A colleague of mine recently took a job in an industry where he no longer had a greenhouse to care for and was feeling the challenge of learning new things. In his former job, he said, even if a meteorite fell onto his greenhouse, he would know exactly what to do, step by step, to return the chaotic environment to normalcy. He wasn’t bragging about his abilities as a greenhouse manager, but instead was making a point about the importance of experience in decision-making.
I felt his pain—after some years managing greenhouses at Purdue University, I eventually reached that same level of decision-making confidence in normal and chaotic moments at my own facility. What I have learned in three decades is that cultivating plants is a challenge hardly matched in other business sectors, as we are producing perishable products in a dynamic physical environment, cared for by fallible human beings. Even within our own agriculture sector, cannabis production is much more stringently regulated than other crop production, requiring more careful choices at every step. By contrast, nuts and bolts don’t wilt, aspirin pills are cranked out by machines, and software code can be saved indefinitely and re-opened.
That being the case, decision-making is that much more vital in a dynamic environment with live plants. You can optimize your decision-making environment just as you would in a pharmaceutical, manufacturing or tech field, to ensure best crop outcomes.
According to experts, one goal should be to reduce the number of decisions you have to make each day so you can concentrate on the ones that matter most. The best way to do this at work is to delegate decisions just as you would tasks. For example, a trusted assistant could sketch out a list of Tuesday’s priorities at the end of the day Monday.
Much can also be done to reduce your decision load even before your work day begins. Scan your electronic communications in the morning to ensure there are no urgent messages. This will help you resist the temptation to be drawn into these messages when you first arrive to work. That time should be set aside for a walk-through to prioritize tasks.
During this quick scan of the facility, take notes on tasks using your phone or a notepad. From these notes, prioritize your day based on this order:
When walking through your facility, identify hazards that could injure people. Those need immediate attention. This seems obvious, but remember you are scanning for both large and small hazards, such as a worker not wearing goggles around chemicals.
Safety of plants is your next concern—are any plants at immediate risk due to temperature or water stress? This is not checking for optimizing plants, which you’ll do later. This is a quick scan to make sure nothing catastrophic is about to take place.
You are also looking for problems that put your facility at risk. Uncommon odors or noises coming from equipment, unusual amounts of condensation, doors chocked open, etc. Again, this is not preparing a maintenance list, just a flash inspection.
If your walk-through indicates no safety problems, move on to the questions or needs of your employees or your customers. Dedicating time early in the day to your employees will empower them to make decisions on their own, reducing your own decision load. Likewise, your customers or the people you report to need to know that you will respond quickly to them if they’ve contacted you. You don’t have to resolve every issue completely, especially if you have crop needs to address, but at least reply, and if it is going to take longer than you can spend at the moment, ask them if you can finish with them later in the day and tell them why. Most understand you are prioritizing plant health for their benefit.
One way to make better decisions during the rest of the day is to slay the dragon: Do the job involving plants that you most dread doing. Maybe it’s mixing fertilizer, conducting pour-through substrate analysis or mailing tissue samples. If you don’t finish all of it, at least get most of it done. You will feel lightened and more creative, rather than dreading it all afternoon.
A second part of managing crops is making all the decisions that are required to schedule supplies and workers to come together for the next crop task or cycle. This is truly the unsung work of managers because you are holed up in your office doing behind-the-scenes work. You would prefer to be making decisions about the current crop, but not doing these tasks will lead to bedlam for that future crop, with short-staffing or idle employees, or short supplies. Because you completed these same tasks a month ago, today you will have time to spend with your cultivation team, making the decisions about watering, fertilization and unique applications of light to optimize your crop.
Your decision-making ability is a limited resource and needs to be preserved. A law of diminishing returns applies. As you tire, decision making becomes more difficult and prone to error. That is why the final word in my order of tasks is “administration,” as these tasks often don’t require critical decision making: following-up with customers or stakeholders, repairing equipment, filling in for a team member, record keeping and answering all those emails you resisted earlier in the day.
Some managers make better decisions later in the day. There is nothing wrong with reversing the order above as long as you are not holding your team up. For example, you might prefer to do your walk-through and planning for the following day after most of the team has gone home and fewer distractions exist. Either way, your goal is to manage your decision-making environment, starting even before you arrive on site, to reduce and prioritize your decision load.
Here are some specific decision-making tips for managing crops, facilities and employees:
1. Measure the Success of Your Decisions. You’re probably already rationalizing your decisions in case someone asks; why not jot those rationalizations down along with how you came to the decision? Come back to it a month later. Or ask for input from your team. They may hold back their opinions while you’re making a decision, but a month later will tell you what they’ve observed as a result of it. Patterns may emerge from this measurement, such as discovering that decisions that you made collaboratively tend to be more successful.
2. Verbalize the Problem. Having difficulty making a decision? Talking it out can make a solution clear. Occasionally, when seeking the advice of my technician, I would answer my own question by the time I had finished describing the problem!
3. Develop “Averted Vision.” This is a term most often used in astronomy that describes seeing a very faint star with the naked eye by using your peripheral vision and focusing just to the side of the object instead of looking straight at it. In a greenhouse, this translates to: If it’s not an urgent problem, do another task for a while to clear your head. How many times has a solution come to you driving home from work or at home in the shower? This is averted-vision problem-solving at its finest.
4. “Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good.” If you favor perfectionism, which is common in managers, this Voltaire quote can be useful to hasten today’s decisions. Doing everything as well as you can in the given time frame will create a better product than completing most steps perfectly and one or two poorly because you ran out of time. This is why your teachers told you to try to answer every question on an exam and then double check them, rather than getting hung up on one question and risk not finishing.
5. With Plants, First, Do No Harm. Making decisions in a panic can lead to overly aggressive action, such as spraying a pesticide before testing it on a few plants or tripling the dose of a micronutrient. Any action you take must first and foremost not be detrimental to your crop.
6. Remember, There Are No Silver Bullets. Avoid decisions based on an anecdote or claim that this one input change is going to solve all your problems, such as preventing powdery mildew or increasing yield of every cultivar.
7. Follow the Data. Before deciding on a cultivation change, run a test. Control the experiment so only one variable is being changed between your control group and treatment(s). Test at least two cultivars. Be patient enough to repeat the test a second time to confirm—this is vital and often overlooked. To better understand results and perhaps gain buy-in from your team, ask them to evaluate the completed study. Label the treatments so they can come to their own conclusions.
8. Err Toward Flexible-Use With Your Facility. For example, I typically do not like to bolt down tables or hard-wire lighting fixtures, in case I reconfigure the grow room later. Build wide doors and corridors to get future equipment in. When in doubt on design decisions, fall back on flexibility.
9. Design for Maintenance. Architects have rarely worked in a plant growth facility, and general contractors will only follow their blueprints. A grower needs to be on the design team to make sure that, for example, the shade curtain in a greenhouse will not be blocked by the structure and conduit, making it nearly impossible to reach for repairs, or to remind architects that grow rooms should be designed to be pressure washed and disinfected between crops.
10. Teach the Ignorant; Punish the Noncompliant. When trying to decide how to handle an employee error, remember that if they weren’t properly trained, it is your fault. Also, some mistakes are honest ones. A reprimand is not justified until they are knowingly noncompliant.
11. Don’t Hit Send. If you’re feeling emotional, decide to send that hot email or text you wrote after you’ve cooled down. In fact, a good policy is that electronic communications should only be used for neutral or positive responses. Pick up the phone or visit the person face to face to deal with issues.
12. Decide to Take Responsibility When Bad Things Happen. Accepting the blame, apologizing and fixing the problem can build trust with employees, customers or shareholders better than if nothing had ever gone wrong. Sometimes, you need to take the blame for the greater good—even when the blame is not yours.
The best decision-makers I know conduct themselves with behavior beyond reproach and with a realistic, yet relentless, positivity. They set a tone that decisions are made based on the organization’s values, provide an example to employees, and also quietly bring in their own ethical code, knowing these are the actions that speak louder than words. They are the type of people who decide to start picking up the pieces when a meteorite hits their facilities.