I am no lover of business books. Most of them send me to sleep or chill me out with their mechanistic nostrums and formulaic prescriptions. It was therefore a relief to come across one that made me sit up and think, one that was written from an unexpected viewpoint and that avoided most of the cliches of modern management-speak. Alan Heeks is an organic farmer, among other things, and has used the principles and practices of organic culture to illuminate the way we treat ourselves and our organisations.
Heeks has an unusual pedigree. An English graduate from Oxford University, he started work at Procter & Gamble, went to do an MBA at Harvard and returned to work on Merseyside, going through three jobs before co-founding Caradon, a building materials company, and becoming managing director of its largest subsidiary, Twyfords Bathrooms.
When Caradon went public in 1987, Heeks found himself a millionaire. He started an educational charity, which bought a 130-acre farm in Dorset with the intention of turning it into an organic enterprise, where Heeks worked with a succession of partners, meanwhile continuing a consultancy and training business for organisations. In 1997 he saw the connections between the two parts of his life. This book is the result.
As he observes, the theme of the book is in tune with a growing interest in ecological and biological metaphors to explain the ways of organisations, displacing outmoded mechanical models. People and organisations are living systems, not just resources that happen to be human. To treat them as bits of a machine is to misuse them. As with an organic farm, you can't force things. Instead you have to use human persistence and ingenuity to work with the grain of the situation, to use the problems rather than fight them and to think in cycles, not straight lines. Environmental sustainability must be accompanied by human and financial sustainability or the thing won't last.
There is a lot of good sense here: artificial stimulants give short-term benefits but longer-term disadvantages; overspecialisation dries you up; crop rotation adds productivity; and waste (eg, anger, frustration in human terms) can be turned into productive energy.
At times the connection between organic farming and human organisations can become a bit strained and artificial, and the book oscillates between being a primer for organic farming and pearls of wisdom for would-be managers or people wanting to develop themselves.
The best bits, for me, are the stories that he brings from the other part of his life, the consultancy and training part. Because his examples are often drawn from businesses and experiences with which we are familiar, and because he writes with ease and fluency, it is easy to relate to the lessons he pulls from the stories.
Take his accounts of the turnaround of the Pimhill farm shop, or of the RAC breakdown man, both of which he uses to show the emotional content of quality, the idea that the experience is as important as the technical specification and that emotional intelligence, as we now know it, is a key factor in organisations.
There are too many lists and charts for my liking, but I can endorse the one he provides for those preparing to make the transition to organic and sustainable principles in their life or organisation. It is jargon-free and earthed in his experience. It includes, too, a warning for the over-idealistic - 'work with the profit motive, not against it.'
A cover illustration of a humble potato may give a misleading impression of the book's value. It is a refreshingly different look at the way we work in organisations, and the way we live, by a man who has done it both in the factory and down on the farm. Heeks is that rare person who has not only learnt from his experience but has also found a way to share it.