Fast Company

Unearth Growth by Digging in the Dirt

Everything you need to know about innovation is growing (and dying) in a garden near you. So forget balanced scorecards, six sigma and SWOT analysis and read this instead.

There is an element of business, which, as far as I know, has never been written about. Business is like gardening. That’s right; growing a business is like growing a tree. I know this sounds flaky, and I’ve probably lost many of you at this point, but for those of you that remain, consider this: most metaphors about business are about sport or war. This is useful, but the fatal floor in these analogies is that both have an end point in the immediate future. Moreover, the objective of both is to defeat a clearly defined enemy. Aims and outcomes are always fairly clear.

But business isn’t like that and neither is gardening.

Gardening has no end. There is no finish line. It is about a journey not a specific destination. Moreover, whilst business and gardening certainly have enemies, focusing on them too much can divert your attention away from the real game. A good example of this is the historical war between Coca-Cola and Pepsi, which, in my view, has all too often shifted attention away from the customer.

The feeling in most organizations like these is that business is a mechanical process. In this context the analogies of war and sport are very apt. It’s all about pre-planned strategies, resources and control within a fairly fixed environment or known set of rules.

But real life doesn’t work quite like that does it? We cannot control everything and it is egotistical to think that we can. So perhaps better metaphors are rooted in plants not machinery, especially as we move away from fixed pyramidal structures to informal (and often temporary) organizational networks.

If you start to think of business ideas as plants, your mindset shifts. In this metaphor you plant a business idea in a patch of soil, which is set within an overall grand scheme or design, water it and watch it grow.

But, as any gardener knows, half your plants won’t grow. There is an early American saying about gardening that you can apply to business: "One for the blackbird, one for the crow, one for the cutworm, and one to grow." Business, like gardening, is about flexibility and persistence in the face of changing external circumstances.

However, even tenacity doesn’t always work. Sometimes plants don’t grow because they have been put in the wrong place or because pests have destroyed them. Either way you have to nurse them back to health or yank them out and start all over again.

Planting things in the right place is vital. According to Ian Davis, Managing Director of McKinsey & Company: "In sectors such as banking, telecommunications and technology, almost two-thirds of the organic growth of listed Western companies can be attributed to being in the right markets and geographies." In other words, a good business idea in the wrong place can struggle whereas an average business idea in a perfect spot is likely to do well.

Then there’s the opposite problem. Sometimes things grow so fast that they overshadow what’s next to them and they have to be moved if both plants are to flourish. Perhaps the parallel here is with 'skunkworks,' where teams are moved away from the shadow of parent company.

For example, the telecommunications firm Vodafone was created by accident as a tiny division of Racal Electronics. Someone, somewhere, was given the green light to plant something and see whether it would grow. It did and Vodafone is now a GB £80 billion colossus that dwarfs its former parent, although I wonder whether this rapid growth would have been achieved if it had been left in the shadow of Racal.

Of course, sometimes things grow so well that, over many years, the soil becomes exhausted and the only solution is to start again. This is not a bad thing. It is just part of a natural cycle. Fields must be allowed to lay fallow every so often if they are to regain their natural health and vitality. This applies to organizations but it also applies to people. Sometimes there is a tendency to think that you’re useless when in fact all that is wrong is that you are working in the wrong place or you are exhausted. So if you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired take some time off and take a rest.

Does any of this apply to innovation?

Yes and no. Business is like gardening but ultimately the metaphor falls down because innovations are like weeds. They grow where they’re not supposed to and cannot be cultivated like orchids in a greenhouse. You cannot sow weeds in any meaningful sense, you can only provide the conditions necessary for them to grow, which in many instances means leaving them well alone. Weeds thrive on neglect.

Therefore, if you want innovation in your business, all you can really do is recognise what a weed looks like and allow certain of them to carry on growing even when they are in the 'wrong' place in your garden.

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