Review: How "The Biggest Little Farm" Movie is Like Doing Organization Development #IdoOD

by Ed Kang - Executive President GSU

Last week, while spending time with Dr. Dean Elias, president of GSU, we watched the documentary movie The Biggest Little Farm. It was extraordinary. I highly recommend it. And while I was watching and munching on popcorn, I couldn’t help but think working on a traditional farm was exactly what doing organization development (OD) is and should be.


As per the movie synopsis:

The Biggest Little Farm follows two dreamers and their beloved dog when they make a choice that takes them out of their tiny L.A. apartment and into the countryside to build one of the most diverse farms of its kind in complete coexistence with nature. The film chronicles their near decade-long attempt to create the utopia they seek, planting 10,000 orchard trees, hundreds of crops, and bringing in animals of every kind– including an unforgettable pig named Emma and her best friend, Greasy the rooster. When the farm’s ecosystem finally begins to reawaken, their plan to create perfect harmony takes a series of wild turns, and to survive they realize they'll have to reach a far greater understanding of the intricacies and wisdom of nature, and of life itself.

Again, I can’t recommend it enough. Go see it! Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about traditional farming and OD.

Traditional Farming and OD Are About Systems

In the Biggest Little Farm, our main characters were trying to build an ecosystem that would harmonize with nature and allow every plant and animal to play a contributing role. This meant increasing the biodiversity across the entire the farm system with literally every fruit tree and animal you can imagine. Even manure was fed back into the system to create cycles of flourishing growth.

In the same way, OD takes a systems approach and benefits from diversity. Instead of looking at individual functions or roles, OD looks at how each sub-system affects the overall system in its own unique way. Strategy, talent, and culture are all systems. And they affect other systems like performance, process and management. The OD practitioner works with stakeholders to change systems so the organization can flourish in their diversity.

Every Problem is a Systems Opportunity for Capacity and Growth

Traditional farming meant that solving problems required a natural systems approach. For example, a major challenge in the movie were coyotes that kept hunting the chickens. But instead of killing the predators, the farmers chose to make changes to the system instead. When gophers kept eating the crops and a snail infestation threatened to destroy trees, they did the same thing. No poisons or chemicals were used to harm any animals. Solutions were found. But not without first struggling with a sense of hopelessness and being overwhelmed.

In the movie, our farmers eventually saw every problem as an opportunity for a creative solution that harmonized with nature. They learned to first step back and observe. Then they experimented with solutions while learning along the way. This is what OD is all about! The OD practitioner takes a problem, analyzes it, then comes up with a systemic solution that combines action and learning. This takes patience. OD practitioners, just like our farmers, can always take easier (and most often cheaper) ways out. But we shouldn’t if we have the long term sustainable health of the organization in mind.

Systems Resilience Saves Farms and Organizations

Slight spoiler alert: In The Biggest Little Farm, there is a drought followed by a flood. While surrounding farms are damaged by the soil being blown by wind and then swept away by water, this didn’t happen for our two farmers. Their approach to farming, through a system called “cover crops”, sucked up all the water and held the soil in place.

The reason other farmers didn’t use cover crops is because of the added expense and are considered inefficient. This is a big lesson for us in OD. The expense and effort that goes into OD programs, such as a culture of continuous learning and employee development, add to organizational resilience. OD provides a foundation that, when the flood waters come (which they always do), the company is not swept away. And in these VUCA times of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, organizations will rely on OD more and more to navigate tough times with resilience.

Every Farm and Organization Needs a Community Vision and Mission

What impressed me is how many different types of individuals were attracted to the vision and mission of The Biggest Little Farm. Everybody, from the investor to worker, were stakeholders motivated by something deeper and more meaningful than the hard work on a farm. They laughed, cried and celebrated together as a single community.

I couldn’t stop thinking through the movie what it would be like to have everybody in an organization come together, united by a vision and mission, like the stakeholders on The Biggest Little Farm. When everybody shares and is inspired by the same values, there is little need for traditional authoritative management structures. When teams work in a community (team of teams), organizations thrive.

The Courage to Say “I Do OD”

It took enourmous courage to embrace traditional farming the way it was shown on The Biggest Little Farm. I believe it takes courage to do organization development in the same way. If you are an aspiring OD practitionier, go check it out and I hope it encourages you as much as it did for me.