Soil is not sexy

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

– Greek proverb

My wife is an avid gardener. A hardcore avid gardener.

She would rather spend money on new plants than clothes for herself. She can’t drive past a garden centre without stopping in to “…just have a look”. She collects plants like others collect stamps or antiques.

She can’t bear to see discarded plants or plant clippings left to die. She didn’t think twice when she dragged home a monstrous Elephant Ear plant (pictured above) left in the local civic centre dump!

Turns out she’s not alone.

I recently met someone at a client who is just as fanatical about plants as my wife. He had set up a plant recovery centre in a sun-laden corner of the office. He checks in to water and fuss over his plants regularly every day. He even showed me pictures of his plant nursery at home replete with ultraviolet lamps and green house!

Plant 5

Casual gardeners are smitten by the beauty of the plant itself.

Hardcore gardeners pay just as much attention, if not more to the stalk and what’s under the ground than the foliage above the ground.

One of my wife’s favourite sayings is,

Soil is not sexy

The colourful leaves and blossoms are what turns heads. The rest of the plant under the ground is essential but invisible. Most people will pay top dollar for a beautiful lush flowering plant. Only to bring it home and stick it in any patch of dirt they can find. They then wonder why that beautiful plant is suddenly droopy and not doing well.

Hardcore gardeners spend time analyzing and preparing the soil. They check the soil’s pH acid-alkaline balance level. They also check the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels in the soil. If the pH level is too high or alkaline, the plant’s ability to absorb certain nutrients will be adversely affected leading to symptoms that include a yellowing of the plant’s leaves. Hardcore gardeners don’t hesitate to spend extra money and time to supplement the soil with compost, manure or mulch.

Even when the soil is great, things can go wrong. Some plants are very finicky about location and exposure to sun or shade. My wife has a Japanese Maple tree that she’s moved around front and back yards about five times over the last two years before it finally started to thrive.

And then there are the multitude of pots and pot hygiene. Too small a pot can slow growth. Too large a pot can cause root rot. Not regularly cleaning and disinfecting the pots that hold your plants can invite parasites that will disease your plants.

My wife’s passion for gardening has spilled over to her place of work. She’s gradually and covertly over time, built up a green oasis of thriving plants. It’s become a favourite place for co-workers to visit, take a break and even meditate.

As you read this, some of you may have started drawing analogies between gardening and supporting Agile environments. I certainly did as I’ve often listened to my wife explain and illustrate in pain-staking detail the craft of gardening to me.

The difference between casual gardeners and hardcore gardeners can be a metaphor for the difference between doing agile and being agile.

Let’s unpack that metaphor starting with the following musings.

Hardcore  gardening of Agile environments starts with the Agile Manifesto Principle #5,

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

If we think of…

  • motivated individuals” as plants in our garden
  • and “the environment” as the soil

Who could the gardener be?

The preoccupation with the ephemeral flower over the enduring soil is like the shallow focus on agile practices over agile mindset.

Agile practices like Scrum events and Kanban boards are visible. The underlying values and the surrounding culture is invisible. Tending to the soil is tantamount to tending to the cultural implications of moving to Agile ways.

The finicky nature of plants reminds me of the need for experimentation and continuous improvement in Agile environments. There is no “End State”, only the “Next State”. And there will always be the next “Next State”.

Plant pots provide a perfect analogy for the organizational boundaries that agile teams run up against. If the boundaries are too constraining and restrictive, our teams and their outcomes will be slow and limited. If the boundaries are too lax, the environment will lack challenge and teams will become complacent and stagnant.

When teams are made up of “motivated individuals” and we “…trust them to get the job done”, they become like the green oasis in my wife’s office. Wonderful places to visit, enjoy and share.

When it comes to your Agile initiatives, are there hardcore gardeners deep in the soil preparing for a green thriving oasis or are there casual gardeners mesmerized by the ornamental foliage?

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