Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Quinoa Quandary - 3 Lessons about Leadership in Complex Systems

Quinoa (pronounced keen-WAH), the faddish starchy grain that has exploded in foodie and vegan markets, is now unaffordable by the very people who have lived on it for centuries: 
Adventurous eaters liked its slightly bitter taste and the little white curls that formed around the grains. Vegans embraced quinoa as a credibly nutritious substitute for meat. Unusual among grains, quinoa has a high protein content (between 14%-18%), and it contains all those pesky, yet essential, amino acids needed for good health that can prove so elusive to vegetarians who prefer not to pop food supplements.
Sales took off. Quinoa was, in marketing speak, the "miracle grain of the Andes", a healthy, right-on, ethical addition to the meat avoider's larder (no dead animals, just a crop that doesn't feel pain). Consequently, the price shot up – it has tripled since 2006 – with more rarified black, red and "royal" types commanding particularly handsome premiums. 
But there is an unpalatable truth to face for those of us with a bag of quinoa in the larder. The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken. Outside the cities, and fuelled by overseas demand, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a portfolio of diverse crops into quinoa monoculture.
What seemed like a good thing--eating a healthier alternative grain--had unforeseen negative systemic effects--rising food prices, unbalanced South American economy, worsening dieting habits for already-impoverished people, etc.

This is why systems thinking matters. There are always ripple effects.

Individually, the consumption of quinoa makes perfect sense. I want to eat healthier. I've heard good things about quinoa. I'll buy it and eat it. So the thinking goes. But this isn't just about me and my food; this is about a global economy, sustainable environmental practices, and undernourished children in South America.

Why should I have to think about all that? Globalization, South American agricultural practices, the price of soy beans...I just want to eat lunch.

Lunch just got more complex. This what a complex organic system is like. Systems are at work all around us, whether we realize it or not. Your family is a system. Your neighborhood is a system. Every church is its own system that is within the larger system of the global Church and the kingdom of God. Viewing my choices and motives through an overly-individualistic lens ignores the reality before me--my decisions may have profound impact, good or bad, on other people. Yes, I'm just eating my lunch. But the process of that lunch arriving before me for my individual consumption involves hundreds of other lives around the world.

Here are three leadership lessons we can learn from the quinoa quandary:

1. View every situation through the lens of relationship and interconnection. No man is an island. Every person's choices and decisions can have ripple effects throughout a system or community. When you look through the lens of relationship instead of individualism, you might see the ripples before they even begin. Don't miss the individuals that make up the system, but don't forgo the system for your own individualistic desires.

2. Good intentions don't always result in loving actions. Nobody adding quinoa to their diet is thinking, "boy, I sure do want to ruin the nutritional habits of multiple countries in the southern hemisphere." But that's what is happening, regardless of intention. If our best intentions don't translate to loving and life-giving actions, then they weren't really the best.

3. The small decisions matter. Tiny compromises, seemingly insignificant boundary slips, or a handful of morally-grey choices might end up causing more damage than anyone could have foreseen. When the small decisions multiply over time, we may end up with either a huge mess or a huge blessing, depending on the Christ-like nature of those decisions.

Which of these three lessons do you resonate with most? Any others we can learn from this situation?

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