In “Solving for Pattern,” Wendell Berry writes about organic farming principles. Still, he offers a systems perspective applicable to startups and growing businesses that need to develop both staff and technology to thrive.
Seven Insights from “Solving for Pattern” by Wendell Berry
Here is my condensed version of his definitions for a good and bad solution to a problem:
- A bad solution causes a ramifying series of new problems. It relies on a definition of the problem that is either false or so narrow as to be virtually false.A bad solution is bad, then, because it acts destructively upon the larger patterns in which it is contained.
- A good solution causes a ramifying series of solutions. A good solution is good because it is in harmony with those larger patterns.
Wendell Berry offers several tests for what constitutes a good solution. All of these quotes are taken from his essay “Solving for Pattern.”
Start Small and Local
A good solution accepts given limits, using so far as possible what is at hand. The farther-fetched the solution, the less it should be trusted.
At a minimum, you are well served to start with small local solutions and judge their effect before moving farther afield. With people, it’s worth inviting them to change behavior that is impacting team members, customers, partners, or prospects negatively. Provide feedback on what they are doing well. Catching people doing a good job is more effective than focusing only on the negative. Sometimes you have to change team composition, but you want to do so after it’s clear you have given a team member multiple opportunities to improve. It’s easy to imagine “there are better people out there,” but determining who will be effective in your startup can be as challenging as helping existing team members develop their capabilities.
For me, the key indicators to look for are a willingness to improve on the part of the team member–remembering that you need to hold yourself to the same standard and work with humility to improve yourself, as you may be contributing to the problem.
Strive for Balance and Harmony
A good solution improves the balances, symmetries , or harmonies within a pattern–it is a qualitative solution – rather than enlarging or complicating some part of a pattern at the expense or in neglect of the rest.
Team members need to have their own lives, they need sleep, time off for family and community obligations, and for rest and relaxation. If your solution involves everyone working harder forever it’s not going to work.
Select Actions that Address Multiple Challenges Without Adding New Ones
A good solution solves more than one problem, and it does not make new problems.
Two bird stones–killing two birds with one stone or solving two problems with one intervention–are a delight when you can find them. I think you need to settle for trading a painful and poorly understood set of problems for a better defined and much less severe set of challenges that you still need to keep an eye on. If each new set of interventions brings more clarity and less severity then you are on the right track.
Evaluate a Possible Approach Based on All Relevant Criteria
A good solution will satisfy a whole range of criteria; it will be good in all respects.
The key word here is “satisfy.” Many engineers who become entrepreneurs like to optimize to look for the best or even the perfect solution. If you can be content with a good solution across a wide range of criteria, you can prosper as an entrepreneur.
Don’t Go For Broke: Build in Margin for Error
Good solutions have wide margins, so that the failure of one solution does not imply the impossibility of another. Industrial agriculture tends to put its eggs into fewer and fewer baskets, and to make “going for broke” its only way of going.
We get behind our original timelines, or things go wrong, and we craft interventions that assume that everything will go right from here on out. It’s better to keep taking small steps, leaving a margin for error and time and resources for additional iterations. Unlike math homework, where you find the “right answer” at the intersection of multiple constraints, most real-world solutions are in intermediate trade-off points that are good enough and leave you room to maneuver and improvise in the likely event of the unexpected.
Ask Those Who Have a Stake in the Outcome for Advice
Good solutions exist only in proof, and are not to be expected from some absentee owners or absentee experts. Problems must be solved in work and in place, with particular knowledge, fidelity, and care, by people who will suffer the consequences of their mistakes. There is no theoretical or ideal practice. Practical advice or direction from people who have no practice may have some value, but its value is questionable and is limited.
I read a lot and try to listen and learn from as many smart people as I can. But it’s dangerous to take advice from those who don’t have skin in the game. Just because you are paying an expert does not mean that they have skin in the game. Taking free advice in a public forum requires even more caution. There is wisdom in books that have been around a while and peers who have seen your same problem. Be cautious about acting on advice from the uninvolved.
Play a Long Game: Build Trusted Relationships
“It is the nature of any organic pattern to be contained within a larger one. And so a good solution in one pattern preserves the integrity of the pattern that contains it. A good solution is in harmony with good character, cultural value, and moral law.”
Sometimes the reality of our situation means that prospects would not buy from us, or potential employees or partners would not choose to join forces if they knew the truth. Resist the temptation to withhold material information or actively misrepresent the reality of your startup.
About Wendell Berry and “Solving for Pattern”
Wendell Berry originally wrote “Solving for Pattern” for “the New Farm” periodical published by Rodale Press. It was included as chapter 9 in his book of collected essays “The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural.” The book is available in Archive.org at Gift of Good Land and the essay is also online in PDF form. You can also visit the Berry Center to learn more about his writing.
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