Be a Farmer. Not a Builder.

For fifteen years or so I’ve thought ‘building’ a business and ‘growing’ a business were the same thing.

Until about a year ago.

Then I learned from Sir Ken Robinson that there is a difference. A critical difference. In my view, it’s the kind of difference that determines whether your business succeeds or fails.

People and organizations are not mechanisms. And yet we treat them as such. Our education system takes raw material and feeds it down a conveyor belt, shaping and adding until it conforms to a pre-determined set of standards. At the end of the process the product is tested for quality assurance. Individuality is not required.

It’s a model built for the Industrial Age, and increasingly it’s producing Industrial Age results.

Because when you apply the same principles to business you create organizations that try to work like machines. Organization charts with rigid lines flowing neatly from one box to another. Systems and protocols that overwhelm the process they are intended to support. Ideas driven by hierarchy not impact. Analysis to the point of paralysis.

In innovative organizations magic happens in the spaces between the boxes.

Which is the way that nature works if you think about it.

Plants take energy from both the soil and sun, but grow in the space in between. They don’t grow in the ground. They grow from it.

But only if the conditions are right.

Plants need help and support. Some need the reliability of a trellis or a stake in order to flourish. Others a certain amount of shade. In fact a good farmer has systems and infrastructure in place at every step if he is to have a crop to harvest. Regular watering schedules. Protection from the elements below a certain temperature. A willingness to prune in order to strengthen the whole.

Innovative businesses are built the same way.

They are not notable for their lack of systems but instead for the supportive nature of their systems. Systems that are so intuitive they seem invisible. After all, when we look at grapes about to be picked do we notice the trellis on which they’re growing? Instead, we marvel that in a field of one million grapes no two are identical.

Businesses built for the future encourage originality. They recognize the status quo is an illusion, that conditions are always changing. They shine a light and encourage their people towards it. They are careful to distinguish between those that flourish in the shade from those that blossom in the sun. And they know how to nurture both. They recognize not everyone grows at equal speed. Or in the same way. They know they need to provide incentive and encouragement and support. That there are multiple paths. That growth is the result of chemistry. And optimism. And belief. And individual journeys.

It’s the difference between growing your company and building it.

Which are you doing?