Stuck on a problem? Try using a gardener’s perpective: the permaculture approach to problem solving

Problems. As a human being I love them. In fact, just like everyone else, my brain is a 24/7 problem solving machine – often going to the trouble of inventing imaginary problems for me to find hypothetical solutions to. However, despite all of this practice my brain sometimes needs a hand to arrive at a neat solution to a challenging problem.

Over the last couple of months I have been experimenting with using a ‘permaculture approach to problem solving’. Permaculture is the development of agricultural ecosystems that are sustainable and self-sufficient. At first sight agriculture might seem to have little to do with the work of a psychologist. However, the idea behind permaculture is to use careful observation of the environment to arrive at creative and sustainable solutions. This definitely is something that is relevant to my work.


I’ve set out some of the principles that I find most useful below. I’d really recommend using these principles for any problem you are working on at the moment – whether it’s a work problem, a personal problem, a large problem, or a small one. I’ve found that I can come to much more creative and novel solutions when I use these principles. They are also really useful at opening up my ideas if I am feeling a bit stuck.


Work with nature rather than against it

Whatever the problem is that you are trying to solve this principle recommends that you work with the ‘environment’ of the problem rather than against it. The idea is to work with the forces and patterns that are there rather than trying to change them. So if you are trying to solve a problem within an organisation work with the organisation not against it. Features of the ‘environment’ may include key relationships, patterns of activity, and key drivers of energy – using a permaculture approach you would work with this system, using it to help you solve our problem rather than attempting to tackle the problem head-on. This is the equivalent of surfing a wave (using the energy in your environment to help you achieve your goals) rather than shouting at the tide not to come in.  A key aspect to this is observation. Just like a surfer you need to observe the patterns, check the weather reports, use predictable seasonal trends to know when and where you’ll find the wave with the most energy to give you a ride back to shore. So take the time to spot the patterns, see the connections, and identify the key drivers and then think about how you can work with these environmental characteristics to achieve your goals.


The problem is also a solution

Permaculture has a pretty sophisticated and flexible approach to problems and solutions. It recognises that ‘one man’s weed is another man’s flower’ – it’s all about your perspective. For example, the problem of ‘too much work’ is also the solution to other problems like ‘too little money’ or ‘lack of career progression’ – it’s too simplistic to only see it as a problem and to only see it in isolation from other things. So when you are trying to solve a problem try to work out what the problem is also a ‘solution’ to – this will help you see how the problem relates to the things around it. This will not only help you think of novel solutions but it will also help identify the kinds characteristics your ‘solution’ will need to have if it is to sit well with its environment.


Make the least change for the greatest possible effect

Permaculture is about being a gardener, not a builder. The approach to change needs to be subtle. Whilst you can do a lot to a garden over a weekend with a bulldozer and a team of people the real key to gardening is on-going, low level nurturing. Small changes that are nurtured well over time will have a greater impact than a ‘blitz’ approach. So rather than blitzing a problem in a short term way would it be more useful to see it as a longer term project? Could you make small changes, make them well, and nurture them over the long term?


Look at the whole system or problem

Use a wide lens when you are problem solving. Rather than just focusing on the problem close-up zoom-back and see the ecosystem within which the problem operates. See the whole space rather than simply focusing on the one ‘problem’ part. This approach will help you see a different set of patterns and relationships – often it is spotting these patterns and working with them that will help you create the change you are looking for.


Use edges and value the marginal

This principle is based on the observation that the edges where two environments meet can be the most fertile and diverse habitats. Nature sees the value in difference coming together. Sometimes these differences are the marginal ones rather than the mainstream ones. Identify the ‘edges’ or the points of contact in your environment as these might be the most fertile areas for finding solutions or implementing change. Don’t necessarily look for a mainstream solution – get creative, look for your solution in the less obvious places.


To sum up the tips in this blog:

  • Observe the environment and work towards a solution using existing patterns and energy flows
  • Ask yourself – is your problem really a problem? What is your problem also a solution to? Is your proposed solution also a problem?
  • What would be the smallest change that you could make which, if nurtured over time, would lead to the greatest possible change?
  • Get a wide perspective – zoom back from the problem and see how the whole ecosystem works.
  • Look for solutions in the edges, points of connection, and marginalised parts of the environment