Improving management through the principles of permaculture

Drawing on the ethics of sustainable agriculture, Julien Marcel et al explore how managers could enable employees to unleash their potential and improve productivity

If the word ‘ecosystem’ can be applied to business environments as well as to interconnected living beings, why not apply the principles of permaculture to management? Drawing inspiration from the ethics of sustainable agriculture, we propose ‘permanagement’ as a new perspective on management. 

Sustainable development has been firmly set on this planet's agenda for decades now, and to improve their so-called ‘triple bottom line’ – financial, social and environmental performance – businesses are constantly exploring new models. We suggest a new perspective on management which may be fruitful within any macroeconomic model: permanagement, from ‘permanent’ and ‘management’. 

Drawing inspiration from permaculture, we propose to transpose agricultural long-term vision to management. Why such a biomimetic perspective? The analogy is quite simple: like a living ecosystem, a business ecosystem may thrive if designed and nurtured appropriately. 

Understanding permaculture

But what exactly is permaculture? The term describes a holistic approach that combines age-old wisdom and scientific knowledge about the functions and interactions of plants, animals and natural elements. Its guiding principle is to work with nature, rather than against it, in order to preserve fertility and foster resilience..

Is permaculture efficient? 

Before enthusiastically transposing agricultural solutions to the business world, perhaps we should question their efficiency. After all, designing orchards-cum-animal farms where rotten fruit feed chickens whose droppings in turn fertilise soil sound all very nice and bucolic on paper, but can it actually feed us? 

Only since 2008 has there been much literature on the efficiency of permaculture, and the few existing studies do show positive outcomes regarding production and income. So there is every reason to apply this approach – a global productivity calculated over the long term – outside agriculture. 

The ethics and principles of permanagement

The notion of better business and the goal of ‘creating sustainable value’ can be aligned with the spirit and the goals of permaculture. We envision permanagement as a system based on three pillars:

  • Ecosystem impact: observe, map and manage your impact on your environment (minimising the negative impact and maximising the positive impact).

  • Employee flow: ensure everyone finds their ‘right place’ in the organisation and unleashes their potential.

  • Perma-productivity: embrace an approach of productivity oriented towards sustainable long-term benefits.

Adopting a new lens to see through

We started with an analogy between nature and the ecosystem of a human activity – the word ecosystem itself is already a metaphor drawn from interrelated organisms in nature, and extended to the business world. And just as we may derive short-term benefits from certain agricultural practices which turn out to be detrimental in the long term, certain business practices raise serious issues in the long run. 

Having thus shaped a new mental lens through which to view business, let's also admit that this powerful lens distorts the picture. Yes, permanagement is biased – towards sustainability. But it is an explicit choice, with a clear commitment to design better business and create sustainable value.

There are three perspectives on management we find meaningful and enlightening when considering the ethics of permanagement. 

  1. Defining management as "the art of getting things done through people” (Mary Parker Follet) attributes a central role to people. It echoes with the “employee flow” ethic.

  2. “Management is something that relates to human beings. Its task, its duty, is to make people capable of producing a common result, to give efficiency to their abilities, and to make their weak points unimportant,” (Peter Drucker). This relates to perma-productivity. 

  3. We can also see management as "a vulnerable force, under pressure to achieve results and endowed with the triple power of constraint, imitation and imagination, operating on subjective, interpersonal, institutional and environmental levels” (Ghislain Deslandes, 2014). This shows how dynamic, fragile, and systemic management is. It highlights the interconnection of the three ethics.

How can this be applied? Permanagement is both precise enough to orient decisions and generic enough to be adapted to various specific situations, from digital transformation to entrepreneurship. Once it has shaped mental models, it can become systemic. It is not about inventing a brand-new management, but rather about using a filter through which to analyse and choose existing management practices, or designing a whole new set, with a view to better business and sustainability. 

Julien Marcel, Marion Rouzeaud, Yannick Meiller and Véronique Tran wrote the study Permanagement: a perspective on management inspired by permaculture (Impact Paper No.2021-25-EN) for ESCP Business School