As urban gardening continues to grow in popularity, people have become increasingly creative in how they leverage outdoor spaces. Having attempted to grow vegetable gardens for the better part of the last decade, I’ve learned many lessons the hard way. Each new growing season provides a unique set of challenges and countless opportunities to further cultivate my skills. As I’ve dug deeper into the disciplines of both gardening and organizational change, the parallels seem more apparent with each passing year.
First things first: anyone who tells you growing a garden is easy is nuts. The same holds true with driving organizational change. Both appear pretty straightforward on paper and are usually tricky and often unpredictable in practice. Here are three aspects that growing a garden and driving organizational change have in common:
the beginning Requires lots of energy with little to show for it
When I first started down the path towards a vegetable garden, I severely underestimated the amount of preparation and planning required. I now appreciate a thoughtful approach, intentionally addressing different factors that impact the overall result. After a disastrous first year, I've learned to start by examining my physical space, prioritizing the selection of veggies, studying the almanac and mapping out the growing season on a calendar. Each plant has a slightly different schedule and requires a different treatment to produce the desirable outcome. It’s also important to prepare the soil and ensure the pH is in a reasonable zone for new growth to occur. This all takes hours of work, and we haven’t even put anything into the ground yet!
To succeed with organizational change, it is important to understand the current situation and how you define success. Instead of looking at the pH of the soil, we evaluate things like the level and quality of our sponsorship. We also take an inventory of the impacted groups for our change and define the future state so that we can manage toward a specific (and ideally measurable) outcome. We conduct assessments of impact and risk for the change and incorporate feedback from multiple impacted stakeholders. All of this preparation work takes time and energy well in advance of seeing any of the benefits tied to adoption of the solution.
Local context really matters
You can find countless books and websites dedicated to gardening advice, but there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach. At my prior residence, we had lots of outdoor space and an elaborate set up that consisted of five connected garden beds to grow in. At my current residence, I’m limited to a single raised bed. That means the size, scope and ambition of my efforts need to be adjusted to match the local context.
The time of year you start putting seeds or starters into the ground varies greatly depending on weather patterns of your location. When I first started gardening on the East Coast of the U.S., we began putting seeds in the ground in mid-March. Where I now live in Colorado, a late spring snow is not uncommon, so it’s a gamble to get started before Mother’s Day in mid-May. Both of these factors illustrate the need to adapt your growing strategy to the environment where you grow.
In change management, we also need to identify the size, scope and speed of change required given our current situation. Projects that run three to six months take on a markedly different approach than those running two to three years, and we need to scale our change management efforts accordingly. In shorter projects, we are forced to leverage a core set of tools and frameworks that align with the accelerated approach.
For example, a five-month Lean Six Sigma project often targets smaller groups of people impacted by process improvements. These changes tend to leverage tools like a stakeholder analysis, a communications plan, a small dose of training and coaching and a modest amount of resistance management. In comparison, a two-year ERP roll out requires a much more robust approach that includes deeper analysis of impacted groups, stronger integration with the project management structures and a series of tailored steps to address sponsorship, communication, training, coaching and resistance management. In the end, it is crucial to adapt your approach to the local environment, or suffer the consequences.
Sometimes the biggest doesn’t taste the best
If you’ve ever grown zucchini or squash, they are pretty resilient plants that produce a good amount of eatable reward. But there’s a sweet spot when it comes to size and often when veggies grow too big, they lose their taste. Zucchini is not at its best when it grows to 3+ feet long… trust me, I’ve tried.
Anyone that’s been part of a three- to five-year transformation initiative can relate to the bittersweet taste that develops over time, regardless of the progress. Sometimes breaking change down to manageable sizes provides us with the best probability to win.
Having spent more than 15 years helping clients drive strategy execution, process improvement and innovation, some of the most rewarding experiences came on projects that were more modest in ambition. They often times also drove the fastest results. Don't underestimate a series of intentionally managed incremental changes and their ability to add significant improvement in the overall business performance.
What This Means for You
In the end, both growing a successful urban garden and delivering organizational change results share many similarities. There's no overnight fix, and the more practice you get, the more predictable the outcomes become.
This article was inspired by an icebreaker exercise from one of my early change management training experiences. After introducing yourself, finish this sentence: "Change management is like..."
How would you finish the sentence?