In Methods of Design & Patterns

Rob here. As you can imagine, I think a lot about design. If you asked Michelle she’d tell you that I think a lot about everything. I think she sees my mind as an opportunity firehose that’s continuously spraying everyone with ideas. It can get overwhelming.

Until five years ago, we had no way of managing opportunities in general – we just ran after each one like hungry dogs. We were saying yes to everything, and it was burning us out and not getting us ahead.

That’s when Holistic Management (HM) came into our lives and changed everything.

Holistic Management is usually a framework used to manage complex land-based systems like farms. We had known about it for years, after watching a TED talk by Allan Savory on fighting desertification and reversing climate change. If you haven’t seen it, you really should. It’s one of the most hopeful videos I’ve ever watched:

The thing is, we never took note of holistic management because we didn’t have a farm to manage. But around five years ago, we stumbled onto a blog series from our friends and colleagues over at Very Edible Gardens (VEG) in Australia, and it changed our lives. You can find the updated series of posts HERE.

We suddenly realized that holistic management could not only be used to manage our potential future farm, but also our businesses and our personal lives. So what does that embracing HM mean?

Addition Through Subtraction


Just like permaculture and engineering, holistic management is a subtraction tool. If your life, your business, your farm, and your relationship represents an infinite number of possible directions, how do you make decisions that propel you toward the right job, site, work-life balance, financial situation, or partner?

Believe it or not, you subtract your way towards it.

Holistic management starts by defining the values you hold most dear on money, family, sustainability, community, personal aspirations, and a multitude of areas. It gives you a framework to test opportunities against that context. Decisions that meet all of your value criteria get a green light, while everything else gets a red light. Life gets more comfortable as you remove options; the trick is to weed out the wrong choices and keep the good ones.

Finding the Sweet Spot

Good design works in a similar fashion – by understanding existing constraints so you can get to the heart of the opportunity and maximize it. An excellent property design represents the intersection between two or more sets of criteria, which can include your values, the local ecology, and a range of legal, technological, and market forces. We use holistic management at Verge to help define client goals and then utilize permaculture, engineering, and economic principles to understand the rest – you can see an example of this in the Venn diagram below. When we define the constraints in overlapping modalities, there is a sweet spot left in the middle. That is where perfect design arises.

sum-of-possibilitiesTo put it another way, holistic management is the process of making the right decisions. It’s the skill no one ever taught us but one we need to feel confident that we made the right choices. It’s a method for eliminating decision remorse!


“Process is more important than the outcome. When the outcome drives the process, we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives the outcome, we may not know where we are going, but we will know we want to be there.” – Bruce Mau

Is HM Right For You?

Holistic management might be a fit for you if you are:

  • Looking to start a business.
  • Finding yourself tired from chasing too many opportunities.
  • Struggling to make life decisions quickly without regrets.
  • Feeling stuck and unsure at how to move forward.
  • Dealing with multiple decision makers in your business, non-profit, or farm and struggling to come to a consensus.
  • Living with a spouse who can’t stop creating opportunity to the point where things become overwhelming and puts a strain in your relationship. (Speaking from personal experience on this last one!)

Michelle is our holistic management whiz and guides our permaculture design students through the process in every PDC. Students are then able to come away from the course with the ability to start making sound decisions about the next steps in their lives.


Interested in learning more about how to make better decisions? Check out this video I did with Takota Coen on the importance of clarifying your visions, values, and resources.

And when you’re ready to begin your permaculture journey, download our free 60-page e-book primer that all students receive at the start of our 72-hour design course:

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