Innovate or Die! Spring Flowers Design the Future of Leadership

June 13, 2016

The annual Spring Walk through Sydney’s Royal Botanical Gardens is an emersion in fecundity. Plantations of Irises, Heliconia, Cana Lillies, Daffodils and Tulips provide explosions of colour that are at once beautiful and wondrous, particularly given the complex subterranean root system responsible for their display.


All of these flowers are rhizomes, plants with roots that shoot from a series of interconnected nodes beneath the soil. With no beginning or end, rhizomes only have a middle from which potential is constantly spouting. The more nodes, the more shoots, the more shoots, the more flowers, the more flowers, the greater the visual impact for Sydneyites enjoying spring’s glory.


In organisations, networks of human relationships act much like the root system of a rhizome. Information and feedback are distributed throughout and across the system, whereby the nexus of novelty lies in the relationships themselves. It is from these ‘human nodes’ that the unexpected blooms.


With this in mind, it could be argued that avid gardeners and generative leaders share a poignant commonality. Both are driven to act in ways that, “spawn new opportunities for novelty, flexibility and growth.” (Goldstein, J., Hazy, J., & Lichtenstein, B., 2014. Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership: Leveraging Non-linear Science to Create Ecologies of Innovation, New York: Palgrave McMillan, p. 3)


To manifest either breathtaking beauty or unprecedented organisational action, both gardener and leader must:


  1. Possess a willingness to study relationships between organisms and their physical environments

  2. See innovation as the outcome of a set of conditions

  3. Demonstrate a keen commitment to exploring the nature of these conditions

  4. Understand and respect the parameters and constraints of the current environment

  5. Pay attention to signs of criticalisation (!Innovate-or-Die-Surfing-the-Big-Waves/a2r8i/5743c87c0cf27ecc8093869a) with an acute sense of curiosity

  6. See patterns of discrepancy and inconsistency as potential signals for change rather than problems to solve

  7. Promote diversity and look for outliers because groups of the ‘same’ tend not to generate the widest range of ‘colour’

  8. Encourage the free flow of information across ecosystems of relationships in ways that welcome and encourage the unexpected

  9. Recognise relationships as the source of influence, the driver of innovation and the regulator of change

  10. Welcome divergence, complexity and multiplicity as opportunities for novelty, flexibility and growth


As avid gardener and generative leader, I’ve spent decades embedding these principles across both domains.  Today there is no distinction. Tending my garden has become a live metaphor for generative leadership in complex systems.


So, it is when the Kikuyu Grass, an aggressive non-native rhizome shoots across the landscape strangling every native in its path, that my most genuine inquiry practice begins:


  • Where should my attention be – on the edges, at the centre or both?

  • What is this disruptor trying to tell me about the system I'm operating in or the outcomes I’ve grown attached to?

  • What have I done in the past that has worked, and why isn’t it working now?

  • What do I know, and what do I know I don’t know about what is going on here, about my design and about emergent and novel ways to meet this challenge?


Theologian, Leonardo Boff, writes that ecology is as much about human society and culture as it is about the natural environment. I find this a most compelling assumption, one that I test regularly in my own design practice.


In my role as a collaborative designer of human systems in the vertical leadership space, I often turn toward my most trusted co-creator, the natural world, for answers. In the spirit of curious inquiry I ask, what would nature do? Holding the question lightly and without attachment always generates a quality of emergence and novelty that far exceeds expectation.


Until next time, this is Susanna Carman inviting you to include curious inquiry with both the natural environment and human systems into your own design process. 

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