12: Instead of managing, try cultivating

Leading people to innovative outcomes has much more in common with the successful cultivation of gardens than it does with traditional, top-down, centralized, command-and-control management techniques. Whereas the later is concerned with efficiencies, coping with scarcity, and always being on top of things, cultivating is about embracing variance, abundance, and the idea of living at the bottom of things. A leadership model based on a cultivation mindset can be found in the following four defining behaviors of cultivators of innovation:

1) Being at the bottom of things

Flourishing gardens come from being at the bottom of things. Instead of pursuing the traditional management goal of being on top of things — with the lucrative by-product of being at the top of things — the leader-as-cultivator makes it their job to live simultaneously at the bottom and in the middle and on the edges, dealing with things that might seem like plain manure to outsiders.

It’s not lonely at the bottom. The bottom can be a messy place, but it is the wellspring of success when it comes to fostering creativity. With plants, as with people trying to act in creative ways, you can’t tell them what to do, but you can try to support what they need to do, matching essential resources to tasks at hand. This is not traditional, I’m-the-heroic-boss leadership. Instead, the creative cultivator takes satisfaction from tending to the health of the overall garden, and wisely leaves the kudos for smelling great and looking good to the roses.

2) Trusting what is there

Creative cultivators trust what is there. A wise cultivator resists the temptation to “dig up the seed as it is growing”, as it were, to check if people are being creative enough. Many breakthrough innovation initiatives are stifled by linear project timetables more appropriate to incremental efforts. The paradox of cultivating innovation is that confidence in outcomes is itself an enabler of innovation; a wise gardener knows that roses are the best authorities on the creation of rosiness, and until they bloom, only checks in to see if they need more food and water. Furthermore, creative cultivators trust that the right answers — though not necessarily the ones they would have thought up themselves — will emerge from their gardens. So much about what makes a creative organization tick is tacit; it is about what’s there and what it creates in an emergent way, rather than what a few brains wish to have happen via explicit processes and goals.

3) Embracing the ecosystem

By their nature, gardens are part of larger ecosystems. Healthy gardens readily accept inputs from the outside world. Rain, seeds, nutrients, soil: we needn’t worry where they come from, we just care about their integrity and how they help us grow good stuff. Encouraging variance — the generation of weird or unexpected ideas — is a key goal for someone cultivating a creative culture. Anything that encourages variance through the cross-pollination of ideas from outside sources (very much the function of bees) should be reinforced. And as we’re sadly seeing out in the world, gardens without the benefit of bees soon stop producing.

Thinking about the long-term health of all stakeholders in an ecosystem is also a signature act of a cultivator. Innovating is a long-term endeavor and requires a great deal of patience, investment, and fortitude. Actions that value short-term productivity over the long-term health of the garden and its larger ecosystem are not conducive to lasting success.

4) Taking a bird’s eye view

Finally, creative cultivators do all of the above while simultaneously curating the garden from a bird’s eye view. Managing a portfolio of creative endeavors requires knowing how many plants a certain piece of land can support and then pruning or culling as need be. As Principle 9 states, sometimes you have to prune (or kill) ideas and projects. Doing the most with the resources at hand,listening to what works and what doesn’t, and guiding growth to be something unique and wonderful – that is the essence of strategy, and of gardening as well. Most importantly, by taking a bird’s eye view, a creative cultivator creates the context for plants to grow in accordance with a strong vision of how the garden should evolve. In organizations, this means having points of origin that can inspire individuals to be creative in certain ways, and not others, and to innovate in the right directions.

Taken together, these four ways of leading should help innovations flourish. Instead of trying to manage innovation, we must move to a model of leadership that’s all about cultivating it.

This is number twelve in a series of 21 principles. Your feedback is most welcome.