Culture Work Gardening Analogy

I recently worked with a non-profit Board and staff to resolve conflict from an extenuating negative situation. Because this organization has to do with nature programming and education I used a metaphor of ‘Growing Forward’ as the title of my joint meeting with them. I wanted to help each side of the proverbial fence see that their growth as an individual and overall culture was akin to a garden. I worked independently with the Board and staff groups first to set the stage for this all-hands meeting.

A garden needs many things to happen to be successful: soil, seed, organics, rain, weeding, and sun, all which lead to germination, vegetation and harvest. I proposed that the people involved look at themselves through the lens of each element and ponder various things related to them. I created various activities and exercises to gain buy-in over the course of the meeting. I arbitrarily assigned each element to a coaching principle and I sought to sow seeds in fertile soil and begin to let the fertilizer, sun and rain work their magic. I believe we accomplished some germination.

I began the meeting with a call to let it rain. The coaching principle for rain I used appreciation and relationship building activities. I opened the space to let it rain down appreciation for self, other or the organization in general. Appreciation is the glue that binds us and is the most common complaint from people that I hear. Relationship building is simply the concept of getting to know each other personally and professionally a little bit better so we can relate to each other as human beings and break some of the assumptions we have of each other. I paired a Board member with a staff member and had them find 2 or 3 things that they didn’t know about each other and then report that to the group. The energy was really positive after the rain rained down.

I used the concept of soil and seeds next to represent the desire to move forward. If desire is not present then a garden cannot be as fruitful. I had each person assess for themselves on a scale of 1-10 how ready they were to move forward and what they still needed to move forward. I asked everyone to consider taking 100% responsibility for their thoughts and feelings and to move out of blame and into a possibility standpoint.

Next I brought out the manure (organic fertilizer). I attached negativity to manure and tried to show the participants that negativity can be a powerful force for change. When we are harboring negativity, or act negatively it means that we care about something, or that something has been transgressed. I showed them a model of trigger management and had them consider that their negativity was actually needed to make the soil rich. Human beings working closely with one another are bound to experience negativity and conflict, it is what we do with this that makes all the difference. In this meeting we were able to voice some past and current triggers and work through them successfully.

After this I brought in the concept of skillful ways of acting, or norms that I likened to vegetation. As we are in real-time together, we can be growing together all the time. One thing we need to grow is feedback skills. We need to know where we stand with our performance and attitude and we need others to help us become more self-aware. Feedback can be a scary thing to give and receive but the payoff is huge. Thick, vibrant stalks grow from consistent positive and constructive feedback.

Next I brought the Sun to bear on our meeting. I used the analogy of vision for the Sun and asked folks what they envisioned for the culture of their organization going forward. I used a ‘word-build’ exercise where I asked people to think of 4 words that best describe the culture they want to work in. Then I paired them up and had them cull their list of 8 to 4. Then I did it again with groups of 4 until we landed with 8 words (culled down from roughly 42 words). These words gave birth to those values or norms that they hold dear and that can inform their collective behavior.

Lastly I used the concept of harvest to denote accountability and leadership. I sought to show everyone that we are all leaders of the organization, even if we don’t have a leadership title. Every one of us can burn with passion for the mission, vision and culture and hold self and others accountable for that. I call this a ‘flat’ organization where everyone is relating as equals and fear and negativity are turned to low. This is always my noble ideal when I work with organizations and collaboration and innovation are outcomes of this ideal.

This particular organization has reported that our Growing Forward meeting was a success. They walked away feeling more connected, self-aware, and having more skills to use with each other. The road won’t be easy of course and one meeting won’t do it! But, we effectively got the garden kick started and all the elements at least within the ballpark. Use these principles in your organization for similar effects.