Rumi’s words came to mind as I pruned the hydrangeas outside our bay window last weekend and this Thursday Thought began to take root.
Many gardeners make the mistake of thinking Hydrangeas are “spent” in the winter. Their withered and lifeless appearance betrays their process of renewal. Last winter, my non-gardening neighbour quipped that I should just dump them and buy new plants. Like many organisms, these plants just needed some time to regenerate, with a little deadheading – at the right time – to help them in the process.
Deadheading is the process of removing withered blooms from plants such as hydrangeas. It enables the plant to divert energy to other parts of the plant rather than cling to a spent bloom. There is a caveat when deadheading: you must only do so at certain times of the year. In the case of withered blooms, leaving them on provides frost protection for the newly emerging green shoots. Removing a withered bloom in the depth of winter is counterproductive because the blooms provide coverage for the burgeoning buds waiting for their chance to blossom in the following spring.
Even when spent blooms fall to the soil, they still benefit the plant. Fallen blooms, leaves, fruits and decaying twigs enrich the soil by making the soil more fertile so there are more nutrients for the roots to take up. Part of this process is it also helps to improve a food source for beneficial bacteria and fungi which forms part of the plant’s roots ecosystem. To an unknowing eye – like my neighbour – these plants are dead, but to a knowledgeable gardener, the plant is regenerating and the roots are riotous.
The process of deadheading and hibernation provide beautiful metaphors for renewal on an organisational and personal level. The first is that the old bloom plays a noble role in enabling the new bud: as true in life as it is in nature. The second is that a casual observer will not notice the renewal process in the early stages. In many cases, others grow impatient for progress, they do not understand that it takes time to establish new roots. In this regard, it is easy to condemn them or belittle them, but like my neighbour with my garden, I have experience in the field (excuse the pun) while he does not, so how would he ever know? We need to treat others with empathy and compassion in organizational transformation work, sometimes resistance comes from a lack of knowledge or interest in your work.
For regular followers of The Thursday Thought, you will be familiar with the concept of the S curve. S curves are a great way to map the evolution of a company, technology or product over a period of time. S curves follow the shape of the letter S with slow growth at the bottom of the S, rapid growth comes next, followed by a dominant position in the market and stagnation at the top of the S. When a business or product is established, it eventually plateaus and experiences stagnation, process optimisation, automation, job cuts, decay and decline.
To Innovate Companies and Leaders need to dedicate time to jumping from one S curve to another, from one declining bloom to the next. This jump always looks like a step backwards and therein lies a major challenge.
When businesses realise they need to jump to a new curve it is often too late. As described in the book Stall Points (by Matthew S. Olson and Derek van Bever), once a company experiences a major stall in its growth, it has less than a 10% chance of fully recovering. In order to stand a chance of survival, organisations must evolve ahead of necessity to do so. This means that the organization’s roots must be riotous, work must be done for long periods of time before it ever blossoms into profits. This is where mapping the renewal of hydrangea to an S curve works very well (and there’s a sentence I never thought I would write).
Just like an organisation or an individual stuck in a certain role, it is natural for the hydrangea to reach a point of optimal growth and eventually decline. Clinging to the deadhead for too long damages the new growth, and overlap is useful, where the old bloom enables the new bud. Sometimes we may need a nudge to release the old and embrace the new. For hydrangeas, this is the pruning done by a gardener, for individuals this may be losing a job during organizational pruning, for an organization this nudge may come from a startup, a recession, a war or a pandemic.
It is Always Messy in the Middle
When the hydrangea is in an intermediary state, where the old bloom is protecting the new bud, it is at its most vulnerable. This maps to the step backwards stage of the S curve (the messy middle). The challenge here was well recognised by Peter Drucker when he said, “The New always looks so small, so puny, so unpromising next to the size and performance of maturity.” Just like my neighbour who judged the hydrangea by comparing it to its former glory, many organisational leaders discard promising projects much too soon. Transformation takes time to gestate — despite all the talk about moving fast and breaking things. That is a great paradox of this work.
In legacy organizations, business leaders must provide protection just like the older head provides cover for the new bud to emerge. The old play a noble role in enabling the new. Because the emerging bud is vulnerable and needs protection in the early days, it often falls prey to predation. In a business sense, predators come in the form of guardians of the status quo and established business leaders, who are practising “Good Management” and avoiding anything that pulls the established business off-course. Leadership must, therefore, protect and nurture the fledgeling business, provide a safe place to gestate new business models and new projects (and those people, who often suffer ostracisation and vilification.) In many organisations the emerging bud often gets very little energy, protection, budget or runway, in fact, many budding attempts are stillborn and never see the springtime.
(Rebirth Regeneration by Avitanor)
The hydrangea metaphor works for individual renewal too. Think of those times when you decided to take a bold step in your life or perhaps your career. Those times you decide to develop a new habit or lose an old one, cut your hair in a new style, take up a new hobby, change college courses, start a business or change careers. In doing this you are doing what is natural, we are designed to evolve, to progress, to change. But a strange happens when we cast of spent blooms.
Most likely, you get stricken by fear of “What if it doesn’t work” or “What will others think”. The next thing that often happens is very hurtful but perfectly natural. The people whom you think you can count on to support your renewal are often the very people who try to hold you back. They discourage you. They dismiss your idea. And boy, does that hurt. Why is this? Sometimes, your decision to change can expose their indecision, their inaction and instead of giving you the encouragement you need, they hold you back. Change is one of the hardest things for us to do. Just like the budding business needs protection from organizational predators, the emergent self needs support from like-minded people. We need to surround ourselves with people who see beyond our spent bloom, they see the emergent bud, the bulging potential waiting to burst forth.
We need to surround ourselves with those people who see us for our emergent self and encourage us to let go of the old and embrace the new.
THANKS FOR READING AND MAY YOUR ROOTS BE RIOTOUS