After a long winter, spring has finally come to my patch of Minnesota. On my walk this morning, I felt the joy of new beginnings as I noted the unfurling of leaves on bushes and trees. Observing the natural rhythm of the changing seasons, I wondered what nature could teach us about change in our organizations.
Nature is constantly changing. The size of the buds and opening leaves will be different tomorrow because they will continue to grow over the next 24 hours. The new shoots coming out of my garden will be different this afternoon than they were this morning. One lesson we can learn from nature is that living organizations are always in movement. They aren’t static or in an inert state, like my car parked in my garage.
Driving change assumes that organizations are inert. Traditional organizational change initiatives differ from the ongoing change found in nature. When we drive change, usually a few people in leadership identify that a change is needed. They discuss and envision what the needed change is and plan on how to execute it. They involve people as needed. The plan includes a timeline and if deadlines are missed, the pressure to accomplish the change increase for the people leading various aspects of the change.
Driving organizational change is the normal way we do things. I wonder if change in our organizations would differ if we used nature as a mentor or muse to help us rethink how to do change in a living system. What happens if we approach our next change initiative as if we are growing change instead of driving it?
Developing a Growing Change Mindset
These assumptions and practices reflect what leading change from a growing mindset would look like.
Assume an Interdependent Mindset
When we grow flowers, vegetables, or trees, we think about our relationship to this work differently. Instead of a person directing or controlling others to create change, when we grow something, we recognize that we can’t control what the seeds or plants do. Our job is to prepare the soil and plant the seeds. The plants are active partners in growing change. Therefore, in organizations, when we grow change, we realize that we are co-creating the change together.
Active Engagement is Assumed
When we grow change, all parties and facets of a garden or ecosystem are engaged. A seed is “required” to actively engage. Once we create conditions conducive to life, the seed organizes itself to germinate and cultivate its root system.
Growing Plants is an Act of Co-Creation
We are engaging with other components of the system to accomplish the change. Driving change doesn’t see a change initiative from this perspective. When we drive change, a relatively small number of people design the change and use positional power to implement change. This mindset costs time and resources to create change and hold it in place. When we see change as an act of co-creation with our employees, we ensure that they are authentically engaged in designing and implementing the change.
Change Flows Through Lines of Relationship
In gardening, growing is relational. We have a relationship with the soil, the seeds, the vision of what the garden will become. We depend on nature to provide nutrients, rain, and sun to help the seeds to grow. When people in organizations feel that change is being done to them, their natural tendency is to resist. When we shift our relationship to one of being in a relationship with others to accomplish something together, we gain active cooperation instead of malicious compliance.
Take Time to Prepare the Soil
Growing a garden is more effective if we take time to prepare the soil. Growing change means that we take time to engage our employees in conversations about the change. When we do this, we are preparing the “soil.”
Allow Time for the Seeds to Germinate and Grow a Strong Root System
We often create an artificial timeline for driving change. Nature sees time differently. In nature, time is specific to the phases of the growing cycle. It can take years or a day to prepare the soil for the seeds. Once seeds are blown in the wind or planted by hand, it takes time for the seeds to germinate and to grow the root structure needed to support the stems of the plant. If we don’t allow time for this “growing” to occur, the “plant” won’t be able to support itself.
When we drive change in our organization using an artificial construct of time, we don’t recognize or adjust to the amount of time needed for the seeds of change to germinate in the minds of our staff members. And without that germination, a supportive root system fails to develop.
Time is Different for Each Phase of the Growing Season
The amount of time needed to prepare the soil, spread seeds, germinate, develop a root structure, see the first shoot of growth, mature, and harvest the fruit or vegetables is different. Some facets of the growing season are shorter or longer depending on what is occurring in that phase. When we drive change, time is seen in linear increments. And while some phases of the change process take more time, it is always driven by deadlines to get it accomplished. Often these timelines, don’t consider the people or unexpected events that require more time than originally planned.
The Cycle of Change Never Ends
Nature’s growth – whether in a garden or old growth forest – is always evolving. There are seasons that cycle each year and once a cycle completes, it starts all over again. Traditionally, we thought change was taking an organization that was in the “deep freeze”, unfreezing it and refreezing it. Driving change from this mindset saw the natural state of an organization as static. Nature teaches us that a living organization’s natural state is constant change.
The Benefits of Growing Change
If we were to shift our approach to change from driving it to growing it, we would see several benefits.
- More engagement and ownership, less resistance to change
- The relationships of all involved in change would be more equitable and would unleash self-organization to speed change
- Authentic, equitable relationships would increase feedback about the change and change process. This feedback can accelerate learning and adaptation about the change project
- It would take less time to accomplish because there wouldn’t be an underground resistance to the change
- It would require less supervision and resources to sustain the change
- Change in the organization would be a natural event, one that is constant. Our organizations would remain in motion to adapt to the next disruption from the external environment. we wouldn’t be starting, stopping and starting change repeatedly
- Change would be more effective and more sustainable. People support what they help to create. By shifting our relationships from “doing to” to “doing with” we authentically engage with others to co-create change with us
Dr. Kathleen E. Allen writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems. She is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (available for pre-order on Amazon) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. You can sign up for her blog on her website: www.kathleenallen.net