The Feedback Loop and the Illusion of Control


Holistic Management’s Feedback Loop drives us to Plan>Monitor>Control>Replan. Holistic Management is all about managing complexity, those self-organizing beasts of land, money, and people. Yet, with complexity, control is an illusion. With complexity, we are flirting with chaos theory and control becomes a fleeting mirage. The more we control, the less we influence and our world narrows until it’s only about an ego!

Control freaks end up confined by the simplicity of a tribe, cash, and monocultures. Developing resilient systems means finding ways to release the natural self-organization tendencies of complex organisms. Think of Lao Tzu’s comment, “He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.” 

Knowing that control is an illusion, empowers decisions at the soil surface.

Leveraging Sunlight

Sunlight provides an unlimited source of energy for a limited amount of time. To get the most from this free source of power means a more diverse plant community. We want plants mining the soil for water and minerals; rooting down one, 3, 6 and 20 feet. We want plants collecting sunlight in the cool season, warm season, early season and late. We want plants so dense that we see mostly shade on the ground. 

I know of a man in eastern Oregon that has developed a schedule of the numbers of cattle he turns into a pasture, what day he moves them to a different pasture, what day he puts out salt and mineral, what day he brings the cattle home, what day he weans, and what day he sells the calves. And get this. Those numbers and dates haven’t changed in 40 years. His shop calendar has days X'd off like waiting to get out of prison. With this anal type of control, life doesn’t have a chance. 

Most likely he and others like him, are most self-satisfied in their controlling position. As Lao Tzu said, he may be powerful but never mighty.

We have no way of controlling the plant mixture that develops in the maze of complexity. Our job simply calls for us to get out of the way. By mimicking nature and keeping livestock bunched and moving, the enriched soil calls for seeds to sprout, plants to regrow and invigorate. The more diverse and complex the plant and animal community, the more leverage we have in using the unlimited, free source of sunlight energy.

I think most Holistic Management Practitioners get landscape complexity. We mostly know that we can’t manage or control the self-organizing, push and pull of increasing diversities chaos. We mostly get that the best we can do is influence the chaos towards greater diversity by managing livestock to improve the ecosystem function. We mostly understand that we need to add species to address problems and not remove species. We get that the mighty comes from leveraging sunlight by empowering decisions at the soil surface.

Investing in Control

A good mentor of mine, Troy Stafford, introduced me to a world without  paying interest on a loan. Troy's strawberry blonde hair and fair skin looks a lot like Robert Redford. His demeanor, more like Out of Africa than The Sundance Kid.

I once asked Troy what he attributed his success. He paused, and thought for a time. His responce seemed ingenuous. 

"I was a male, WASP, born in Texas in 1945." 

Pretty humble. Pretty real.

Troy started out in construction but he owned and traded ranches. He bought a ranch in Wyoming in the depth of the Farm Crises during the mid 1980's. Then he bought the Riverton Livestock Auction.

Troy proposed a cattle deal where he put up the money to buy the cattle and I put up the grass, labor, and operating costs. We would run the cattle through the summer and sell them. The first money would reimburse my costs. Second, we would pay Troy his investment for the purchase of cattle. Finally, any money left over, we would split 50/50. This structure gave me the energy to imagine and create ways to generate wealth. I didn’t want cattle stranded without feed or water because that would cut into my 50% at the end of the deal. 

Investing in a means to share the wealth, comes with empowering control at the soil surface.

Lord Polonius, in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, said, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; 
For loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”

The point being that if we loan money, we may lose the money and a friend. If we borrow, we can become addicted to buying stuff, showing off and not generating wealth. Holistic Management is all about generating wealth—but at the triple bottom line. We can’t be robbing biological wealth to build the savings account. And we can’t be building the savings account at the expense of our human resource base.

Corporate pooling of capital, bank loans, lending money, and collecting interest are all means of mobilizing capital. Too often, the structure of the arrangement leaves one party controlling another in an unproductive way. The traditional capitalist structure of debt, interest, and foreclosure can keep the mind, along with capital gains, locked in a corner, without feed and water.

Minor investors in a corporation may have little say in the salary of the CEO, company ethics or dividend payments. A borrower of a conventional loan can get seriously squeezed if they get behind on payments. In these and other cases, one with control over another can neutralize human creativity—on both sides. The one with control has no reason to imagine and the one being controlled becomes consumed by fear.

Understanding the purpose of the capital investment could alleviate the negativity of control. And understanding the consequences of non-performance could avoid the need for control. 

One of my greatest “growing up” moments came with Sallie Calhoun, owner of Paicines Ranch. We were in a jam. When my three partners sued us to take a portion of our Wyoming ranch, we counter sued them to honor our first right of refusal to purchase their interest. As things wound down our attorney told us that we had a settlement offer and we had 10 days to get a million dollars to pay them off.

My wife, Andrea, and I went home that night and made a list of 5 people that we thought could help us out. Sallie Calhoun and her ranch crew, had been to our ranch for a Holistic Financial Management seminar sponsered by Holistic Management International. To make a long story short, Sallie loaned us the money to buy them out.

Sallie is one of those rare people that has a keen comprehension and gets her head around things very quickly but she doesn't make you feel dumb that you are about three steps behind. She has tolerance.

After the dust settled from the lawsuit, Sallie said, “You know, if things don’t work out, it’s nothing personal, we’ll just let the lawyers work it out.”

Like my arrangement with Troy, Sallie invested to empower our decision making at the soil surface. 

Owning your Decision


Sallie’s statement impacted me. It was not a control thing, like someone balancing their portfolio with interest payments. I did not feel pressured but I did feel commitment and responsibility. She understood at a deep level, where we were and her loan gave us the opportunity to work it out—on our terms. If it didn’t work out, there would be consequences. Sure, a little pressure, but with space and not control. Sallie empowered decisions at our ground zero, which made for some hard decisions for my wife and me.

It didn’t work out the way we planned, as is often the case with the feedback loop. But it wasn't because we didn't "control." Sometimes the whole under management works on us. If we are wise, we listen and let that happen.

We sold the ranch but not in a re-plan sense.  

Holistic Management is a value-driven decision-making process. As the fermentation in your heart, gut, and soul grind through the complexities, our values rise. The decision to sell the ranch on Twin Creek became about retaining an epochal migration corridor. It became about my daughter, KD’s, college. It became about our mother’s comfort in her senior years. And yes, it became about repaying a loan to Sallie. It was no longer about “owning” an amazing piece of ranch real estate in Wyoming’s sagebrush steppe or being a “rancher.” It was no longer just about us. Sallie empowered self-organizing of values at the soil surface.

Buying Buy-In

Communication with an emphasis on control will create a divide. Communication exchanging thoughts, ideas, and experience builds complex bridges where the color of truth cannot exist as a simple black and white but a deeply complex grey.

My grandfather explained that cattle do better on a mixture of grass. In my early years of managing for grazing, I realized that exchanging the term for a mixture of grass to “biodiversity” connected with more people. Biodiversity brings a much broader meaning to what I was doing on the land. Anal attachment to a word or phrase blocks understanding. People controlling their time with staff, strict use of vocabulary, and closed inner circles of decision makers, cut themselves off from influence. 

For example, Andrea reminds me that the term “litter” doesn’t mean much to a broad swath of people but “mulch” connects with anyone who has gardened. Richard Teague, with Texas A & M, has broadened the discussion of managed grazing in the academic world by adopting terms like multi-paddock grazing. Reach out rather than cut off.

A lot of control comes from dialog and listening and changing our vocabulary in a way that allows for a meeting of the minds.

Losing our Influence

We lose our influence when we think we can control people, plants, and money and forget about complexity. So how do we refine “control” toward Lao Tzu’s mighty and away from powerful? It comes in our monitoring design. Our monitoring design can bring awareness. It’s about being conscious of what the plants, animals, investment and people need. Did I mention listening? It’s about thinking through the earliest warning indicator and defining a way to measure that indicator. 

It’s knowing that we have two types of monitoring. Allan Savory depicts this as driving down the road by looking in the rearview mirror vs. out the windshield. We need both forms of reference to balance our control. What happened vs. what needs to happen.

The rearview mirror is our view of what happened; records of actual stocking rates, time in a pasture, recovery periods and permanent trend and condition transects. The windshield monitoring notes plant growth rate, residual cover in a pasture, projected stocking rates, and rainfall. The windshield acknowledges change and adapts, adjusts and recalibrates.

Financial monitoring looks back on Debt to Asset ratio, Current Ratio, Return on Investment, and the Total Debt and Lease Coverage ratio. But we also need to look ahead at cash flow projections, working capital, and capital expense planning to keep our engines running.

Finally, track the well-being of those in our future resource base. People go through ups and downs and keeping track of their well-being demonstrates caring. Looking ahead, everyone needs ownership of decisions they are responsible or accountable for. We don’t hand our ranch manager a grazing plan or a financial plan and expect it to get executed. The closer the ownership of decisions are to the soil surface, the more likely they will be executed. What is control about if not execution?

Stop replanning

All of our time spent planning, all of our time training people and developing relationships, all of our time documenting actions and results are for naught, without execution. Control in the feedback loop means action directed by our monitoring data. Control means execution, which requires adapting and adjusting the plan to achieve the desired outcomes, such as plant recovery periods, financial working capital and personal well-being.

If we interpret “CONTROL” as negotiating a financial zero-sum game, or using power to protect an ego, or killing Canada thistle, we have become simple and small. Either we errored in designing our monitoring plan or we have succumbed to the power paradox. ( And if that be the case, hopefully we have friends, family, or a governing board to hold us accountable to life beyond self. A life toward building financial, biological, and human capital. 

Control? An illusion. Complexity? The reality.  Resiliency? Empowering decisions at the soil surface.