Culture-Making is a Form of Gardening

Whether you've done it before or not, we all know gardening requires getting your hands dirty. There is no way around it, and any moderately serious gardener would tell you they’d have it no other way.

One unique aspect of gardening is called seed saving. The process is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s how farms and gardens have been maintained for the last several millennia. Only since the industrialization of the agriculture industry during the 19th and 20th centuries has it become more of a lost art. I was surprised to find that the process of seed saving is quite simple, yet more than its simplicity, I was surprised at the sheer abundance present in the natural processes of plants. Put forth a little care and patience with any modest-sized tomato, and its seeds can yield enough tomato plants for your entire garden next year and also enough for five to six additional gardens of the same size. All from just one tomato!

When you think about this on a generational level, one single tomato and its seeds has the capacity to create thousands of new plants over just a few generations of the growth cycle. This immense power is embedded directly into the smallness of the structure of the plant, the seed itself. This means it is the smallest part of the plant which holds the greatest provision for its own propagation and abundant flourishing.

I think the very same could be said about culture-making in a business context. It's the smallest parts of the business which hold the greatest provision for its own propagation and abundant flourishing. In it’s purest form, culture-making is a form of gardening. Therefore, as culture-makers in our unique contexts, we should start thinking, planning, and innovating like gardeners. Here are a few suggestions how to begin making that shift.

Cultivate Natural Resources

Natural resources are the rudimentary keys to the flourishing of a garden. Water, sun, soil, patience, and good old-fashioned hard work are just a few of the resources required. What are the natural resources in your business? What are the key building blocks for your specific culture? If you don’t know what they are, start with identifying them. Pay attention to the environment and how you and others experience the current culture. These key areas, like a weekly team meeting or daily check-ins, are the moments which need cultivating. Most likely, these will be times where the most human interaction is taking place. Culture is all about human interactions and reactions. It’s what people hear, feel, and say—and how they respond, react, and engage. Work hard to identify ripe culture-making opportunities. If you already know what your natural resources are, which ones are malnourished and need your attention? Which ones are blossoming, and why? Pay attention to what is working and what isn’t. Pay attention to how clients, customers, and co-workers interact. Cultivate these human interactions, water them, and care for them. This is culture at its smallest—and its most powerful.

Think Bottom-Up, Not Top-Down

A 2008 documentary on the corporate farming industry (Food Inc.) confirmed several suspicions about the unhealthy underpinnings of how our food is tended, produced, and handled. One startling revelation was a comment on how agribusiness leaders viewed the basic purpose of the soil. Its purpose was reduced to simply a convenient way to hold up the plant while it is fed ever-increasing dosages of chemicals, fertilizers, and growth supplements from the top-down. The process was described as forcing a mechanistic mindset onto a biological process. Nature, in contrast, feeds plants from the bottom-up, through the soil. This should cause us to consider our culture-making methods. When culture-making is lessened to nothing more than what “trickles down” from the leaders, it will always produce an artificial form of culture. Leaders must work down deep into the soil the very things which will support and nourish the rootedness of the life of the business. Stability, fruitfulness, and vitality are directly related to the health of what’s going on below the surface. Therefore, for the conscientious culture-maker, the health of the soil is a top priority.

Flourishing Requires Patience

Remember, it’s the smallest part of the plant—the seed—that holds the greatest provision for its own propagation and abundant flourishing. And, we all know that seeds don’t share the desire for instant gratification which is so rampant in our microwave-ready world today. Seeds take time, gardening takes time, and so does culture-making. Anything worth growing is worth the time it takes for it to flourish. Therefore, I’d argue that the greatest virtue today’s business leaders can posses is the virtue of patience. Any change that will take root in your culture will almost always take a lot of time. Additionally, the bigger the change you hope for, the longer you must be willing to invest time. Resist making quick changes. The faster you change things, the less long-term effect they will have on the culture. You can think of culture being built in layers and each layer’s speed of change is directly related to the longevity of its impact. Lasting change takes time. So, let me introduce you to your new best friend. His name is, Patience.

You Can Be a Great Gardener

Culture-making is risky business, yes, but you are never alone in culture. What your context needs most are people who wake up each morning eager to create culture, and who take that work seriously. Anything lasting is anything but easy. It requires moving from the mechanical to the relational, from the industrial to the agricultural. It takes forming new vocabularies, telling new stories, and asking a new set of questions. And, well, getting your hands dirty of course. Any moderately serious culture-maker would tell you they’d have it no other way.