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strategy & sustainability

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culture & change

How to manage change for sustainability in agriculture

Posted Wednesday, 15 January 2014 by Kristen Sukalac in culture & change

Identify and resolve the human and institutional blackages

Strategy. Innovation. Sustainability. Certain words have become so overused in business as to become meaningless and lose credibility. This is particularly true when these labels are attached to corporate initiatives launched with much fanfare only to fizzle out or be replaced by the Next Big Thing. The problem in many cases is a failure to apply a change management mentality to implementation and follow-through.

How can change management help achieve sustainability in agriculture?

Sustainability is like a kaleidoscope – many different pieces need to shift, sometimes a lot, sometimes incrementally – so that a new picture can emerge. To achieve sustainability, you need to know which pieces to add, which to take away and how to move them around relative to one other to achieve the right picture.  

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When you say "change management", many people think of employee-focused programs, usually associated with a change in working procedures, such as the introduction of new IT systems, but change management can – and should – be applied at three levels:

  1. Internally to mobilize people and processes to achieve outcomes that are critical for organizational success;
  2. At the level of the operating framework to identify institutional legacies that will slow down or prevent change if not addressed;
  3. To the wider stakeholder ecosystem where many complementary changes may be needed for your change to endure. 

Achieving internal mobilization for change

Helping "your" people understand the need for change and its implications for how they work is a well-known and critical aspect of making change happen. Internal change management also means equipping people to enact the change and helping them deal with the psychological aspects of change -- honoring what can be kept from the past and mourning what must be let go. Plugging into existing social networks and deputizing informal "natural" leaders are critical to generalize new practices and ideas.

In the past, Prospero helped a global seed company articulate a common identity for its employees after a series of acquisitions had brought together people with different corporate cultures and histories from around the world. A qualitative research program identified common values held by employees throughout the company. The new brand was articulated around that common base and has proven so solid that it has survived as a strong subculture following the acquisition of the company by a large multinational several years ago.

Sometimes the changes that need to be made are much simpler, such as aligning employee incentives with new corporate goals. One classical example is the large number of crop input companies that have embraced integrated crop management philosophies but still base evaluations of sales staff on absolute volumes of product moved, creating a perverse incentive for people to undermine the company's stated commitment. Aligning incentives with sustainbility goals is just one way employee change can support the move to sustainability.

Do you need help rethinking your organizational structure and procedures to align them with your sustainability goals? Contact us to discuss the possibilities. 

Identifying and removing the barriers to change

At Prospero & Partners, we help clients and stakeholders to identify the blockages in old institutions and frameworks that are preventing necessary changes from taking place, and we help design breakthroughs. This is critical for innovation, which often bumps up against institutions that are no longer fit-for-purpose in light of new developments.

Bio-based crop inputs are a case in point. The regulatory framework in most countries was designed when knowledge about agronomy was at a much earlier stage, and it reflects what was known then about fertilizers and pesticides. On the one hand were fertilizers: well-characterized, mineral-based commodity products, which means their nutrient content could be used as a proxy for their effect/mode of action. On the other hand were pesticides: at that time, limited to novel molecules produced through synthetic chemistry with uncertain risks. The problem is that today's bio-based crop inputs like biostimulants and biocontrol products are often of variable composition (think of plant extracts which aren't quite the same depending on where the plant has been grown, the extraction process used or variety of plant). At the same time, many of the components of bio-based inputs are common in the environment and there is much that we already know about any risks they may pose, so we aren't starting from scratch for data production.

The current regulatory framework has trouble accommodating the specificities of these new products. Prospero works with clients like the European Biostimulant Industry Council (EBIC) and interacts with the European Commission and other European institutions to figure out what aspects of the old framework are no longer fit for purpose and suggests new ways to achieve the same objectives in a more appropriate manner. Some examples include:

  • rethinking the definitions of fertilizers and plant protection products to make space for new products that don't really qualify as one or the other;
  • promoting alternative, structured, science-based ways for assessing potential risks (and safety) of these complex products;
  • taking into account our growing understanding of the interactions between plant nutrition and plant health.

Is your innovation frustrated by institutions and procedures that are no longer fit for purpose or by outdated ideas ? Contact us to design a program to remove those obstacles. 

 Stewarding adjustment throughout the wider stakeholder ecosystem

 You can’t just airdrop a new technology in and expect it to be widely used. The whole food chain and agricultural system need to adapt to its arrival. That means farmers, policymakers, researchers, distributors, retailers, equipment manufacturers, food processors and even grocery stores all need to come to terms with the new technology in their own sphere. Let's take the example of microbial crop inputs and explore some of the system-wide changes required for the technology to be fully exploited:

  • Packaging, storage and handling needs to be adapted to ensure that micro-organisms remain viable. This effects not just the producer, but distributors, retailers, and farmers as well.
  • Application equipment needs to be modified. In this case whoever is applying the product -- a service supplier or the farmer -- needs to work with the equipment supplier to make modifications, or producers of microbial products can also do this.
  • Farmers need training and hands-on practice using the products and may have to modify existing aspects of their management practices. For example, it may not be possible to mix microbial products with some chemical inputs, requiring additional applications.
  • Policymakers need to adopt different risk assessment requirements than for chemicals. Not all of the criteria used for chemical products make sense when dealing with biological products. And some additional points need to be considered when applying living micro-organisms. In addition, the risk-assessment of an unknown novel chemical substance and of a common soil micro-organism should take into account the fact that we have no pre-existing empirical knowledge of the substance, but millennia of experience with the soil micro-organism.
  • Finally, food retailers and the public need to understand microbial-based products. our culture tends to associate micro-organisms and illness, but we are surrounded by many beneficial and even essential micro-organisms. The public needs to understand this difference, but also to learn that just because something is natural, you can't assume that it is safe. Educating consumers about how to evaluate the safety of naturally sourced crop inputs is another piece ofthe puzzle.

Does the change you want to make require people outside your company or organization making adjustments? Contact us today to develop a program to engage with your key stakeholders, understand what makes them tick and Make it easier for them to support your objectives through key actions.

Are you equipped to make change happen?

Addressing the complex changes like those discussed above requires a suite of complementary competencies. You need partners who can understand your technical issues, but technical knowledge alone won't suffice. You need partners who know how to communicate compellingly and persuade others. You need partners who are experts in policy and political institutions. You need partners who understand how groups of people interact and what can prevent them from working constructively together.

Prospero & Partners applies its unique combination of technical and political expertise and deep knowledge of human system dynamics to help companies and other organizations find fresh solutions to big challenges like the ones you are facing. We call this cultivating change to harvest value.

Contact us today to find out how we can help you harvest more value.

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Photo: iStock

 The photo of a murmuration of birds near Penmon is used under the same CC license. 

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