How Does Your Garden Grow?

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Last week I was lucky to spend a few hours with some very experienced and inspiring people. What I thought was going to be a boring training course blossomed into something very worthwhile indeed.

Among the subjects discussed was one of the attendees’ passion for horticulture. He was part way through judging a garden competition and had been impressed with everything he had seen. Yet he had a dilemma. Should the winner be an ornamental style garden – stylish, ordered and co-ordinated? Or was a more natural garden better suited to the title? Both beautiful in their own way, but which was best?

The traditional (and still popular) approach is heavily based on planning. Think of the clipped box hedges of English stately homes, organised with careful placement and symmetry. The chaos of unchecked growth is controlled by constant management. At least it’s easy to spot any weeds that might dare to grow among such uniformity.

However, it takes a lot of time and effort to get things looking perfect. Plants are very difficult to control. Even if you train them they often don’t do what you want. Hence the growing popularity of the natural approach. Here the style is more “cottage garden”, where plants are both pretty and practical. If a few wild flower seeds blow in and take root, all the better. It represents an appreciation of natural beauty and a recognition that perfect isn’t always beautiful, and that things don’t need to be beautiful to be useful.

Of course the odd weed still grows in the natural garden, they’re just difficult to see through the ground cover. Even so, it’s management can’t be totally left to chance. It still needs tending, or the stronger plants will take over and it will end up not being a garden at all.

These two very different contrasting approaches to gardening got me thinking about organisational structures (and if you’ve stopped by hrpotential before you’ll know how much I love a good analogy). Unfortunately most of those people designing and controlling organisation structures aren’t as open minded to the options as our gardening judge. “Traditional” forms the basis of the majority of structures. Those at the other extreme are in the minority. While holocracy probably isn’t going to take root in a substantial way in the near future, that’s the general direction we’re heading in. Obtaining, and maintaining, competitive advantage relies heavily on structural agility.

The boundaries of a traditional structure mean that cross fertilisation of ideas is prevented, and innovation struggles to take hold amongst the rigid confines of the highly planned layers. However, even in these types of organisations, HR can do much to promote new ways of working. Advocating transferable skills, questioning like-for-like replacements in recruitment and flexibility of job descriptions, for example, are small steps. Just think of it as sprinkling the right seeds. Then all you need to do is see what grows.

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