An Organization is a Garden

To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow. – Audrey Hepburn

The Garden

Every organization is like a garden and they come in all shapes and sizes. It might be a backyard garden meant to grow edible (useful) food. It might be a rose garden meant to experience and delight. It could be a community garden meant to engage people to interact with each other.

No matter what kind of garden your organization represents, you have different parts of the garden that need attention. A good gardener/manager is constantly working to make it thrive.

Planting Seeds

One of the most important steps is planting seeds. In my metaphor, this is investment. The more important aspect of investment is people. Other kinds of investments include real estate for offices, factory equipment, acquisitions, process changes, software, and other things that cost money and/or time.

When you plant seeds you are envisioning what those seeds will bring you. Everyone is optimistic when they invest. They imagine beautiful plants growing instantly. However, not all investments work out so well. The most crucial area is hiring. Consider the following chart. It rates individuals effectiveness in the organization from A+ to F.

IndividualLoves to work withWill TolerateDislikes
A+A+B+C+
B+A+ and B+C+D
C+B+ and C+D+A+
Hiring toleration chart

The lesson is about who you hire. B+ people are the hardest because you need someone to fill a role and the candidate is not terrible. B+ is good right?? It’s very tempting! However, if you hire them, you are starting a process that leads away from excellence. A+ people will leave a company that has too many C+ (or worse) people.

When you plant seeds, make sure they are high quality. Don’t compromise in hiring. It’s by far the most important function of a manager. The best gardens have high quality plants.

Weeds

Every garden has weeds. Left unattended, weeds will choke your plants and ruin your garden. In this metaphor, weeds are bad culture, bad processes, and most importantly bad employees. A manager/gardener can not ignore these things.

I have heard that culture can be defined as whatever management tolerates. If people are allowed to be toxic, then it doesn’t matter if it is usually pleasant. A manager needs to pull weeds out early and keep the garden clean. This doesn’t always mean firing people. Course correction for people is always possible. However, too often bad employees are tolerated for way too long.

A bad process can also be a weed. Too many meetings, bureaucracy, unclear vision/mission, inefficient equipment…all of these can make good employees diminish their output. A manager should be looking at the output of the organization and focusing on areas that diminish productivity and positivity.

The Zen Gardener

The role of the manager/gardener is not to yell at the plants and tell them to grow faster. Of course, you always have the magic triangle of priorities between quality, scope, and time. Utilizing these levers are good. However, many managers struggle with how to maximize output.

Many managers think that just declaring aggressive deadlines are the best way to increase output. This has some roots in Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field. The problem is that people apply the tight deadlines without the other facets Steve Jobs employed to get maximum output of the team. For one, he was wildly inspiring! Most managers don’t have a fraction of that ability.

I am a believer in eliminating deadlines. I think they only create overhead and stress and don’t actually make the org move faster. Rather, I advocate following scrum methodologies and measuring the sprint output (velocity). With that said, a strong, clear, inspiring direction and vision does wonders to move the organization forward quickly.

Visionary companies are 1% vision and 99% alignment

James C. Collins

In my view, the goal of a manager is to work themselves out of the job. The goal should be to make the organization/garden self-sufficient. Managers who do not do this are creating single points of failure in your organization.

Rotating crops

I think it wise to keep things moving in an organization. This includes moving people to different departments, like a foreign exchange program. Also, I think it is a good idea to move people’s desks periodically. It it not always a good idea to have the same seat for years on end. We moved desks by necessity of growth at Marketo, but it yielded great partnerships and serendipity between people.

Lastly, I think it’s good to change your investment strategy over time. Don’t just focus on new features non-stop. Sometimes, swing the pendulum towards technical debt. A good organization/garden has some variety over time. Don’t get in a rut.

Summary

The organization as garden may not be a perfect metaphor, but it helps to think of your organization as a living thing that needs attention to thrive. You will end up with happier employees, more productive output, and less churn. I hope these ideas are helpful for you, or at least entertaining.


Whatya think?