Growing plants and people

Matt Shanks

Matt Shanks

Principal Product Designer & Author/Illustrator for children. I'm out to improve the quality of life for everyone who uses the things that I make.

My dad once told me that there are two ways to grow a garden.

The first way is to pick the plants you love, regardless of which conditions they thrive in, and spend the time and energy supporting their growth. If you like mangoes and you’re in Melbourne then it’s possible to grow them, they just require a lot of care, attention, and work. You need to keep them warm and insulated in the cold Melbourne winter, and you need to keep them well-watered in the dry Melbourne summer. It is possible to grow a garden like this, but boy, it’s a lot of work.

The other way to grow a garden is to take a bunch of largely random plants and flowers, throw them in the soil, ignore them, and see what grows. Some plants love the combination of the cold Melbourne winter and dry Melbourne summer. They will not only survive, but thrive, and best of all, they require little to no work. It’s possible to have a lush, beautiful garden in either scenario.

Growing a garden in the first way might seem like a largely selfish, close-minded pursuit. “I like mangoes, therefore I will do whatever it takes to grow a mango in Melbourne.” The result is a lot of work and often frustration for very little (if any) yield.

Growing a garden in the second way requires a listening approach; an understanding and recognition of the plant itself – it’s preferred growing conditions – and the properties of the environment in which it’s expected to grow. The idea isn’t about what I want, it’s about making a match between the plant and it’s environment.

And now, managing people, I can’t help but come back to this advice from my dad about plants. It is possible for a person to survive in an environment that isn’t suited to their strengths, but they won’t thrive. It’ll take an immense amount of work (both on my part and theirs) for very little (if any) reward. One way to look at my job as a manager is about understanding the unique strengths of the people in the team, and then go about finding or shaping the environments in which they’ll thrive.

Yes, sure, plants are not people. People can change and adapt in a way that plants can’t, but that has to begin with a conversation which, again, is about listening not telling. If a team member comes to me and says, “Look, I want to learn the skills to help me thrive in an environment that I’m not naturally suited to,” that’s great! A mango tree can’t do that. That’s when my job is to offer the right structure and support for that person to ensure that they achieve what they want to achieve – perhaps become more adaptable, more resilient, and more versatile. It’s intentionality toward that goal that’s important and, did I mention it yet? It starts with listening. Understanding strengths and biasing toward those as default, rather than the cultural norm of trying to improve weaknesses seems, to me, a more positive experience for the person and the planet – whether your job is to help plants or people grow.

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