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Gardens, Psychology and Leadership

By Dave Snowden  ·  June 27, 2008  · 

I garden. More in theory than in practice. But I garden. For years, I’ve harboured hopes of bountiful harvests from my tiny vegetable patch. Several summertime pregnancies and a PhD have led to less than impressive vegetable harvests, though I can’t be accused of not having been productive in other areas. Well, this weekend, chaos happened – a hailstorm struck.  Hailstones as large as pingpongballs redecorated our car bonnet and wiped out the vegetable patch. Depressing. Everything flattened, berry branches snapped, fruit knocked from trees. Clearly not ‘complex’ – no amount of safe-fail experimentation could have helped me see this emergent phenomenon. The crisis task force is me, my husband, a broom, a rake and a secateurs. So far, so good. A one-off chaotic event. But how would I manage if exposed to a series of hailstorms, locust plagues, droughts and rampant mole attacks? Cry, give up, persist?

This brings me to chaos and complexity and an extension of my first blog. How to know what situation you’re dealing with and what ‘psychology’ is needed for appropriate responses? A friend, coordinator of an organisation focusing on agricultural development, sighed last week after an encounter with a colleague. She had just spent two days discussing the relevance of complexity science in a workshop I co-organised on ‘navigating complexity’. And the next day faced this colleague wanting to standardise context-specific agricultural production processes into THE manual. His insistence on a ‘simple’ product jarred with her perspective on the inherent complexity of agricultural systems. It made her wonder what can be expected of people.  Is it that some minds are simply more at home with the knowable, while others perfectly at ease with the emergent? If so, how can this match job expectations? Separate out tasks into the four domains and allocate them according to staff members’ psychologies? How feasible (or useful) would that be? And what to do about oneself as a ‘leader’? How do you know and cope with your own limitations? If you know you’re dealing with complexity but are uncomfortable with a merry jumble of parallel experiments or narratives, you can’t just hand over your job as coordinator. That’s not how management systems work. Or should they? 

Irene Guijt