I was in a beautifully manicured garden! Everything seemed perfect. Measured, orderly, regimented and organised. The gardener got it all set in her grand design. Plants were trimmed the moment they break that order. Everything seemed to have an assigned purpose.
But then I visited the forest. A breathtaking abundance struck awe in me. Life life everywhere. Seemingly chaotic yet the most productive ecosystem. Full of freedom and life, every creature performing at its natural best. Every little creature making its unique impact sustaining the ecosystem. Competing yet collaborating. Everyone had the space.
Similar ways are designed the organisations. Organisational leaders face a critical choice as to what they want their organisations to be like. A manicured garden or a forest! You can be a gardener or a forest dweller. Your choice!
But what is the best choice? Well! If we study the organisations, we see that most often, the leaders happen to build a manicured garden in the longer run.
But Hey! Why? Why does this happen?
Many reasons. Leaders have their own vision and organisations are purposive. Organisations come to life like a germinating seed. But as they grow, the growth seems chaotic. To regulate, processes are laid down. To observe the norms of efficiency and productivity, uniformity and standardisation is desired. And finished. The leader assumes the role of the gardener to set order.
Gardener than decides which plants will stand tall and which ones will be cut short (I mean the hierarchy of command). All plants are only allowed to grow in the limits set for them (I mean defining the boundary or the job description). The order is so much that any unwanted growth is nipped in the bud (I mean shooting down all innovative and revolutionary ideas).
And then this ‘garden culture’ or ‘garden syndrome’ kicks in. All plants gets accustomed to the size and shape they are supposed to be in. They stop growing or they grow only to be trimmed off. Worst, many diverse plants, do not join the garden and diversity remains at bay.
But this approach can be seriously troublesome. Some medicinal plants may be assumed to be the weed and be uprooted by the gardener. Gardener starts caring for the sameness of the garden than its overall productivity.
But quite opposite are the forest organisations. Here, no one tries to control everything. Broad rules of the game are set and all begin to play. Everyone grows to its fullest. Diversity is cherished. Variety of life is its essence. No ‘one best way’ of doing a task. All species evolving ‘their best way of doing’ their task. Ultimate mission is clear: survival!
Here also a culture evolves. I call it the ‘forest culture’. It does not mean that the forest organisations won’t be purposive or be chaotic. In forest also are the predators and everyone knows the red line. Or we can say that such organisations have the ‘chaotic order’.
What happens in such organisations?
Like forest, there is the motivation to self learn to adapt to survival. No need to make uniform rigid training programmes for everyone. Culture is such that without continuous learning the new ways, the species won’t survive.
In a forest, there is a tough competition for critical resources like sunlight. Similarly, in such organisations, opportunities and rewards are distributed to the most deserving and the ones who puts maximum efforts and achieves the maximum height and not to the one who is trimmed the least by the gardener.
Forest is full of symbiotic relationships and collaboration. Web of life is built such that nothing is useless. One person’s trash is other’s treasure. Similarly, in forest organisations, diversity is so huge that there are ‘n’ ways to look at a situation and encash it.
In a forest, everyone is a ‘self leader’ with the highest sense of ‘self awareness’. In forest organisations also, people know that they have to be their own light and they are always at the cutting edge and fortune is built also at the bottom of the pyramid.
In a forest, there is the high productivity as all are contributing to the maximum they can. In forest organisations, every employee is given a unique benchmark as per their capability. No two are measured with the same stick.
Gardeners measure success in the quantum of the ‘fruits’; Forest dwellers measure success in the health of the ‘roots’. Thus, forest organisations measure the long term yardsticks of the business and not the short term profitability.
Forests are sustainable. Every species takes only its own share, strictly according to its need. In Forest organisations, no one tries to corner the cake for oneself. All bake the cake and share in an equitable way. We have seen the gardeners plucking all the fruits leaving nothing for birds (remember corporate scandals?).
In a forest, all have their voice. In forest organisations, all strike their own tones but make a beautiful orchestra together. In short, all kind of voices find space making decision making meaningful.
In a garden, gardener only cares for its existence. In a forest, every species cares for its existence. There is the stake. There is the ownership. Forest organisations generate the spirit of ‘my organisation’.
In a garden, they teach; In the forest, they learn! In garden, there is ‘change management; in forest, they evolve! In a garden, there is ‘creation’; in the forest, there is, ‘manifestation’. In a garden, there is ‘law’; in the forest, there is ‘life’. Gardens are ‘artificial’; forests are ‘authentic’.
Today, the environment and climate is very much chaotic for organisational leaders. Multiple variables, multiple probabilities and multiple ways of expression. This is more true for the legend and veteran organisations like ‘The Great Indian Railways’.
An organisation of million plus, its demography is under transformation from grey to black hair in a young labour market of India. It is fighting a stormy competition from alternates of mobility with its shrinking pockets. Rivals are betting on revolutionary technologies on platform of Industry 4.0.
In such a hazy climate, it is of highest importance that this organisation of million plus has a million plus leaders. Though, to an outsider, this organisation seems to be like a manicured garden given its extensive codes and manuals and standard procedures, I have observed that at its core is the ‘forest spirit’.
This organisation is not merely a mobility provider. Given its magnificent record in sports promotion, promotion of culture and heritage and its sheer size, it attracts a diverse talent pool like a magnet.
Such a diverse organisation cannot find its fullest expression in a garden. It needs cultivation of the forest. There are some key decisions which would determine which way this organisation proceeds.
To my mind, giving the autonomy at the division level is the key. Then set the competition in all divisions and hold its leaders accountable for financial matrices.
Freedom of talent management at the cutting edge is the key. It means the fluidity and not the rigidity in the way talent in the organisation is utilised. Freedom to staff to work on deputation across departments on talent basis is the key. There is the famine and abundance of talent at the same time in the organisation.
Latest technology is an enabler to build the forest organisations. Ground rules can be set and monitoring ensured from a distance without an intrusive surveillance of the gardener. It is critical not to choke the employees with a lens of suspicion and a resultant loads of frequent control encounters. Mistrust is the poison for the health of the organisations.
We need to talk of roots more often than fruits. Where our organisation is heading. Per passenger kilometre profitability, responsibility accounting, marginal costs, per employee contribution, standard costing, customer satisfaction and not merely the operating ratio and dividend should be in focus.
For survival as the ultimate mission, customer is the ultimate king. Customer centricity need to be there in everything we do. No entity is infallible and inevitable in present times. We need to question our basic assumptions of existence.
But yah! No organisation can completely either be a garden or a forest. It is always in degrees. There can be pockets of forests in a large garden.
But as the scenario goes, a forest will be much more beautiful than a garden.
Let the mind be without fear and the freedom be free in the Forest organisations.