The Business Garden

Gardening and natural world metaphors abound in business, and provide a solid link to the systemic, rather than a mechanical approach to understanding change.

A new dimension was added for me last night as I overheard a comment on “Gardeners World”;

There is no garden without a gardener”

It struck me that one of the things we maybe do not pay enough attention to is how we lead and manage through this lens of gardening.

We cannot lead a garden, and our efforts to manage it are at best heroic. Gardens will not be commanded, nor will they behave. They are subject to lots of variables, not least weather, and as gardeners we have to work within the constraints that appear. At our very best, we influence. What we end up with is beautiful, but rarely conforms to a precise plan. To create a beautiful garden, we have to dance with the elements.

The same is increasingly true of business. The days of command and control, of five year plans, of a compliant workforce and the protection of national boundaries are far behind us. To create a beautiful business we have to dance with the elements.

Which brings me to the gardener. Every beautiful garden has a committed, sometimes fanatical gardener at its heart. Someone who works with it, understands and learns from failure that is beyond their control without losing heart, and measures success by the beauty of the garden, not the number of visitors it attracts. A beautiful garden is a creation that stands alone in its own right.

Perhaps if we thought about businesses in the same way, with the same level of ownership and commitment and determination to create something worthwhile, we might avoid some of the destruction that arises from catastrophic failure.

As I write, some 150,000 people are having holidays ruined by the failure of Thomas Cook. A business founded nearly two hundred years ago on a simple premise of helping people see the world. That’s a great vision, and has echoes of the garden about it.

It has been brought down by a combination of circumstances, some predictable, some less so but at the heart of it seems to be an absence of the beautiful idea on which it as founded in favour of shareholders who were happy to take the dividends in the good times but not commit to it when the weather turned bad, and banks who seem not to be able to see past the numbers. To be fair – that’s their brief, but when we lose a business like this, and affect people’s lives as a trip wire event, rather than managing it through a bad season, I think it diminishes the reputation of business.

A gardener would have handled this differently.

Heft

I find it an attractive word. With its origin in Anglo Saxon, it is normally used in terms of weight, or effort but there is another very specific use in terms of animals and people, hefted, which is used to describe the relationship between them and the land they live on. Hefted flocks are those that are so inextricably linked with the land they live on that they cannot be relocated.

In the past, up until the industrial revolution, most of us were hefted to where we were born. A function of generations past living on the same land, and the interdependent relationships that developed, we were woven into where we lived. The movement of people from economic necessity as the economy moved from agrarian to industrial broke that bond for most of us.

I came across the term in “The Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks. A beautifully written account of life in the Lake District through the eyes of one remarkable man, it opens with definitions of hefted, and goes on to recount how it defines his life and the society of which he is part.

What struck me most was perhaps what we have lost. When our families lost that hefted relationship with the land they lived on, what did they cling to? Rebanks doesn’t mention purpose or values right until the end of the book, and then only in terms of discovering the power of what was already present. The society of which he is part didn’t have to go looking for them, they were part of who they are, and released through their everyday work. I suspect the idea that you might have to define purpose or make a values statement would be ridiculous to them

So, in our modern day search for purpose and values, perhaps we are starting at the wrong end. Maybe we discover our purpose and values by what we don’t do as we work our way through life (and sometimes from what we do and later regret). Maybe we are born with purpose and have our values inculcated whilst very young, only to risk losing sight of them as we allow ourselves to be shaped by the expectations of others.

And equally, perhaps the same is true of the businesses we start. They are rarely started for money, but rather in an attempt to bring something into being. The primacy of money comes later, in the involvement of others and normally at a point when we have enough money from a degree of success to meet or reasonable needs. I’m not talking millions.

I suspect one definition of hell is the realisation of the impact on others of decisions we may have made in the pursuit of money we don’t really need.

When it comes to how we live and work, I suspect those who are happiest are hefted to something important, even if they cannot articulate precisely what it is. It shows up in how they live their lives and deal with others.

Centres of Gravity

We all have some “centres of gravity” around which we orbit.

Family, Business, Idea, Cause. No matter where we go, they exert their pull and will always bring us back.

It used to be that the organisation we worked for was a major centre of gravity. It helped define us, provided a career and a social network, and gave us security. It was a major pull, and other centres of gravity were secondary. Other planets orbiting our organisational sun.

That’s changing. In a world where everything is more connected than ever, and people are more mobile than ever, the pull of the organisation is weakening.

In its stead, is the idea. People are increasingly attracted by the ideas that affirm them, and they will gravitate to those who best express those ideas. As individuals, they get their security from their craft and their network, not the HR department of an organisation that thinks of them as resources.

The power of the organisation as a structure is fading, but the power of what it stands for, and can be seen to stand for beyond money, is rising.

Authority derived from position is fading, whilst authority generated by what people stand for and enable is increasing.

The power of scale is decreasing, whilst the power of connection and context is increasing.

It is redefining what it means to be a leader.

Whether as individual or organisation, our leadership authority is only as powerful as what we demonstrated yesterday.