On Communicating Complexity

When we transitioned our farms from conventional to regenerative organic agricultural practices, we were faced with the challenge of communicating this change both internally and externally. We needed a way to communicate the company’s vision and values across languages, cultures, international borders, to both employees, clients as well as to the general public. In a radical way, we needed to change the way we communicate about what we do and how we do it.

Inspired in-part by learning maps produced by a company called Root and artwork commissioned by the founder of our company in 1971, we began a project to align the vision and values of our company around sustainable, regenerative organic growing practices we had committed to at our farms.

We needed to find a way to communicate the systems, the complexities of the relationships within the organizations, while also appealing to aesthetic values. Depicting the complexity of systems thinking could risk looking like the leaked US military strategy in Afghanistan or, conversely, the abstractness of, say, a Jackson Pollock painting (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. Undefined differences between systems diagrams and art.

At the same time, we wanted a style that was culturally relevant to both our Mexican and American roots—not, as our CEO put it, “a corporate carnival” pieced together by generic illustrations. Importantly, we also needed employee buy-in, not simply something forcefully pushed from senior management.

After much research and outreach, we identified a suitable artist, Catherine Eyde, and held a facilitated two-day workshop with employees and artist participation. The workshop focused on the shared vision and values of our organization, involving various exercises requiring critical, reflective thought as well as creative drawing and mapping of the organization. Key takeaways of the workshop focused on shared values of family and health, themes incorporated into the mural. All data was compiled, crunched and delivered to the artist, along with employee depictions of our organization and value chain.

Over the course of a year, I liaised with the artist in facilitating the production of a 5’x8’ mural. I used Google documents to share everything from photos of plant seedlings, beneficial insects, the soil food web, employees in the field, facilities and so on.

The original mural now hangs in our main conference room, often referenced during meetings. An identically-sized back-lighted version is also used at industry trade shows in our booth on the expo floor (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Expo floor display with learning map as backdrop.

Rather than rattling off a list of what we grow, a commonly asked question, everything we grow is depicted within the arms of the central figure; a depiction of the pirate bug (Orius insidiosis), used for thrips control, might invite a discussion around beneficial insects, organic agriculture or product quality; the image of our main offices might open a discussion about solar photovoltaics (PV) or renewable energy (Figure 3).

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Figure 3. Painted and photographed depictions of our main offices and solar PV array.

The painting has also served as the backdrop, using Prezi software, for presentations about our organization, where presenters can zoom in and out of general themes, revealing deeper meaning of what is depicted within the mural.

Last, high resolution photographs of the mural were used to produce an animated explainer video, in both English and Spanish, narrated by both male and female speakers, to facilitate a deeper understanding, so the viewer may–to paraphrase William Albrecht–see what they’re looking at.