Project Management Institute

Lessons from the farm

project management, naturally


Is your project management practice sustainable? Sustainability is more than a buzzword; it’s a way of managing our resources—human, natural, or financial—so that they build in value over time, rather than burning up or out. Here’s what one practitioner has learned about managing sustainably from her “team”—chickens, bees, orchard, and garden—down on the farm.

Introduction: The Living Organization

No words have received more of a workout in business literature these past few years than “green” and “sustainable.” As with any term that comes into vogue, often these words have been misused, bandied about, and made into buzzwords…words that seem to mean something vague without being precisely definable. Indeed, for some businesses, these words seem to cover up meaning rather than reveal it…as when major polluting or extractive industries dress business-as-usual in a green washed marketing campaign.

And yet, no concept could be more crucial to business today. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (2008) wrote, it is inescapably true that the world is becoming increasingly “hot, flat and crowded” (p. front cover). That is, the golden billion residents of the developed world are increasingly in competition with the other five billion residents of the planet for resources, jobs, and energy. For American business to thrive, we must abandon the paradigm under which our economy was built: the paradigm of limitless space, energy, resources; we must give up the illusory notion that the costs to air, water, and soil quality—as well as quality of human life here and abroad—do not have to be reckoned in figuring our bottom line. We cannot allow waste of human or other resources to be just a cost of doing business; we must figure out innovative and profit-sparking ways to eliminate waste, redesign systems, and power up our economy in ways that are not based on consuming expensive, nonrenewable assets.

Sustainability as a business concept comprises ideas from strategic planning, project management, process improvement, and financial management…as well as from systems theory, deep ecology, swarm theory, and biomimicry in design (Abe, 1998). It incorporates the total cost of ownership (TCO) concept with the green bottom line—a cost accounting method that considers costs to the environment, community, and human capital as well as financial costs (Goleman, 2003).

Thirty years ago, Shell Corporation strategist Arie de Geus began writing of the “living company”—an organization that survives over time because it is capable of growth and change in response to its environment (de Geus, 1997). Designing and managing today’s living company will require the commitment of every person from the CEO to the front-line workers to a set of values that might well be described as “back to the future.” Our pre-industrial forebears had knowledge of how to work with, instead of against, living systems to create wealth. We can apply that wisdom today…add technology…shake…and create businesses that will thrive in this century and the next.

In addition, by paying attention to the elegant design of natural systems, we can create products, systems, and organizations that capitalize on the simplicity and hardiness inherent in nature’s products and systems. The new field of biomimicry uses the natural world as a laboratory to spark innovation. (Benyus, 1997)

Welcome to the farm: a metaphor for the living organization of the 21st century and beyond.

A little background.

As a project management writer for 15 years, and a farmer for nearly 10, there’s been ample opportunity to mull over one side of my work while engaging in the other. When you are stuck on a research or writing project, there’s nothing like a little “remedial weeding” to clear the head. In the process, it has become clear how many parallels exist between farm management and project management. The Plum Orchard Farm Program consists of an integrated set of multiple projects. Even though there is a certain amount of repetitive operational work (weeding), most of the work of the farm takes place in simultaneous or overlapping projects—each one representing a unique product or event, with a timeline, a budget, and a standard of quality to be met. Each year’s garden is a project. Each honey harvest: a project. Each plum harvest: a project. Each flock of chickens: a project.

Because we farm organically, little in the way of purchased materials goes into the upkeep and improvement of the farm. Garden and kitchen waste is composted to create fertilizer to grow more produce; the waste from that produce goes back on the compost heap. Or, garden and kitchen waste is fed to the chickens or turned into eggs (or meat) and fertilizer. The bees pollinate the orchard and vegetable garden, at the same time stockpiling their own winter food (with a surplus for us). Because they are not exposed to pesticides either on our farm or on the hundreds of undeveloped mountain acres around us, they have not so far required any medications. The chickens do have purchased organic feed, but they vastly prefer to run around in the orchard and meadow eating bugs, weeds, and seeds. Because I sell the eggs we don’t eat, they essentially pay for their own bag of feed each month. There is, of course, a certain amount of attrition in the chicken workforce—mostly due to raccoons and possums—but they also replace themselves, raising two or three broods of chicks each year. The orchard provides food for bees, chickens, and humans, as well as wine and, in April, an excess of beauty along with a crop of morel mushrooms. The trees that break in snowstorms or grow old and unproductive make fabulous firewood. The ashes from the stove go on the garden to improve the potassium level of the soil. And so on.

It was brought home to me very clearly during the economic trials of 2008–2009 that this farm ecosystem, of which we humans are a part, is sustainable in the truest sense of the word. Because we work with the natural systems around us, we are insulated from a wide variety of problems. Our bees have not had colony collapse disorder (CCD) or any other serious health issues; only one chicken has died of illness in three years. As the garden soils (and my skills) improve, there are fewer and fewer problems with insects or disease. The price of food, for us, has actually gone down over the past three years, while the quality went up. As soon as my husband builds that biodiesel still he keeps talking about, so will the price of fuel.

This is my management laboratory, and these are the lessons learned.

Lessons from the Hive: Apis Mellifera, PMP

A spoonful of honey is an ordinary thing that is the result of extraordinary teamwork. Like a 70,000-member symphony, a hive of honeybees works in concert to further not only their own agenda—the health of the colony and the continuation of the species—but also to improve their immediate environment by pollinating and cross-pollinating the roughly two thirds of flowering plants and trees that depend on their labors to survive and bear fruit. Many people do not realize that approximately 60% of the food they eat is dependent on pollination by honeybees. Even meat is a honeybee byproduct since they are required to pollinate the fields of alfalfa and clover that feed livestock. An average hive, given adequate nectar sources within five miles, can produce well over 100 pounds (45.34 kg) of honey in a season, along with quantities of beeswax and pollen. Of this, they will need about 50 or 60 pounds to feed themselves through the winter. The rest is just…sweet. What lessons can project managers learn from the way Apis Mellifera manages her hive?

Communicate, communicate, communicate.

If you lay your ear up to the side of a beehive in the dead of winter, you can hear a low hum. The bees are keeping their queen warm (it is always 95 °F inside the hive, no matter what the temperature is outside) but they are also continuing the conversation that is the lifeblood of the hive. Bees “talk” to each other in multiple ways: through scent, touch, and dance, as well as with sounds. (Beekeepers quickly learn to distinguish between the soft happy hum of a contented hive and the high-pitched whine of angry, defensive bees.) They communicate endlessly about the location of food, the health of the queen, the tasks that need doing within the hive, dangers outside, and so on. There’s no such thing as “need to know” or information hoarding. Worker bees coming into the hive delight in telling everyone they pass where they have been and what they found.

Never waste resources.

The honeycomb in which bees store their winter food is a marvel of architecture. Each cell is perfectly structured and sized, as well as set into the surrounding cells to create maximum strength. And, because the wax is secreted by the bees, it takes incredible amounts of energy to produce it. Therefore, bees never waste honeycomb. After a cell has been emptied—either by larvae hatching out of it or honey being consumed—they scour it out with antibiotic propolis (a substance they manufacture from saps) and prepare it for reuse. They will reuse it repeatedly until it darkens with age, unless it gets moldy or becomes infested with moth larvae (things that never happen in a healthy hive).

Pay attention to the environment.

Bees never fall into the trap of pursuing a plan that no longer makes sense due to changes in the business environment. Sensitive to day length, temperature, and the presence or absence of resources (nectar and pollen), they nimbly replan each day—each hour —to make the most of their time and materials. Because they are constantly communicating with each other about their work and their environment, the whole hive can act with agility to, for example, save the honey from a forest fire, protect the brood nest from a bear, swarm and reestablish a new home, or take advantage of a windfall (such as a spilled jar of honey on the neighbor’s porch).

When a tough decision comes up, act for the long-term good of all.

Bees adore their queen. They caress, feed, clean, warm, cool, and protect her for her entire life (two or three years). Yet when a queen grows old, becomes ill, or is injured, they are ruthlessly pragmatic. Only a healthy queen can contribute to the long-term survival of the colony, so they will immediately begin to nurture up a new princess to replace her. If she hangs around after the young queen hatches, she will probably be killed. They are never fooled into thinking that a short-term solution exists to something as important as long-term survival.


In early spring, bees can be seen hanging around the sugar water in the hummingbird feeder. But the food value of sugar water is nothing compared to a tulip poplar blossom, which contains more nectar than 1,000 dandelions. So, when the poplar blossoms, the bees disappear from the hummer’s feeder. Bees place a clear priority on the highest-value sources of energy, and never bother with lesser sources while the poplars are available. In the portfolio of all nectar sources, bees have clearly prioritized what to work on first. Even clover will be devoid of bees while the poplar trees bloom. They are never tempted or confused by lesser priorities.

Strive for “zero defects.”

Honey never rots or ferments because the bees manufacture it to a standard of quality that any human enterprise should envy. By fanning the processed nectar with their wings after it is stored in the honeycomb, they dry it to a precise level of moisture content, then quickly cap it off with fresh wax. They do this millions of times per season, and the formula never varies. The same standard of quality applies to the construction of the comb in a hive. The cells of a honeycomb are unvarying, except when they are intentionally varied, for example, to allow them to hatch drone (male) bees or a new queen. If a clumsy beekeeper causes a tear in a comb, they immediately repair it back to a like-new condition.

Rotate jobs: it makes your workplace more sustainable.

When Robert Heinlein (1973, p 248) said, “specialization is for insects,” he was not talking about honeybees. The worker bees that make up over 95% of a hive all go through a series of apprenticeships, learning all about every aspect of their home and business as they grow. Young bees clean up around the house, older ones feed the young, mature bees forage and take turns warming the queen and serving guard duty. Only the queen is a specialist—because she possesses a critical skill that none of the other bees can perform (laying eggs)—she is relieved of all other duties.

Lessons from the Coop: A Team of Experts

Most people think chickens are stupid. I thought so, too, until I got to know them. Our chickens are not the modern over bred kind that has been engineered to produce only eggs or only meat. They are Cuckoo Marans, an heirloom French breed that are excellent all-around farm companions. They are good layers, excellent mothers, skilled foragers, and good to eat (this applies only to spare roosters, however. A hen is too valuable to eat.) They eradicate ticks from the pasture and grubs from the garden soil and turn weeds, bugs and kitchen scraps into valuable compost in short order. In short, they are more like the jungle birds that chickens originally were than like an industrial commodity. From observing their little society in and around the henhouse, I have learned a few things about leadership, power, and teamwork.

Leadership starts with language.

You can keep a flock of hens penned without a rooster and still have the benefit of the eggs. But you can’t let hens free-range without a rooster. The rooster is a servant leader: he looks around for food and when he finds something good, he makes an excited call to alert the hens—then he lets them run over and take the food right out of his mouth. Or, if he senses danger from a hawk or other predator, he makes a loud roaring noise. The hens dash under the rose bushes, but he struts out into the open, roaring and flapping as if to say: “Come and get me, I ain’t afraid of you!” He has language for dozens of situations that arise during the day—from “time to get up” to “come inside the coop, now, girls, it’s getting dark.” He keeps them together – scolding them if they get too far away – defends them from predators, alerts them to food—and courts them with a dance now and then during the day. Because he communicates clearly, in a language they understand, they follow him. Similarly, a mother hen relies on language to teach her chicks and keep them safe. From the time they are forming inside the egg, she talks to them. Thus, when they hatch, they recognize her voice from among all the other hens. She talks to them all day, using distinctive sounds to communicate messages like “Here’s food,” “Danger! Be still,” “Come with me,” and “Cut that out right now!” Without a clear, mutually understood language, these birds would not be able to thrive and succeed as a flock. How is a team or a family any different?

Don’t reinvent the wheel.

No incubator, brood pen, heat lamp, starter feed or any other man-made artifacts will ever improve on the system nature has devised for brooding and raising chicks. I’ve done it both ways and will never again—unless my entire flock should be tragically wiped out —buy chicks from a hatchery. First, chickens understand something humans do not: not everyone is cut out for motherhood. Only two of my hens have raised broods of chicks, but they excel at it and seem to enjoy it, choosing to do it over and over again. The eggs must be kept at a constant temperature and humidity, and turned gently but regularly – all of which the hen does without my having to think about it or use any electricity. From day one, they teach the chicks what to eat, where to drink, what is safe and what is dangerous. They protect them and forage for them, disdaining the chick ration from the time they can take the chicks outside to find greens and bugs. Under their mother’s care they are never sick, and they learn key skills that my hatchery chicks did not have: to come inside at dusk, and what a hawk looks like as compared to a crow. I get healthy, smart young chickens at no cost and with no effort, and the hen gets to do what she was meant to do. So, if it’s possible to choose between a proven natural system and one you made up out of your infinite wisdom and book learning—go with the natural system every time.

Stop managing and let self-management happen.

With a few exceptions (they can’t build their own henhouses, for example), chickens are experts at solving their own problems. New hens in the flock? Yes, there will be some bad tempered jockeying for position, but if you just leave them alone, they’ll sort it out. Proper nutrition? You can try to make them eat that commercial food but they’ll just quit laying eggs in protest. Turn them loose; they’ll feed themselves (and clean up the bugs in the process). Throw away the incubator and let the mother hen go broody (see above). Even a sick chicken has some wisdom about what to do for itself. The chicken website said to give my egg-bound hen warm baths and keep her penned up. She wasn’t happy, as you might imagine. Instead, I let her go. She lay in the sun and hung out alone near the coop for a week or so. Then one day she was back in the nestbox, lying. Likewise I’ve never given my hens any worm medicine because I notice that, now and then, they will nibble the leaves of black walnut saplings – a natural vermifuge. Most critters—people included—are capable of figuring things out on their own.

Processes: Lessons from Life

In the 10 years I have been gardening, improving the orchard, and keeping livestock, I have learned many difficult lessons. Some of them taught me not to be lazy (“Oh, a raccoon can’t get in there.” “Ah, how much can a few caterpillars eat, anyway?” “It’ll be good enough.”) but others have underscored the value of doing nothing—or of doing only one thing at a time. On a farm, we can only successfully initiate projects that are in tune with our climate, soils, and other elements of the natural environment—something my husband still hasn’t completely accepted. (“I don’t see why we can’t have a pomegranate tree.”) We can and do plan the garden and make plans for managing the livestock and orchard. But we understand that these things are alive and changeable. A spring snowstorm; a drought; an incursion of coyotes; a hurricane…any number of natural occurrences can overwhelm our plans or, as I prefer to think of it, join us in the replanning process. As for monitoring and controlling…I monitor and pray instead. I’ve given up on control. Here are a few process-related lessons.

When in doubt, do nothing and see what happens.

I often see gardeners go crazy trying to solve problems that don’t exist. Case in point: my friend called me to tell me I’d better dig up and burn all the raspberry canes I’d gotten from her garden the previous year, as hers had a kind of fungus. I didn’t—out of disorganization, mostly —and, after about three years of stunted raspberries, one spring they were better. They recovered. My pear tree did the same with a case of scab. Three years of poor health, then—an improvement. My doctor is fond of saying that the body heals itself if you let it. So does any living thing, provided it has proper nutrition and rest. An organization is also a living thing, and even when things get really dysfunctional, they have a way of righting themselves in time.

Accentuate the positive…buy the rest at the farmer’s market.

I can’t grow eggplant. And, after five or six years of trying, I wised up. So what? My friend Ron grows lovely eggplant, and I can swap the plum preserves that his wife makes for it. Instead of forcing and fussing, trying to conquer a difficulty, I decided to grow more of what I grow well. Now that I don’t bother with eggplant, I have more room for tomatoes. Focusing on what works well instead of trying to fix what’s broken is a management technique called Appreciative Inquiry. Use it to side-step problems instead of battling with them (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987).

Multitasking: the new way to do everything badly.

I just last week finally admitted that I cannot clean out the henhouse, water the garden, and keep an eye on the puppy at the same time. In trying to do so, I watered the chickens (ever heard the expression “madder than a wet hen?”), lost the dog (temporarily) and had to abandon the half-cleaned coop and start over later. Likewise, I cannot read a research report, answer an e-mail, and participate in the phone conference. One thing at a time. The quality of your work, and the quality of your experience while doing it, both improve with the application of attention.

Integration isn’t something you do: it’s a reality you respect.

When I hear someone say “I am going to integrate…” I think: hubris. Most systems, whether in nature or in organizations, have many interlocking parts. These are, by definition, integrated. They may not work the way you wanted them to; they may have unintended consequences; they may interlock in patterns you detest. But the reality is, you will not integrate them. The best you can hope for is to understand how things are connected, and work with that existing pattern to optimize it. For example: I wanted a park-like orchard. I reasoned, the trees would produce better if they were further apart. True. But. When the trees are far apart, the sun hits the ground and dries it out. This isn’t good for the plums, but it’s worse for the crop of morel mushrooms I get each April. And, more sun means more weeds, and more mowing. I had an integrated system in the orchard, where sun, shade, and water were in balance and I dis-improved it in a way that will require years to recover from. Lesson learned.

Finally…Life is iterative.

Lucky for us. There’s always another chance to do it better. Spring comes around; a new project is initiated. Everything feels fresh. Remember your mistakes, and take time to smell the roses—or the plum trees.


Abe, J., Dempsey, P., & Bassett, D. (1998). Business ecology: Giving your organization the natural edge. Boston: Butterworth-Heineman.

Benyus, J. (1997). Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature. New York: Harper.

Cooperrider, D., & Srivastva, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life [Electronic version]. Retrieved from See also Strider, W. (2003). Appreciative inquiry: A powerful project leadership tool. Retrieved from

de Geus, A. (1997). The living company. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Friedman, T. (2008). Hot, flat and crowded. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Goleman, D. ( 2009). Ecological Intelligence. New York: Broadway Books.

Heinlein, R.A. (1973) Time Enough for Love. New York: G.P Putnam

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

©2010 Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin
Originally published as part of Proceedings PMI Global Congress 2010 – Washington D.C.



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