Don't Blame The Plants If They Don't Grow In Your Garden - A Gardening Metaphor For Your Company Culture

Most business leaders would agree that the age-old adage is true: Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

But there's something that a lot of them are missing.

You can't create culture. You can only create the conditions in which the right culture can establish and flourish -- and that's easier said than done.

To illustrate, think about the hard work that's involved in cultivating and maintaining a garden...

You cannot create culture, you can only create the conditions in which the right culture can establish and flourish - just like a garden if you leave it alone it will grow but it is unlikely to take the form you might wish. Considering what will make it flourish and where appropriate planting, pruning and weeding are required makes all the difference to the outcome. Before you get too far into this metaphor you’ll probably spot that I’m no gardening expert - this may have you questioning why I’ve chosen a gardening metaphor for company culture, but hopefully I can convey the points I’m trying to without stumbling upon too many difficulties of the horticultural variety.

If you were trying to cultivate your garden, you'd think about the space that you give to each individual plant, you'd consider the impact other plants have on them (compatibility), and how they'd work when together both functionally and aesthetically. It’s of course exactly the same in terms of establishing effective working environments - if we want to get the best out of people then thinking about how we create the right environment, how we recruit for compatibility (values and culture not simply skills) and ensure that we allocate enough space for collaboration but also individual work and, as is increasingly challenging inside open plan environments, thinking.

They need the right amount of light, not covered by bigger plants and shaded by others. If we cast certain functions and teams into perpetual shadow then they too will find it hard to flourish. Many companies struggle with this - sales teams get all the ‘light’ whilst the back office and enabling functions reside in relative shade.

Of course if you wanted a short cut to establishing your garden you could easily buy all the plants you need and stick them exactly where you want them, flatten an area of ground and lay some lawn - arguably this is the same as going out and hiring all the talent you need and sticking them in the teams you want them to be in - hey presto, done. Of course it’s not as simple as that. Everything takes time to bed in, to establish roots and without the right environment, imported plants will fail.

Without the right soil, food and water the plants won’t flourish. How you nourish your people makes a big difference - pay and rations are of course the basic nourishment for employees but here we’re really talking about development. It’s a fundamental desire for humans to strive towards mastery of something - creating that kind of mindset and supporting it inside your company is key to truly nourishing your people. As Richard Branson said “train your people so that they can leave, treat them well enough that they don’t want to"

If you allow someone to come into your garden and trample the new plants, destroy the soil or block out the light you can be sure you won’t get the kind of growth your looking for. The toxic and unhelpful behaviours of some can have a devastating effect on the collective will and without strong (and enforced) values, it’s hard for teams to police the poor behaviours of others - to the detriment of everyone.

You really don’t need your gardeners pruning, digging up or mulching without clear reference to the desired long term objectives. This is a direct reference to management behaviours, what gets rewarded, measured and encouraged is what will happen ultimately. If management practices are not aligned with the purpose, ambition and cultural aspirations of the business then they will inhibit the execution.

Weeds will emerge all over your garden, but of course the definition of a weed is merely "plants that are not in their right place”. You will have people in your business that aren’t suited to the job or team they’re in. That makes them the equivalent to the weeds in your garden, if they were moved elsewhere, would they cease to be a weed and instead become a valuable and positive part of the team?

Sometimes plants do not grow and do not flourish. Do not blame the plant. It sounds ridiculous doesn’t it but all too often in businesses we blame the people for not developing and flourishing - as though it is entirely in their control. Look at the conditions you’ve created and see what needs to change.

We all want to work in a company with a great culture, and if you want your company to have one (however you choose to define it), just like cultivating your garden, it starts with knowing what you really want, and being committed to making it happen. I say it all the time, but spend time more time working on the ambition, committing to it and pursuing it with intent.

As always, I'll finish with a quote - I can’t find one about gardening… so culture it is, and I think it fits this article quite well:


“In our early years, we didn't talk about culture much. We hadn't documented it all. We just built a business that we wanted to work in. And, that was great. But the real return on culture happened when we started getting more deliberate about it. By writing it down. By debating it. By taking it apart, polishing the pieces and putting it back together. Iterating. Again. And again.”

Dharmesh Shah, Co-founder, Hubspot

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