The Gardener’s Metaphor

Complex systems are grown, not built.

This is why prescriptive methodology always fails when deployed at scale. Methodology can not be declared by fiat. It must be nurtured and cultivated from viable seedlings, then fostered into maturity.

This is also why, in practice, no two teams can ever share the same methodology, even when both call it “agile.”

From No Silver Bullet; Essence and Accident in Software Engineering, by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr:

I still remember the jolt I felt in 1958 when I first heard a friend talk about building a program, as opposed to writing one. In a flash he broadened my whole view of the software process. The metaphor shift was powerful, and accurate. Today we understand how like other building processes the construction of software is, and we freely use other elements of the metaphor, such as specifications, assembly of components, and scaffolding.

The building metaphor has outlived its usefulness. It is time to change again. If, as I believe, the conceptual structures we construct today are too complicated to be accurately specified in advance, and too complex to be built faultlessly, then we must take a radically different approach.

Let us turn to nature and study complexity in living things, instead of just the dead works of humanity. Here we find constructs whose complexities thrill us with awe. The brain alone is intricate beyond mapping, powerful beyond imitation, rich in diversity, self-protecting, and self-renewing. The secret is that it is grown, not built.

So must it be with our software systems.


From Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, by General Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussel:

Watering, weeding, and protecting plants from rabbits and disease are essential for success. The gardener cannot actually “grow” tomatoes, squash, or beans—they can only foster an environment in which the plants do so.

Although I recognized its necessity, the mental transition from heroic leader to humble gardener was not a comfortable one. From that first day at West Point I’d been trained to develop personal expectations and behaviors that reflected professional competence, decisiveness, and self-confidence. If adequately informed, I expected myself to have the right answers and deliver them to my force with assurance. Failure to do that would reflect weakness and invite doubts about my relevance. I felt intense pressure to fulfill the role of chess master for which I had spent a lifetime preparing.

But the choice had been made for me. I had to adapt to the new reality and reshape myself as conditions were forcing us to reshape our force. And so I stopped playing chess, and I became a gardener. But what did gardening actually entail?

First I needed to shift my focus from moving pieces on the board to shaping the ecosystem. Paradoxically, at exactly the time when I had the capability to make more decisions, my intuition told me I had to make fewer. At first it felt awkward to delegate decisions to subordinates that were technically possible for me to make. If I could make a decision, shouldn’t I? Wasn’t that my job? It could look and feel like I was shirking my responsibilities, a damning indictment for any leader. My role had changed, but leadership was still critical—perhaps more than ever.

Creating and maintaining the teamwork conditions we needed—tending the garden—became my primary responsibility. Without my constantly pruning and shaping our network, the delicate balance of information and empowerment that sustained our operations would atrophy, and our success would wither. I found that only the senior leader could drive the operating rhythm, transparency, and cross-functional cooperation we needed. I could shape the culture and demand the ongoing conversation that shared consciousness required.

Leading as a gardener meant that I kept the Task Force focused on clearly articulated priorities by explicitly talking about them and by leading by example. It was impossible to separate my words and my actions, because the force naturally listened to what I said, but measured the importance of my message by observing what I actually did. If the two were incongruent, my words would be seen as meaningless pontifications.

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