, we need your leadership. Speaking as an entrepreneur, I welcome your feedback.
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