Lead Like a Gardener, Not a Commander

Rita J. King
June 18, 2017

Leaders are most effective when creating the right environment. Provide clarity as direct reports and let your teams go off to make the plan real.

Agile makes managers nervous. What can companies do about it?

A colleague of mine posted Ten Agile Axioms that Make Managers Nervous. It is full of gems, but I one in particular jumped out to me: Lead Like a Gardener, Not a Commander.

In Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, by General Stanley McChrystal and his colleagues, McChrystal explains he had to unlearn what it means to be a leader. A great deal of what he thought he knew about how the world worked and his role as a commander had to be discarded.

I began to view effective leadership in the new environment as more akin to gardening than chess,” he writes. “The move-by-move control that seemed natural to military operations proved less effective than nurturing the organization— its structure, processes, and culture— to enable the subordinate components to function with ‘smart autonomy.’ It wasn’t total autonomy, because the efforts of every part of the team were tightly linked to a common concept for the fight, but it allowed those forces to be enabled with a constant flow of ‘shared consciousness’ from across the force, and it freed them to execute actions in pursuit of the overall strategy as best they saw fit. Within our Task Force, as in a garden, the outcome was less dependent on the initial planting than on consistent maintenance. Watering, weeding, and protecting plants from rabbits and disease are essential for success. The gardener cannot actually ‘grow’ tomatoes, squash, or beans— she can only foster an environment in which the plants do so.”

I have written Commander's Intent documents for several senior leaders across industries. I like the clarity it creates. A Commander's Intent succinctly describes success for an operation. It includes the operation's purpose and the conditions that define the end state. It links the mission, concept of operations, and tasks to subordinate units. In return, military personnel, or employees, in this case, are expected to employ a “Spectrum of Improvisation” when they execute Commander's Intent. This is where the problem starts. Many people want to be told exactly what to do and expect. The Spectrum of Improvisation requires critical thinking and flexibility in response to current realities and unexpected circumstances that arise. In other words, companies need to become more agile.

Being Agile, Not Just Doing Agile

Many companies think of agile as a software development methodology. Information technology professionals take a two-day course to unlearn everything they've been doing for years. During this training they learn a lot of new terms. Epics, stories and features are now the norm, replacing the traditional waterfall method. It is not enough to "do"agile. Companies and the teams that compose them need to BE agile, not just when it comes to technology, but when it comes to operating in a rapidly changing world. (See the Principles of Applied Imagination for more on that).

When it comes to Commander's Intent, the commander's role is to provide clarity as direct reports and their teams go off to make the plan real. This is when the chaos starts to kick in. What tends to happen is that officers understand from a strategic perspective, and then they message it down the ranks. The message becomes linked to each person's ability to communicate so that every person who gets the message understands both the north star and how their own work contributes to the journey. This was much easier to accomplish in the past. Command and control is much more effective when the landscape is clear.

The Landscape May Never Be Clear Again

Customer needs are changing fast, and not just because people expect to launch an app, press a button and have their needs magically met in a timely fashion (though that does add extreme pressure for companies to have ultra-modern development discipline). The workforce is so tight that employers are getting ghosted. Attracting and retaining talent is expensive and time-consuming. Customers don't always know what they want until they have it, so companies need to predict their needs and contextualize them against constraints and the art of the possible.

Let's Go Back to the Garden

A few days ago I posted a picture of the Secret Garden atwith a caption:

Automation makes some things easier, but it also makes us less likely to think. Imagine a garden with automated drip irrigation. The plants stay alive, but who is there to watch them grow? To clip the vines? To make sure they all have space? To remove the spent flowers? To see the bees, butterflies and birds in the blossoms? The irrigation system at Science House broke, and instead of getting it fixed (don't we always rush to fix a problem without asking whether it's the right problem we are trying to fix?) I decided to tend it manually, and after five years of automation, it has never looked better.

The garden is one of those things that I never have time to deal with, even though I love the idea of doing it myself, and the reaction of our clients, collaborators and friends when they reach the top of Science House to see the skyline and realize there's a garden up there in the middle of Manhattan. The weeds grow faster than I can pull them, and the plants wilt in the sun faster than I can water them. I travel a lot for business, and I'm not always there to care for them.

But I started to realize that my best ideas came with the scent of the soil, being in the garden first thing in the morning, before the day begins, and at dusk, when the lights come on at the top of the Empire State Building. Growth requires space, and patience, and being willing to get your hands dirty in order to create something healthy and beautiful. A garden, quite literally, connects us to the real world. And this, more than anything, is what modern business needs.

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