Bonsai, Redwoods, Orchids and Managing Growth

I live in a redwood forest. I have some orchids. I’ve had a bonsai tree. It turns out that I manage teams pretty well. There may be a connection here that can help grow a business.

For years I used to manage projects and teams in the same way I managed the bonsai tree. I’d start with a very tightly defined image of what I wanted and clip and trim and use wires to manifest that image. I controlled the way the tree grew and it was beautiful. I did the same with people and projects. Each project delivered measurable results, and most were successful.

Then I’d drive home to the redwood forest and truly enjoy the beauty of the unexpected ways the woodland grows. It is exciting and satisfying in the ways it expresses. I manage a lot of projects that feel like that. Each grows and expresses in it’s own way, but always successfully.

The orchids? They pop into new buds and flower when they are ready. They are truly beautiful. The good news is that they don’t take a lot of skill or management from me.

Can you and I use this to help grow a business?


Managing. Controlling, Governing

There are some projects that I want to manage a very specific way. For these projects I put a lot of work into guiding everything to the exact result I want to see. I give a lot of attention to how each part fits and where it stops. Small details really matter. My writing and photography are done this way, with a lot of attention to detail. This is bonsai management.

There are more projects and teams that I start up, support, and then let grow in whatever manner works for them. The team members know my overall vision, we agree on the success criteria in advance. I check in often but don’t direct. Mostly I let them grow into the project in the way that works best for them. This is redwood management.

And I always keep at least one orchid around. I always have a project that I water and let go for as long as it takes. I may get a surprise bud and flower in a few weeks, or it may take months. The result is always beautiful and vibrant and unpredictable. When it blooms it is a lovely bonus, a result on which I hadn’t planned. This is what I think of as orchid management.

The more I use redwood management the happier I am. On the other side when I feel insecure I tend to use bonsai management. Either way I get results. It turns out that redwood management feels better for me and for the teams. I am and I seem to collect people who prefer to be governed as opposed to be controlled. I get the best results when I do this.


A Puzzle As An Example

We often use custom wooden jigsaw puzzles to start workshops with corporate teams. We pour the pieces onto a table and write: “Assemble the puzzle” on the whiteboard. When participants walk in, we wave at the whiteboard and they know what to do. This is an example of redwood management. The puzzle always gets assembled. No two teams go about this the same way. That is fine. The process is self-correcting. No team ever heads into a wrong direction for long.

What is the role of the manager here? To acknowledge small successes. To say “good going” or “excellent” when pieces come together. We get the results we all need with little direction from me. In fact if I over-direct the team politely pushes me aside.

How do you know that it’s working? Two ways. One is that you can see the results coming together as pieces get assembled. The second way is that the team members don’t want to stop working the puzzle. Once they start, the team members are going to make this come together. You get a result without micro-managing, just like the redwood forest.

What is the key to making this work? Defining success in advance and then governing the team instead of controlling them. Before the day starts I (as the manager) have to make sure that the puzzle is set up in a way that it can be assembled. The puzzle has to be achievable. That is part of my job. Defining the final image requires thought. It also requires the willingness to eliminate pieces that don’t need to be there.

The first time I managed the puzzle, I spent a lot of time on making sure that it was a reasonable task. That meant moderate difficulty and less than 100 pieces. As I built experience with the puzzles, designing them became easy.

So it is in redwood management. It may be difficult to move from controlling activity (bonsai management) to governing to get results. However, like any skill, a few times through and it gets almost automatic.


Management and a Sense of Strength

I can’t govern well when I feel off center. That is when I want to control, to make a bonsai instead of a redwood forest. If I am writing an article or making a photograph, this works just fine. However if I am trying to grow a business with other people that constrains growth. It also frustrates team members because to strong members it feels like micro-management.

When the team feels over managed the first place I need to look is at my own sense of strength. If I feel centered I rarely over-manage.


Trees and Growth

What is a path for growing business? It starts with you choosing to work from your core, your strength. You got yourself here. You get to feel that you have what it takes. You get to be confident in your self and then in the people that you put in place.

Then you get to choose the key projects. Each needs to be structured by you before the team gets it. You get to define success and to make sure that the team has the pieces that they need. And very few extra pieces.

Then you get to stand in a grove and watch it grow. And while you do that, you can water an orchid or two. This generates sustainable and satisfying growth. And maybe some grins, and we can always use growth and grins.