A Guide for Holistic Decision-Making | The Context Checks *

Photo by Susan Q-Yin Ctaj on Unsplash.

With our Holistic Context in hand (please see accompanying article on Holistic Decision-Making), we are ready to start making decisions that are consistent with our context. Answer the context checks or checking questions below with either yes or no. Any decision that leads to a yes for all relevant checks passes the test and ensures it is consistent with our context.

It will become apparent that not all questions apply in all situations so skip any questions that don’t apply. With time and practice you will develop a feel for which questions apply and which don’t. For example, Gross Profit Analysis only applies when directly comparing two or more enterprises.

Importantly, don’t dwell on the questions, the practice is to move through the questions quickly to build speed in the decision-making process. If you get stuck answering a question because you lack information, your time is better spent acquiring the information first, rather than try to arrive at a decision without all the information at hand.

The Context Checks:

1. Cause and effect.

Will this action address the root cause of the problem? Ask yourself “what is really going on here?”

This check carries significant weight when taking an action to address a problem. It helps you to identify actions that might only address symptoms rather than focusing on the root cause. If the problem persists or returns, you haven’t addressed the root cause. Identifying the cause of a problem can be easy or require considerable probing. You merely ask yourself the same questions over and over again. What is the cause of this? You may need to ask yourself the question 3 or 4 times to peel away layers to actually identify the root cause.

2. Weak Link.

A chain stretched to breaking will, by definition, break at its weakest link. At any moment in time every chain has one weakest link that accounts for the strength of the entire chain, regardless of how strong the other links might be. To strengthen a chain, one must first attend to the weakest link. Other links, no matter how frail are non-problems until the weakest link is fixed. This check applies in either social, biological or financial situations.

• Social: Have I/we considered and/or addressed any confusion, anger or opposition this action could create with people whose support I/we will need in the near or distant future? Ask yourself “Could we upset our future resource base? Can we avoid it?”

Any action that runs counter to prevailing attitudes or beliefs is likely to meet resistance, creating a blockage. If not addressed, it will at some point become a weak link between you and the people whose support for you is important if not vital. In choosing to turn our home into a front yard farm, the lack of support from our neighbours was potentially a weak link for us, however, addressing this helped us avoid this possibility.

• Biological: Does this action address the weakest point in the life cycle of this organism?

This check applies when we are trying to eradicate an undesired plant, insect or animal species. The weakest point in the life-cycle of most organisms is during the juvenile stage. Therefore, an outbreak is best controlled at the weakest point in their life cycle which for plants is during germination and not when it’s mature and flowering.

• Financial: Does this action strengthen the weakest link in the chain of production?

This check applies to businesses. All enterprises have three steps in the chain of production. 1) Resource conversion – the conversion of raw resources into saleable forms; 2) Product conversion – the development of products into marketable forms and 3) Money conversion (marketing) – the conversion of saleable products into money deposited in your bank account. In your enterprise where is the weakest link in your resources, products or marketing? One of these will always be the weakest and fixing that link will strengthen the overall chain of production. Putting time and money into marketing will make little difference to the enterprise if the products aren’t sufficiently developed.

3. Greatest return on investment (marginal reaction).

For each additional unit of time or money I/we invest, which action provides the greatest return toward my/our holistic context? Ask yourself “What will give me/us the biggest bang for my/our buck?”

This check applies when you are directly comparing two or more actions that have passed the other checks. We all have a limited amount of time and money and no two actions can possibly provide the same return for each unit of effort (time or money) invested. This question asks you to consider which action is more likely to provide the greatest return on your investment of time and or money. Investing our time and money in this action will get us closer to our holistic context more quickly.

4. Gross profit analysis.

Which enterprise/s contribute the most to covering the overheads of the business?

This check applies when you are comparing two or more enterprises and is particularly useful during financial planning. This check helps identify which enterprise or combination of enterprises are the best to create profit and minimise risk. Simply put, this analysis looks at the income likely derived from an enterprise and deducting the additional money you would need to spend to bring in that income. The difference between money in and money out is the gross profit. The additional money to be spent is that money you would not spend unless you undertook the enterprise. This check only considers money earned and spent while the other checks consider other factors. Furthermore, this is the only check that requires pencil and paper and is usually more time consuming than the other checks.

5. Energy/money source and use.

Is the energy or money used in this action derived from the most appropriate source in terms of my/our holistic context? Will the way energy or money be used lead toward my/our holistic context? Ask yourself “Is this an appropriate source of energy/money, now, and is this an appropriate way to use it, now? Can I/we be more inspired?”

This check examines both the sources and patterns of use of the energy and money used. It is helps avoid actions likely to lead you into an increasing dependency on, or addiction to, fossil fuels or other inputs and avoid actions involving an addictive use of borrowed money and paying compound interest. We group energy and money together in this check because any action usually requires one or the other, and often both.

The first part of this check examines the source of energy and money.

Energy availability is either abundant and unlimited or in limited supply. Solar energy is unlimited whereas fossil fuels e.g., petrol for your car or machinery, is not. In terms of environmental damage, energy sources are benign, potentially damaging or damaging. Choosing to walk or ride a bicycle is benign whereas driving a car is more damaging.

Money used to implement actions can be internal or external. Internal money comes from your earnings – what your land/business can generate, and savings. External money typically comes from a bank or other lending institution – we need to be wary here as this money usually has compound interest associated with it. External money also comes from government sources in the form of grants and subsidies – care should be exercised here as this money can be addictive and sudden withdrawal can spell financial ruin.

In the second part of this check, we examine how the money and energy will be used and whether it is appropriate for your holistic context. Energy and money that is used to build infrastructure (e.g., buildings, machinery, transport, trained staff, specific knowledge base etc), or used cyclically, where your money grows and energy renews without further inputs, are preferable to consumptive uses that have no lasting effect. Many running costs, like fuel for vehicles or accountant fees, are consumptive and if the action passes most of the other checks it tends to pass this one too. Importantly, what we want to avoid are addictive uses of money and energy. An addictive use is one that obliges us to take the same action again and again, possibly with increasing frequency and increased cost. Examples include fossil-fuel derived chemical fertilisers or credit cards bearing high and compounding interest.

6. Sustainability.

If I/we take this action, will it lead us toward or away from the future resource base described in my/our holistic context? Ask yourself “Do we seem to be headed in the right direction?”

This check specifically focuses on one aspect of your holistic context. The future resource base describes the environment and behaviours that will be essential to sustain the quality of life you desire for yourself and your descendants. This check ensures that the actions you take to meet short-term demands also provide lasting gain – that they are socially, environmentally, and economically sound in terms of the future as well as the present.

Reflect on your holistic context and the future resource base you described. In terms of your behaviour, if you describe yourself as honest, reliable and trustworthy, you want to ensure the actions you take reflect your values. We also want to ensure the actions we take now are consistent with the future landscape and environment we described.

7. Gut Feel.

Considering all the other checks and my/our holistic context how do I/we feel about this action now? Will it lead us toward the quality of life we desire? Will it adversely affect the lives of others? This is very much a feeling checking question. Let your emotions have a say. Ask yourself “what is my gut feeling?”

This is the final check and is intended for you to test how you feel about the proposed action. An action may have passed all the other checks, yet it doesn’t feel right. Conversely, an action may not have passed most of the other checks but it feels like the right thing to do. In this last situation one can implement a plan to transform any negative consequences into positive outcomes. Notice your gut feel. What is it telling you?

This final check also asks you to consider whether an action may adversely affect the lives of others – from those outside your immediate whole to the greater society you live in. Pleasing everybody is impossible but you can go a long way by embracing the holistic principle that the health of your particular interest is not distinct from the greater whole.

A final word on the context checks

Using the context checks might feel awkward at first and with practice, the checking will become second nature. Our goal is to build muscle in the decision-making practice and the checking questions. Remember we learn more from our failures than we do our successes, and imperfect action is better than perfect inaction. Heading in the direction we want to regardless of how perfect it is, is preferable to going nowhere or away from what we desire.

To support you on your journey as you practice Holistic Decision-Making, we’ve summarised this guide to a concise Context Checks Summary in a convenient list.


* Holistic decision-making checks have been sourced and adapted from e-Book five – Holistic Decision Making | Ensuring Decisions Are In Context from the Savory Institute.