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  • Gardeners Guide to a Resiliently Innovative IT Organization


    My friends call me the constant gardener. Although I have not seen the Ralph Fiennes movie yet, I suspect it might be because whenever they stop by I am out in the yard with muddy boots and a wheel barrow, wielding a myriad of tools; seeding, weeding, planting, dividing or dreaming up the next project. It is one of those hobbies that turned into a total time hog; but quite fulfilling.

    I believe we humans have this habit of synthesizing what we have the passion for and turning that into meaningful insights. How life is like a series of Mad Men; how being part of a fantasy football team makes you a better team player; how training for a mud race is like completing a company merger and so on..

    Over the years gardening has taught me a few simple, but key principles that I think can be applied as easily to creating a high performing, resilient, self-sustaining, awesome organization. Here are my top 15.

    1. Have a vision/mission for your team: aspirational, but achievable

    My vision for the garden is to have color in all parts of the garden all through the year. Wanting colors December thru February in Chicago might be considered greedy not to mention un-achievable, so I gave in a little by declaring it white for those months. A shared vision helps align goals and keep us going in times of uncertainty. Over the years I have incrementally managed to protract out the blooming season from middle of March to middle of November before the earth turns into frozen tundra. Journey is still on..

    Starting from the frozen tundra in January it is difficult to imagine that there will be green shoots very soon.

    Realization of vision could start small, especially if the destination seems formidable; such as, start building software using open source technology for the next project or move a low impact application into the public cloud.

    2. Celebrate small victories

    This was a big whatsapp event for me; the lone crocus on March 12, 2015.

    3. Control your fixed costs and have a flexible labor strategy

    With my budget and talent considerations, I have a well-defined division of labor with the landscaper and other services. He takes care of business as usual items; mowing, seasonal maintenance and heavy lifting as well as planting anything taller than four feet. I take care of the landscape design, annuals, seeds, vegetables and smaller perennials, with generous help from the kids. I also have a sprinkler system and a service for pest control. My current backlog also includes using Raspberry PI to program the sprinkler system to optimize watering (we'll see).

    In-source, offshore, outsource based on the vision and priorities of the company. The labor model should be able to flex and evolve with changing needs. Too much outsourcing results in brain drain, too much in-sourcing could leave you with no cushion in case of an economic downturn.

    4. Empower leaders and teams .. and stay engaged

    One time I was in a budget control mode and decided to move the pest control service to my landscaper who promised the same services cheaper. I had to lose three trees to Asian-beetle and see crab grass take over the lawn before I realized that his margins and volumes and therefore focus was in the lawn care business. Good guy though and great intentions ... For the time being I went back to the pest control service and the landscaper started paying attention to the crab grass more... to be revisited next year.

    At the end of the day, your involvement holds the keys to a successful organization, especially as you create self-sufficient teams who might not have the subject matter expertise at the beginning. I cannot recall even one corner of the garden that has thrived while remaining completely unattended.

    5. Investing in existing talent and acquiring new talent are equally important

    I have a retired neighbor who is an avid gardener and also has his own well, so his yard is well watered. His garden looks amazing! I do enjoy a good looking yard, but after paying a sprinkler system influenced water bill I currently value the kid's college education a bit more. So I go out and find hardy Zone 5 plants that can thrive in dry conditions. I also water during dry spells and pay attention to where I plant things to get the most out of nature and nurture; the micro-climates in my yard; sun, rain, shade trees, water drainage to name a few.

    Interspersing SME's with new hires, matching talent to the role and active coaching and mentoring can continue to expand the organization's effectiveness

    Mix annuals, roses, perennials and evergreens with generous mulch on top, all with dry soil tolerance and hardy up to -20F.

    6. When you are bringing in outside talent, consider re-balancing the ecosystem

    There are times I see a plant elsewhere or read about it and am eager to introduce that into my garden. It could be to satisfy the need to add fall color to a predominantly spring patch, brighten shady spots, prevent algae in the pond and so on. The new species seems very attractive from a distance and have characteristics that we want. Just need to be aware of what else they bring with them that might interact negatively with the existing species. I have had to intervene in a few unforeseen situations: water lettuce over flowing the pond, cone flowers choking out phlox; wisteria clogging drain pipes, to name a few.

    Introducing new talent and leaders have to be done with thought and care to ensure that the chemistry of the teams and the general ecosystem is balanced with the combined talents.

    The water lettuce helps with algae, but almost took over the pond

    7. Be on great terms with your suppliers

    I have received so many free/subsidized plants and tons of free advice from the landscape guy, the sprinkler guy and the pond guy. They get plants from other houses that they maintain and pass them on to me as they know my interest and general vision. Treating them fair and well causes them to be partners with a shared vision and have you top of mind when opportunities arise. When my water lettuce caused the pond to overflow, John the pond guy came over four times with no complaints to debug and fix the issue.

    Suppliers often see so many other companies who are your competitors and are able to guide you on industry trends as well.. if you are open to listening.

    8. Balance your initiatives throughout the year, avoid burn-out and confusion

    My motto is that at any point of time a good part of the garden should look good, while smaller sections could be work in progress. That gives you the ability to enjoy the beauty you created, and also keep the creative juices flowing with (re)designing patches. Once in my quest to find the perfect bloom spot I dragged my poor azaleas through all the corners of the house. I am still trying to nurse them back to their healthy self.

    Change is great and invigorating for some but is stressful and draining for some. Keeping balance, introducing change slowly and demonstrating the benefits of change helps bring folks along. There might be some who decide that it is not for them and choose take a different path.

    Here is a patch in progress, by next summer it will be all filled out, if everything goes per plan!

    9. You cannot buy, borrow or imitate your way into originality and innovation

    The easiest thing to do if you don't want to pay a landscape designer is to walk around any neighborhood, get ideas from the various houses and copy pieces of the design. You could also see pictures in landscape magazines with beautiful perennial patches and try to copy it. The fine print does not say that that those plants will not all flower at the same time as it appears on the picture. The issue with following your neighbor's design is that their house might be northern exposure and yours might be western; a totally different outcome. Your design will have to depend on the subtleties of your own house: micro-climate, water retention, amount of watering, landscape budget and so on.

    Of late, large corporations want to operate like an Apple, Google or Facebook and are looking for off the shelf recipes to make that happen. The vision is a good start; adding focused leadership based on your ecosystem makes it great and really illuminates the path forward. Especially critical is updating performance management and rewards systems to encourage the right behaviors.

    The zinnia patch designed for afternoon sun, dry soil and fall color.

    10. Divas are a lot of work, but they do win the Grammy

    I spend a lot of time in early spring saving my tulips from deer and rabbits. I have tried most everything: commercially available deer repellent, dried red chili peppers, Ivory bar soap shavings, dog hair, to name a few. A lot of the really good tulips aren't even real perennials, so planting these every year in the fall is quite a bit of work. But in spring when the snow finally melts, seeing these tulips pop out is like watching fireworks on the fourth of July. So worth all that effort!

    Spending the extra time with your best employees and coaching them through life's little difficulties, doing timely course corrections and so on helps the team reap great benefits downstream. Encouraging differing opinions and debates tends to elevate us from status quo and group-think, situations where we might be blinded by our own brilliance. Life is so much easier if you only have humble collaborators all around you, but you end up with an uninspired, bland organization.

    Meant to stop here but am on a roll now.. What is technology without scope creep anyways!

    11. Don't be scared to experiment; it doesn't cost much, and the results could be transformational

    My garden is a hot bed of experiments, some spectacular failures and some brag worthy successes. Now I know that zinnia's are probably the most resilient seeds, nothing fazes them, so they are all over the yard emanating beautiful colors in August and September when all other flowers are worn out after a hot summer. I also know that petunias are not big fans of water logging and that tomatoes and black-eyed-susan together in a patch spells crowding disaster..

    I have had some major fails early on in my career that I still draw from. Failing early and fast and making that be part of the stride of the organization will keep the innovative spirit alive. This atmosphere that nurtures talent and visibly accepts stumbles as part of the game also attracts loyal talent.

    12. Where there is smoke there is fire; system hiccups and employee morale issues must be addressed sooner than later

    A couple of years ago I had hundreds of birds land on the lawn often. I thought it was kind of cute until my neighbor educated me that that is a symptom of grub in the ground. Needless to say, I got on that right away.

    A leader I know half-jokes that if you ignore a problem long enough it will resolve itself. Although that actually could work in some situations, most engagement issues and system break downs need some investigation to understand root cause and partnership with a lot of people to figure out solution.

    13. Continue to re-balance your portfolio every fall

    Fall is the time to divide the overgrown plants, replant them in new locations, create new patches, plant bulbs and so on. It takes that much planning to have a great garden in spring of next year. On the other hand if you try to do the same in the middle of summer, the plants usually don't survive.

    When some folks have stayed in a role for a long time, there is no more place to grow for them. Cross pollination of talent across areas helps keep the teams fresh and effective.

    14. Maintenance is a daily process

    Some times after spring showers the weeds are more prolific than flowers. Trying to wrestle with them in June after ignoring them all through April and May gets to be overwhelming. I try to weed a little whenever I am out in the yard, that makes it seem much more manageable, although it is probably the least enjoyable activity in the yard for me.

    Whether it is teams or systems, it is so much more effective to keep them well taken care of. No one notices the difference when your yard is weed free, but when you do have sky high weeds everyone, including the homeowners association has something to say.

    15. Being a contributing member of a community keeps us current and inspired

    I have an informal garden committee with my friends; we exchange seeds, vegetables, plants, gardening woes and successes. We also take pride in showing off the best pictures, the best vegetables.

    Building the communities of practice, meet ups, hackathons, code kata's and participating in external conferences to share and receive keeps us up to date in latest technologies and goings on in the industry.

    All these are simple but not easy to do, especially considering everything else we have on our plates. The key I think is the day to day, seemingly mundane things that all add up to work towards a common goal and make that be part of the DNA of the organization. My garden is in a constant state of evolution, so are organizations. The fun part is learning and growing together.

    Although I am most familiar with technology shops, these principles probably apply to any organization. Gardeners and any other enthusiasts, any key ones I missed?