Reflections on Collaboration

I decided to focus my sustainability leadership opportunity on the role of competition as a driver for sustainability. In reflecting on various formal, informal, personal and work-related competitions, one of my biggest takeaways over the last year has been a deeper understanding and appreciation of the value of collaboration within competitions. Of course, there’s the oft-cited African proverb that summarizes this idea nicely –

If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

Last year I was encouraged by my cohort to compete in Project Drawdown’s EcoChallenge, and I reflected on that experience in an earlier blog post. Ranking as the top team in the UK, we certainly went far together, much further than I could have gone on my own, and the experience was both fun and fulfilling.

Since that experience, I have seen many manifestations of collaboration incorporated into competition. For instance, in that same blog post, I described a hypothetical game to help address one of humanity’s greatest contemporary challenges—sustainably providing the food and fiber for a global population of 10 billion people by 2050. In that post, I challenged the value of lessons of traditional games, such as Monopoly, that teach players to own everything and bankrupt their opponents. We can to be better than that, but we need to learn how.

Not long after publishing that post I came across an expansion set of one of my favorite board games, Settlers of Catan. The expansion set was based on the popular television series Game of Thrones. A wall was added to the game and players were incentivized to collaborate or else they all potentially lose to invaders north of the wall, just as in the film series. The collaborative component was a brilliant addition to an already excellent game, but it still missed addressing the very real challenge of sustainably providing food and fiber for 10 billion by 2050.

Enter Crop Trust, a newer expansion set to Settlers of Catan that incorporates both collaboration and basic elements of sustainable agriculture. In this expansion version, players must balance their individual needs with collective goals of preserving seed, otherwise everyone loses. Crop diversity must be maintained as well, reminding one of planetary boundaries, as described by Johan Rockström et al, or else everyone loses. Unfortunately, the game falls short in teaching lessons related to changes in biogeochemical flows of Nitrogen and Phosphorus, as depicted in the popular planetary boundary info-graphic—


But shifting how we play, and more importantly, how the youth learn to play, is still a great start. Now back to the real world.

I’ve made the challenge of addressing climate change personal and I have enlisted my friends, family and community as collaborators. In reflecting on my experience over the last year, I have become more open and confident in sharing what I have learned and what I am doing about it, what we’re doing about it. It has been said that we are in Anthropocene now, apparently an epoch that includes things like “fake news.” I think it’s important to take the peer reviewed research and make it accessible, digestible, comical, fun. After all, we’re in this together and the aim is to go far.

I’ve just signed up the University of Cambridge for another year of the Project Drawdown EcoChallenge. If you’ve read this far, join us by following this link, the password is CISL.


Have a Vermi-Merry Christmas

I’ve never met anyone that got coal in their Christmas stocking. But the idea of giving fossil fuel to naughty boys and girls just rubs me the wrong way. And what’s up with nice boys and girls getting candy and other things that only contribute to obesity, diabetes and all other related diseases. Traditional Christmas stocking stuffing is like a metaphor for some of the biggest environmental and social problems of our time—anthropogenic global warming and a global human population that is increasingly overfed but undernourished.

This year my family and friends got worm bins for Christmas (see Figure 1). Anticipating varying degrees of excitement, I recorded their reactions to the gifts. I thought the recordings would be funny, but the ideas behind the worm bins gifts are hardly laughable. About 40% of food in this country is wasted, with most of that waste happening at the farm, retail and consumer levels. While food waste does cause methane, a potent greenhouse gas, the bigger environmental issue is all of the resources that go in to producing, delivering and preparing food that is wasted. Furthermore, in the face of hunger and malnutrition, the problem of food waste is seen in even starker relief.


Figure 1. Family and friends with their worm bin Christmas gifts.

Worm bins for food waste are tangible, accessible components of the circular economy, antidotes to the traditional stocking stuffers, remedies to the maladies of the linear economy. Worm bins, or vermicomposting, involve the recycling of food waste or other organic matter and can be done in people’s homes. Recycling food waste in the home enables people to take steps toward reduction (e.g. buy less) and reuse (e.g. eat leftovers), antecedents of the 3R Principle’s recycle (e.g. vermicompost).

This gift also involves living things which, if not cared for properly, will die. As such, gifts involving living things shouldn’t be for everyone as they require a certain level of responsibility and interest on the part of the recipient. While giving the gift of worm bins is not quite the same as giving someone, say, a puppy, the gift should not be forced on anyone. With this in mind, I under-prepared the quantity of worm bins for family and friends, but I have committed to preparing more for those that are interested in managing worms and food waste.

There is also an important personal angle to this gift that I should explain. We have been producing vermicompost and vermicompost tea (see figure 2) at our family farm for many years as part of our regenerative organic growing practices. But many of my family and friends, removed from food production, have little understanding of our innovations at the farm. My hope is that the worm bin gifts will enable me to connect with family and friends on a new level of common interest.


Figure 2. Vermicompost tea beds with mini sweet pepper farm-level waste as feed stock.

For support, I created a social media group called Vermicomposters where worm bin enthusiasts can share photos and ideas of what is and isn’t working with their vermicultural practices. It will take time for everyone to learn to live with their worms in kind of the same way that we learn to live with a new dog or cat. Patience and understanding will be required for when the worms are too hot/cold, wet/dry, greater or fewer in numbers, not consuming the kitchen scraps, causing a stink. In this way, the worms are not quite the same as household pets; they’re more like livestock, household micro-livestock. Here’s that compilation of recordings I mentioned earlier of my family and friends becoming worm wranglers. Join us.




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.

Competition, Collaboration and the Games We Must Learn to Play

In a previous blog about personal leadership I shared thoughts about the role of competition as a driver for sustainability. To put these thoughts to action I started a University of Cambridge team to compete in the EcoChallenge competition. During the course of the EcoChallenge the University of Cambridge team grew, our number of competitors grew, and their team members and achievements grew, but we still prevailed as the highest ranked team in the UK, even beating Cambridge’s traditional rival, Oxford University. I was humbled by the CISL MSt cohort 7 and 8 members that joined the team, took actions such as writing letters to local leaders back in their home countries, used public transportation, reduced their meat consumption/adapted a more plant-based diet, and so much more. Despite my role as team captain, as is default for those that create the teams, I was not the highest scoring member of the team, perhaps not even the most active member, and many of the challenges I picked for myself were less challenging than those of my teammates. Instead, I challenged myself in different ways, such as, taking the role of cheerleader, advocate, organizer, strategist. I made public announcements, virtual and in-person, to encourage membership; familiarized myself with all of the challenges, how they related to climate-change, and engaged with people on these subjects, encouraging action; I chose our opponents strategically, and at different times, for instance, when an opponent would be surpassed, another more advanced opponent (in members and/or points) would be challenged; opposing teams were also chosen from similar areas (i.e. university, course program, etc.).

There was certainly a desire from the team to win by overcoming opponents in points and members, but the game was essentially about acting on climate change. In the “game” of climate change we are all potentially losers, so it’s not about beating your opponent in the traditional sense. Addressing climate change is more about collaboration, even with opponents.

I was recently introduced to an Israeli game called Matkot, a type of Paddle Ball. The game is played by hitting a small rubber ball to the other player using a wooden racquet. In the version that I played, the point was not to get the ball by the other player, as in tennis, Ping-Pong, or any other racquet sport I know. Rather, the point of the game is to encourage a good volley. If you serve a bad pass to your partner and they miss the ball the game is less exciting, less fun. Interestingly, there are not winners or losers in this game—at least in the version I was playing. Considering the sustainability challenges facing humanity, I think there should be more games like Matkot where people can interact with each other in fun and exciting ways and, in doing so, learn to become better collaborators.

There is a noticeable difference between many of the organic and conventional farmers that I’ve interacted with over the years. The organic farmers tend to be more open to sharing ideas and techniques with other organic farmers. They might say—what cover crops did you use; what can you tell me about managing bee colonies; try this dibbling technique, etc. While no members of my cohort are farmers, I do know they are all passionate about sustainability. In the spirit of collaboration, Matkot and organic-farmer knowledge-sharing, I want to take this opportunity to describe a hypothetical game about sustainable food systems, collaborative in nature, without the traditional winners and losers, while also educational, and hopefully fun all at the same time.

In this game, unlike lessons learned from Monopoly, the goal is not to own everything and bankrupt your opponents. Humanity is faced with sustainably providing food and fiber to an estimated global population of 10 billion people by 2050. So, think of that as a farmer in the number of seasons to get things right, or as a player as the number of turns in the game. In this game, players are different types of farmers—urban, rural, back-yard, hydroponic, soil-based, organic, etc. Certain “event” cards are played, such as, hurricanes, flooding, pest infestations, etc. and the different types of farmers are affected to different degrees, unless they have played cards to make them more resilient. Perhaps the urban, warehouse hydroponic farmer dependent on LEDs for plant photosynthesis is affected by power outages more than the rural farmer, but perhaps the rural farmer is more affected by flooding—unless they have the compost card, for instance (i.e. increased soil organic matter (SOM) helps with water infiltration and topsoil runoff).

I don’t yet have a detailed plan to take this game forward, but I think planting the seed here, with a group of smart, passionate, colleagues committed to sustainability, is a good place to start.