Monday, September 13, 2010

Rotating your crops

Moving to North Carolina as a teenager provided me with an opportunity to experience the wonders of rural life I would have otherwise missed if we had stayed in the city life of St. Petersburg, Florida. Even though in Florida my father had always insisted on our having a family garden, it was nothing compared to the farms I saw in Bahama, North Carolina. Soy beans, corn, tobacco and feed grains covered the landscape in a quilt of colors and textures. The most remarkable part of it all was the soil. It was a rich, red clay, that when managed well, yielded an abundance of produce.

With our Florida garden, a little soil conditioner and a good mix of fertilizer is all it usually took to ensure good growth for the season. Farmland is a bit different. As each year’s crops bleed the soil of nutrients, these critical elements and compounds become more and more difficult (and expensive) to replace. Fortunately, after the hundreds and thousands of years humans have invested in the field of agriculture, one of the easiest methods of replenishing the earth is to institute a process called crop rotation.

What is crop rotation? Back in ancient times, the Romans developed a cropping system called "food, feed, and fallow." This system involved dividing their farms into three areas. One area was used for food grain, another for livestock feed and the third was allowed to rest for a season usually with the previous season’s remains turned under the soil as mulch. Over the centuries this system was improved culminating in a four-season process which included a fourth planting area and adding root vegetables and nitrogen-fixing crops to the mix. By allowing their animals to graze directly in the fields, manure was also introduced to the system and the combination created richly fertilized soil.

The practice of crop rotation remained in practice until the 1950s when chemical fertilizers gained popularity. These man-made solutions combined with pesticides gave farmers the ability to maintain a single crop on a single field. While this increased yield and gave farmers the opportunity to specialize, it also generated adverse affects on the environment. In many cases it also affected the food texture and taste. As a result, many farmers are returning to crop rotation as a natural alternative; benefiting both the environment and the quality of their product.

I was painting my house recently, and while my hands were focused on the repetitious spreading of white paint on siding, my mind drifted and I thought how wonderful it was to be distracted from my regular work for just a few short hours. Unfocused, I thought about bits of everything, my kids, the other parts of the house needing work, answers to projects at work, what I was going to barbecue that night, etc.  Most importantly, I realized that in doing something totally unrelated to my regular work, I was able to address solutions I would have otherwise missed. It was then I recalled one of the methods the farmers in Bahama and elsewhere use to improve crop yield and protect their most valuable resource: the soil. More importantly, I recognized how this simple process can be applied to everyday life and improve productivity both at home and on the job.

Think of it like this. In many ways, a person’s life is similar to a farm. Our minds are like the soil. When properly fed, watered and fertilized, our minds create amazing products of tremendous quality. When pushed to far or nourished by stimulants or numbed by repetition, our minds can also produce poor yields and bitter products with no flavor at all. This is where “crop rotation” comes to play.

There are many names for what I am referring to as “crop rotation.” As the virtual agrarians of Farmville know, it doesn't even have to be a real farm. Their "farming" is a form of mental "crop rotation." In academia it is often called a sabbatical. In industry it is sometimes know as "job rotation." It can be as simple as a walk around the lake or painting your house over a long weekend.  What it all boils down to is giving your mind, body and spirit the time to recharge, not by resting, but by doing something different.Think of it as a mental (and sometimes physical) detour; preferably one that takes long enough to completely disengage yourself from one role or mindset and engage in another.

This concept of job rotation is by no means new.  What is new, however, is that we have reached a point where many businesses are like the farms of the 1950s. They have single crop fields which are artificially fertilized with stimulants where variety only comes through distractions which reduce productivity. The mental soil is depleted and Innovation is almost non-existent. Even in careers like mine, where being creative and inventive is a part of my job, allowing myself to develop tunnel vision can leave me depleted.

Today innovation is a major component of success, and the ability to “think outside of the box” is more vital than ever. Fortunately by implementing programs like job rotation, businesses can reap the benefits of their soil being conditioned by taking steps to ensure their employees stay fresh.  Providing opportunities to apply their skills and talents in a variety of areas of their business allows employees to nourish each other, sharing knowledge and information which might otherwise remain in the same “field” growing weaker and weaker each cycle. This enriched soil provides a wonderful bed from which to bloom innovative ideas and a fresh boost of productivity.

There are also some unexpected benefits of this rotation process like employee appreciation and understanding of other aspects of a business. For example, marketing can gain new insights for advertising campaigns if they have the opportunity to directly experience sales or customer service. Operations and finance can exchange firsthand knowledge of the relationship between quality, efficiency and cost. And sectors can identify synergies between products and services. Even the enterprise may periodically realize that a market needs to be turned, and rotate an old line out and a new one in.

This type of continuous change, this rotation, is not always an easy task. Many of us are creatures of habit. We like to do things the same. We have a comfort zone. The challenge for the enterprise is to encourage a habit of self fertilization. Business units need to work together to provide the tools and processes that feed our soil and keep our minds fertile. It is much easier to tend a prepared field than to start with wilderness. And, good soil, when nurtured, will produce abundantly for many years.

- Ken

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