Architects or gardeners of change?

I thought it was weird at first that George R.R. Martin compares his writing style to that of a gardener.

“The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if they planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”

It’s a loose analogy, but it actually paints a compelling picture. A picture that extends to describe the tension when approaching change within organisations. Or any kind of change for that matter.

Gardeners favour opportunities that present along the journey. Appearing organically as ideas by following a loose creative process. It probably feels more like making it up as you go, rather than setting out with a clear plan from the start. Agile or something.

The other side of the analogy would be the architect. Unlike the gardener, the architect values detail. Detailed plans. Detailed budgets. A well defined structure and process. Command and control. Waterfall.

Where we go wrong

I started to think recently that where we go wrong within organisational change is thinking that these two styles are mutually exclusive. We tend to assume that you can only be in one mode at a time. Either a gardener or architect. I don’t think that’s true.

Bringing this lens back to the work I sometimes get to do; helping organisations change for the better, it means that large scale traditional change programmes (the architect) and small scale design driven change experiments (the gardener) need to co-exist.

The value (and likely the real skill) is in recognising when to switch gears between these approaches, whilst understanding who will be going with and against the grain with you when you do. Knowing which tools to use by always considering the wider context you’re operating within. That’s easier said than done.

Feeling the tension

A lot of the reason we feel this tension is that too often as an agency, we only really experience the post-mortem of big change programmes. The type that are expensive and mostly fail and become synonymous to us with the inertia of a legacy organisation. We parachute in when architect mode goes wrong. Dancing around the edges, experimenting with small scale change and often forgetting to respect and engage with the real motive and value of the previous programme. It’s probably why we get stuck in discovery and fail to deliver. We’ve planted seeds but have forgotten that it’s still the same soil the architects foundations are rooted in.

Peter Latz, the acclaimed landscape architect sums up how to combat this nicely when talking about the regeneration of derelict and long-forgotten industrial estates. He stresses that it’s important to “understand that transformation doesn’t need to erase the past, but must recognise the value of what remains.”

We need both gardeners and architects. So maybe we need to think more like landscape architects.


Things I'm thinking about, for long enough to write them down: