By Aries de Geus
Excerpt from a Mar-Apr 1997 article in HBR titled, “The Living Company” and a book of the same name
If long-term corporate health and survival across generations require a willingness to change the business portfolio, managers must heed the opinions and practices of other people. The organization must give people the space to develop ideas. They must have some freedom from control, from direction, and from punishment for failures. In other words, managers must! put the principle of tolerance into practice by taking risks with people and looking in new places in search of fresh ideas. Perhaps the best way to illustrate that notion is through the metaphor of rose gardening.
If you're a gardener, every spring you must decide how you will prune your roses: hard or long. Pruning hard means that you select three of the plant's strongest stems and cut them down to three or four growth buds. That technique forces the plant to channel all its resources into a relatively small number of growth buds. Why would you prune your roses in that way? Because you want the biggest roses in the neighborhood in June.
I don't prune hard. Why? Because it's a high-risk strategy. Where I live, the most terrible things can happen to my roses. I live on a hill, where night frosts in April or even early May are not uncommon. Also, many deer roam freely on the hill, and they love to eat rosebuds. If I prune hard and the nights are frosty and the deer are hungry, I might have no roses in June at all. So I prune long: I leave between five and seven stems on each plant, and on each stem I leave between five and seven growth buds. As a result, the plant is allowed to spread its resources over many growth buds. I have never had the biggest roses in the neighborhood, but I do have roses every June.
And something else happens when you prune long for a number of years: you get surprises. In two or three years, some of the spindlier stems have grown much stronger and have begun producing buds, and some of the old stems do not produce roses anymore. So what do you do? You remove the old stems and encourage the new ones. A tolerant pruning policy gradually renews the rose portfolio.
Synopsis of the above by Tom Peters in his book, “Re-imagine!”
The long-term fate of a rose garden depends on this decision of how to prune our roses. Pruning hard represents a policy of low tolerance and tight control. You force the plan to make the maximum use of its available resources, by putting them in the rose’s ‘core business’. Pruning hard is a dangerous policy in an unpredictable environment. The alternative is pruning long—a policy of high tolerance. Tolerant pruning achieves two ends: (i) It makes it easier to cope with unexpected environmental changes (ii) It leads to a continuous restricting of the plant. The policy of tolerance admittedly wastes resources - the extra buds drain away nutrients from the main stem. But in an unpredictable environment this policy of tolerance makes the rose healthier. Tolerance of internal weakness, ironically, allows the rose to be stronger in the long run.
(Thanks to Anirudha Indurkar for sharing this.)
This is yet another management lesson borrowed from nature.
I would like to apply it in my area of interest: career planning and coaching.
Not only organizations, even as individuals we often have to make such tradeoffs in our career: between specialization and versatility, depth and breadth, vertical and lateral growth. My observation is that we do not always get to choose this as such but it is a useful way to analyze our past and then use it to nudge our career path in a desired direction. Depth and specialization has to be assigned priority in the initial stage in order to establish credibility! ! and achieve significant goals. This opens up more opportunities that we feel better equipped and confident to explore. Breadth and lateral moves make more sense at this point, though meteoric vertical rise is not necessarily bad for everyone. A shift puts us back into the learner mode and we need to focus and the cycle begins again.
Many of us seem to learn these fundamentals of career growth a bit too late. We aspire to become generalists too early, thereby lacking the necessary depth of expertise, or we stay stuck comfortably in our so-called core competency for too long, making ourselves inflexible! and uncomfortable when circumstances demand change.