I live in a jungle. OK, that’s an overstatement, but it’s pretty close to the truth. My partner is a gardener, both by trade and by choice, and our apartment is filled to near bursting with close to a hundred plants (which is an incredible feat for a one-bedroom flat in downtown Toronto). For as long as I’ve known him (and several years before I had the pleasure), he’s been collecting and nurturing plants. They live in plastic containers and elaborately sculpted pieces of art, inside and on the deck, and they reach up from the floor and hang from the ceiling. We joke a lot about air quality—we must have the best oxygen in the city by far.
A recent conversation shifted my thinking about his approach to growing and maintaining the many species and varieties that he cultivates. I always assumed that his objective was to help the plants grow—especially because most of the plants we own grow dramatically and prolifically. Instead, he revealed that he doesn’t really think about growth at all—he just wants to keep the plants alive.
My heart broke a bit in that moment, because it became clear that his love for cultivating plants was rooted in a time when he felt that awful feeling of wanting to keep something (or in this case, someone) alive, and being powerless to help.
So his objective isn’t new growth, increased height, or a move to a bigger planter. It’s simply: is this plant alive? Is it healthy? If it is, then it’s a success. Growth follows naturally. If it’s not, then it’s time to figure out what went wrong, and focus on what is alive. This got me thinking about my relationship to growth in a new way.
As an organization, Actionable is growing. We are stretching, finding new markets, adding new team members, and sprinting toward new horizons. I write frequently for our sites about organizational growth and health—how our consultant partners can grow their businesses, and help their clients evolve in parallel. And as a person and artist, I’m always trying to grow my abilities, to develop new skills and habits, and stretch to capture the bits of sunlight that will result in my growth.
What if we stopped thinking about growth (even if just for the length of time it takes to read this post), and instead focused on what we can do to keep our organizations and teams alive and healthy? What if we trusted that growth would follow if we diligently and deliberately acted to nurture the health of our organizations and teams, and stopped thinking about the KPIs or sales numbers? Here are a few lessons we can learn about growth from the plant world.
The basics are essential. Plants need water and light to survive, and they need those things in appropriate doses. If you pay attention, you can see when they are drooping, or losing their color. What are the basic elements your team and organization need to stay alive? Simple things, like role clarity, a regular cadence of meetings and conversations, a well-established sense of trust, and the tools that individuals need to do their work, are essential. Pay attention. Are your team meetings lacking energy they once had? Are deadlines starting to slide? Check up on the basics first.
Sometimes, if left to grow on their own too long, untended plants can get unruly and need reshaping. The same is true for teams and organizations—are your teams clear on the direction they need to grow in, or are they heading off to one side? This growth can be a sign of health—but for long term success, sometimes you need to examine all of the work activities and processes around the team, trim the edges, or cut things back to encourage growth in a particular direction. That project or process that’s getting out of control might need to be pulled back, reassigned, or refocused. As your organization or team grows, you may need to be deliberate about what gets trimmed, what gets cut way back, and what gets re-planted somewhere else.
Growth can be sporadic. We have an avocado plant in our apartment that was grown from a seed. It seems to grow in fits and starts, with no visible action for months at a time, and then a big growth spurt that results in a new branch with fresh leaves reaching for the sun. Remember that you can’t always see the roots of growth taking hold. In organizations, we tend to want steady, predictable growth, but sometimes, the healthiest thing is to allow for these cycles and growth spurts to naturally occur. If the plant is alive and healthy, sometimes you’ll have to be patient for it to make a big move.
Give everything enough room to grow. Plants that are competing with each other for sun, or bumping against the limits of their containers can end up strangling themselves. A plant that was once healthy will die if the roots don’t have room to grow. The same is true for individuals and teams. Do you give people the space they need to grow into? Deep and wide roots make for strong plants that are capable of weathering storms.
Watch out for weeds and creepers. Certain varieties of plants will take over your garden if you let them (I’m looking at you, mint). Great if you want a lot of one thing, but if you’re seeking variety and balance, you need plants that get along well with others, and don’t try to dominate the space. At Actionable, we have a strict “no-jerks” policy (there’s a more colorful word we use for it internally)—everyone is a team player, with no ego to get in the way. No single person is ever “the smartest person in the room”—though all of my colleagues are brilliant, and our Consulting Partners are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met—we work exclusively with people who are humble and hungry, ready to collaborate, and don’t dominate the conversation.
Here in Canada, the growth cycle of some plants is tied to the winter—they need to be outside to experience the cold and go dormant in order to survive and thrive come spring, but they need to be protected from the harshest of temperatures. Individuals, teams, and organizations, will also need to be protected during tough times. In the depths of winter, it can be hard to keep the faith that spring is coming—and yet it always comes. If you tend to your organization or team thoughtfully, even during tough times, you may be rewarded with dramatic growth when the next season invariably arrives.
Enjoy the flowers, even among the thorns. My favorite plant we have is a Euphorbia (commonly called a “crown of thorns”), and grows prolifically, with several “children” plants that are growing from cuttings throughout our apartment. It’s a tricky plant to cultivate, because the thorns are sharp—and it’s wild growth patterns mean that a thorny branch can find it’s way into our path through the apartment. But, every now and then, it sprouts these lovely delicate pink flowers that perch above the thorns. Sometimes the most difficult things can yield incredible and unexpected beauty. Don’t forget to stop and enjoy those moments of joy.
I’m fortunate to live where I do, and how I do. When I tell people about the jungle in my apartment, the most common reaction is, “you’re so lucky, I don’t have a green thumb at all. I’ve killed every plant I’ve ever had.” Same. But now I get all the benefits—watching the plants grow, living in a space with green things everywhere—without having to do any of the work to tend them.
As an observer, I think the most valuable lesson about growth that we can learn from the practice of tending to plants is about sustained care and attention. You can’t water a plant once and expect it to live. You also can’t fuss over it everyday and expect it to be happy. It’s about small actions, enacted regularly, that give the plants what they need to stay alive. Growth follows from there.
I challenge you to think about growth this way, in your life, and in your team or organization. If you want something to grow, focus on giving it the things it needs to stay alive and healthy. Be attentive. Be patient. The growth will come, and you may find some unexpected flowers along the way.