Two years ago, an old tree at the top of our garden lost a battle with one of the increasingly powerful winter storms we are having. We cleared away the debris and decided to leave it to see if it would recover, as it has been part of this ground far longer than we have. Watching it adapt has been a real lesson, and all the signs are it has life in it for many years yet.
As we face our societal versions of winter storms bringing down institutions and conventions about our ears, our tree seems like a good teacher.
- It’s not trying to get back to what it was; it’s becoming something new. The new tree will not look like the one that came down.
- Its resilience lies in its root system, not the structure it had created.
- It is an old tree connected to the ancient woodland around it; it is not alone.
- It is adapting daily, does not have a plan, and hasn’t hired a single consultant.
That is a long way from how business has become accustomed to working.
We build structures around something that works and expect it to stay that way, even as the markets it serves change a little every day. We make them brittle by forcing them to become efficient and focused on short term performance rather than resilience. We disconnect them from the people who work in them and the communities that host them, and when they fail, we walk away and leave them to rot, as the debris in our city centres and former industrial areas illustrates.
We allow ourselves to believe that these businesses can only be understood and run by people trained in dogma, paid enormous salaries as they pass through from one organisation to another and who are not invested in them in any way other than bonuses at risk.
We convince ourselves that change has to be planned and shaped by experts who have no more idea about the future than we do, and we lose confidence in our own ability.
Our tree makes me optimistic.
The failing business structures were made overly complex and fragile in a frantic, forced rush for growth, and the pursuit of efficiency has not allowed them to develop a root structure. It is not surprising they are not resilient.
I’ve been reflecting that the nutrients that will stimulate new growth are already there in the ideas, relationships and dreams of the people who make businesses work. Other structures can be created.
Although it will be painful and take time, the structures that will grow out of the remains of felled companies will be different and better than their predecessors and more connected to what is essential to those in the business than to remote shareholders.
What we need now are, firstly, leaders who understand that, not people expensively trained in dogma and secondly to summon up the courage to follow and support them as they shape something better.
We find ourselves surrounded by conventions and ideas in everything from education to politics to business that no longer makes sense, and we need to call them out. It does not require a noisy revolution, just small acts of taking ourselves and our communities seriously and the knowledge that we can grow the way we want to.
The tree is right.