About a year ago, I planted a row of bay trees facing my house. These trees get pummeled by the wind to such a degree that I wondered if they would survive. To my delight, they are now thriving, but I was curious why this was and so I investigated what impact wind has on trees. In doing so I wanted to share some fascinating insights and a great analogy for resilience in both life and business. (This post is dedicated to a friend who is going through a particularly tough time at present.)
(Image: Dr Starbuck on Flickr)
Constructed between 1987 and 1991, Biosphere 2 is an American Earth system science research facility located in Arizona with a mission to serve as a centre for research, outreach, teaching, and lifelong learning about Earth, its living systems, and its place in the universe. Just as a software sandbox is a testing environment that isolates untested code changes from active code, Biosphere 2 allowed scientists to isolate experiments in a way that would not harm the planet.
In a study to explore the role of wind in a tree’s life, researchers discovered that the absence of wind had a profound impact on a tree’s survival. What would happen if the trees inside the Biosphere 2 facility enjoyed what researchers believed were optimum conditions? While these protected trees grew more rapidly than they would outside of the dome in harsher conditions they fell over before reaching maturation.
The question is why?
A tree develops stress wood (also known as compression or reaction wood) as it is blown back and forth by the wind, bending and contorting into uncomfortable positions (like forms of strenuous exercise in the gym). Adapting to this stress, the tree increases concentrations of cellulose to build greater strength. After examining the root systems and outer layers of bark, researchers discovered that Biosphere 2 trees were not producing enough of this vital stress wood.
Stress wood strengthens trees and keeps them from continuing to grow in directions that would ultimately hurt them. In addition, stress wood helps a tree position itself for optimal sun exposure and makes it more resilient. In the absence of stress wood, a tree does indeed grow quickly, but it lacks the resilience to support itself fully. Once outside the bubble of safety, it crumbles.
In a similar vein, a helicopter parent or lawnmower parent may think they are helping a child by overly providing for them, but the child will not develop their own “human stress wood”. While we may help in the short term, protecting them from harm like the safe haven of Biosphere 2, such children may not be able to support themselves much like the biosphere trees. Ultimately, they may topple in school, in a career or even mentally once they encounter life’s challenges.
Like trees, we need stress for adaptation and resilience. No stress = no demand on the system to become stronger. Difficult experiences don’t automatically doom us; they present opportunities to emerge on the other side even stronger and more capable of handling what life throws our way. Yes, it sucks in the moment of stress and it can certainly feel like it is never going to end, but as C.S. Lewis put it, “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” Such experiences often make sense in the rear view mirror of life and it certainly helps to frame them that way.
This goes for organisations who overly rely on consultants too, like helicopter parents, this is a “helicopter strategy”.
Don’t Outsource Organisational Resilience: Helicopter Strategy
I work with organisations on everything from engendering cultures of innovation to reinvention mindset workshops, so I say what I am going to say as a consultant. When it comes to innovation, digitalisation and transformation projects organisations engage consultancies, they explore operating models, revenue sources, operational costs, IT needs, and business models. This is valuable work, there is no doubt, however, organisations must eventually build their own capability to manage a stressful and turbulent business environment. Like trees, organisations are experiencing an increasing and unprecedented level of stormy weather. It is simply not feasible to rely on consultants, who should play a role as an extended frontal cortex, but then gradually fade away. Consultants can guide and prod and provoke new thinking, playing the role of “kindlers of new thought” to help organisations build their own stress wood. Unfortunately, many organisations outsource strategy when they are more concerned with short-term P&L than long-term survival.
When organisations outsource their stress wood opportunities to consultants they are depriving themselves of capability development. Leaders must realise that the start of any learning curve is always going to be steep and characterised by setbacks, obstacles and failures, but this is how they develop organisational stress wood. Each new attempt offers feedback, even failed attempts mean you are one step closer to knowing what might – or equally valuably – what might not work. In organisations, such attempts manifest as experiments, small starts, and minimal viable products.
So often the challenge is that we focus on the failure rather than the learnings. When we focus on failure, we become cognitively impaired and we cannot think creatively. We must reframe our relationship with struggle.
As the saying goes, “kites rise against, not with the wind.”
THANKS FOR READING