Ian and the pear tree

First of all, a huge thank you to all of you who have commented, tweeted, phoned up, messaged me on Facebook, or emailed. I have throughly enjoyed starting up my blog. It’s been a whole lot of fun.  The challenge of getting the spoken voice and the ‘me’ into the typed word is an intriguing one.  And I’m loving how it connects people, which was one of my aims. So, let’s roll on with it…..

Yesterday Doug Shaw wrote about his daughter Keira learning to play the drums, and how experimental learning is useful and fun. That got me thinking about what I’ve learned from trees.


Yes, trees. Through one of life’s little twists and turns, my husband and I got involved with growing trees a few years ago. I’ve learned some things, Ian has learned even more, and I’ve found the comparisons between trees and businesses to be rather interesting.  For example, there are two features to commercial tree growing that stood out to me:

1. There are consequences

ian pruning a pear tree

The actions we take right now with young trees don’t seem drastic or that important, but they have a huge effect on the fully grown tree. If you don’t prune a young broadleaf tree in its first 10 years, it’ll not grow a big tall straight trunk. And it won’t have much £ value. Here’s Ian pruning a young pear tree this weekend. Because he spent 10 minutes clipping its little branches today, one day, this pear tree will be valuable and a furniture maker will create something beautiful with it.

2. It’s  l o n g  term

Which brings me on to the second aspect of growing trees. I just wrote ‘one day, this pear tree will be valuable..’ The timescale is actually 80 years, plus. So not until around 2100 will this little pear tree be ready for harvest. (For pine trees it is quicker). Trees are therefore a really really long term thing, and require a whole lot of patience and the willingness to put in some hard work that won’t be seen in our life times. Of course there are other benefits along the way – they look beautiful, the birds and the bees like them, the thinnings can be used, etc. Managed woodlands have their own equivalents of business plans. I have created spreadsheets with columns of:

1 year | 5 years | 10 years | 20 years | long term objective

Under each column, for each section of trees within the wood, you put the actions you will take. E.g. in the next year maybe they are being pruned, in year 10 they might be thinned, in year 20 they might be thinned once more. The long term objective might be to fell in 80 years for timber or it might be to encourage mixed ages of trees to grow in order to simply look nice and be ongoing and sustainable.

Trees v work

Anyway, I don’t want to draw a load of face slappingly obvious parallels and lessons. You can see it for yourself.  I just find it interesting that trees encourage me to think so much more longer term than I’ve generally found in the businesses I’ve worked in. Also trees focus my attention on the consequences of my actions. Again, in the corporate world it is very easy to be so busy busy busy that we forget about the longer term consequences of our actions. (E.g. Rob Jones recently wrote about busy-busy-busy). The classic one I’ve seen is in workforce planning: the company over hires, then downsizes, doesn’t think about the ‘survivor syndrome’ effect on those remaining, then starts up an employee engagement programme. Etc.

Our objectives tend to be to do x, y and z over the forthcoming year, and we anticipate that we will see the results (we hope) of our projects either straightaway or fairly quickly. And I don’t think my boss would be too pleased if I said: “righto, I’m going to design and run this training programme – you should see the effects of it in about 10 years time“. BUT the actions we take and the way we behave towards others DOES have a long term effect, as well as short term outcomes. Both for good and bad.

I can still remember the words of my boss, when I first became a manager of people – ahem, about 20 or more years ago. On my first day he said “don’t worry, don’t expect to feel normal for a while – you’ll feel like a fish out of water. It’s ok”. And that put me at ease. I felt that he really understood the way I felt, and it helped me settle in. I’ve repeated that sentiment to others since. And I’ve gone on to develop many new managers myself.

I can also still remember my next boss. I remember his red, spitting, snarling face, close up to mine. I remember him shouting and swearing, because I’d not followed to the letter the daily to-do list he gave me. I remember dodging as he threw a telephone across the room at me. He was a lot older, twice my size, and right scary dude. (Oh, those glory days of food retail management!) So if you wonder why I don’t really do anger at work that story might give a clue.

How about you? What are you doing now that will impact on your business or other people in 5, 10, 20 years time?

18 thoughts on “Ian and the pear tree

  1. I spend a lot of time in woods and I love the way trees never really answer your questions, merely hinting at possibilities and leaving you to decide which path to travel.

  2. If all your trainees and colleagues take notice of what you say, Flora, you’ll have contributed massively to really healthy teams – in the workplace, and elsewhere. Good on ya!

  3. Good article. It’s interesting what you say here about the importance of pruning the trees for growth. I think it’s also immeasurably important to convice your employees of this value (The metaphor breaks down for me here – it’s difficult to convince a tree of anything). For myself, setting time aside to study, learn and invest in myself can often feel like the most wasted time, because you wake up the next day having spent lots of time studying and the information isn’t ready to be cultivated yet. I takes mental strength to carry on and believe that my personal pruning will pay off one day.
    Your trees don’t have this problem, but your employees probably do.

  4. What about when an organisation acts in such a way that it seems you can only think of the short term. It is even harder as a leader of people to cultivate an environment where you are making small changes for the longer greater good of the overall business… That leads me onto another thought – many people only stay and only ever intend to stay with a company for a few years before moving on – what are the tell tale signs that that person is only doing things for their own personal gain of career progression/making a name raising the share price (whatever the reason)? Which leads me onto my final thought.. if you agree with the tree lesson (which I do) and it is at odds with where you work then perhaps it is not the right place for you…

    • Very good points Steve. To grow a strong tree takes time and patience, to build a forest many patient foresters working for years to make something special. I’m proud to have been a forester and I’m sad when trees were cut down before their time.

  5. Another belter.

    I wrote a long comment on this last night, its way too long though, so I sat on it. Its about about what you have to stop doing before you can start to plan further out, silly planning cycles based on the relative masses of the earth and the sun, things I try to do to be less frantic and angry, the bizarre behaviour we exhibit, how in some companies you appear to have to be psychotic to get to the top and how we over simplify and fail to anticipate the obvious thereby choosing heriosm over enjoyment. Its long though…

    As usual I enjoyed the thinking your blog provoked, then a sequence of valuable things happened.

    – I sat on the train this morning trying to think of a topic for my PM blog. Failed. Got grumpy.
    – I then sat in a meeting on our Project Mgt framework and pretty much recited this blog and my “comment”, in a discussion on what the essence of good project management was.
    – I then realised I had already pretty much already written my latest post without noticing.

    So thank you 🙂

  6. Good co-relation and analogy, got connected with my kid who is 9 months old…how we build and develop him..
    thank you..

  7. Hi Flora,

    Anthony has drawn my attention to your blog posting, which inspired him to post some of his own thoughts on this topic. In this, I was responding specifically to his blog but wanted to share it here with you as the original ‘inspiration’ for my response.


    I think what you are saying here goes beyond simply needing to find better ways to manage our time. What you are speaking to, more importantly, is the ‘quality’ of the time we devote to both personal and business tasks in our daily lives.

    I use the work ‘devote’ rather than ‘allocate’ because that is what I believe most of us do with our time: we allocate our effort by parcelling out bits of time to tasks on the basis of an arbitrary ‘to do’ list that is mainly driven by nothing more than contingent urgency (“Yikes, it’s Friday already—and I still haven’t started my weekly status report!”).

    If we ‘devoted’ time to tasks, instead, we would (as the dictionary definition reminds us) be applying ourselves with dedication to the accomplishment of a cause or pursuit i.e. giving ourselves totally to something that has value beyond the moment. For me, that suggests an investment in sustainable effort rather than the burn down of our energy and talent that we usually expend on daily tasks.

    Also, I believe that allocating time to tasks instead of devoting time to tasks perpetuates the short-term mindset and planning bias that pervades corporate culture. But then, who would be mad enough to plan for a 5 or 10 year cycle in this environment when organizations change every 2-3 years, thereby perpetuating short-termism? I am not immune to this, so need as much help as the next person in tying to find ways to overcome these habits of mind.

    I am going to reflect more on what you’ve written here, and devote some quality time to thinking about it.


    • Ian thanks ever so much for sharing your response. “Investing our time in sustainable effort” is a brilliant way of looking at what we do at work. I really like the way you phrase this. In all our workplaces there is plenty of talk about employee engagement, and at the crux of it is doing stuff that has a purpose and a value beyond the instant gratification of ticking a box.

      I agree that it is madness to plan for a 10 year cycle, when organisations change so drastically all the time. BUT it’s interesting with the tree thing. With trees I have to think ‘if I plant these particular trees in this place, then how will this landscape look in 100 years?’ And I think that whilst one cannot plan on a 5 or 10 year or long time scale at work, we can ask ourselves, ‘if I do x and y this year, how will that make my business (team/department) look in 10 years time?’

  8. (Apologies in advance for the overuse of quote marks.)

    Fascinating stuff. I used to lecture / speak / bore people on the subject of good project management and much of what is described above resonates with many of the themes I used to cover. The temporal nature of projects, or of running business itself, is often over engineered to the point that I sometimes just want to throw all my clocks and calendars away. The number of PMs that I ask “why is the project end date such-and-such” that come back with a “because it is” type response just saddens and depresses me. We impose time constraints on so many things not because there is a good and valid reason for doing – which, of course, there is in many cases – but because we are conditioned in that way.

    Business planning is another one that drives me nuts. Quarterly planning and re-planning is now the de facto rhythm of business for so many companies. “Have you hit your quarterly target” (sales), “what is your capital spend this quarter” (projects), “have you hired your headcount for the quarter” (HR) – sound familiar ? I’ve seen completely valid business cases get filed in bottom draw, marked “Waste Paper”, simply because you can’t demonstrate payback within 12 precious calendar months. It’s not that the finance monkeys don’t know how to make Excel work an IRR longer than 12 months, but because they’ve only been given 12 chunks of the companies hard earned wonga and you’re asking for 14. So great ideas stall, business slows down, but everyone is happy because they’ve “met their number”. Same goes for sales. I’ve seen huge deals falter because the sales guy goes for the short term, quick, cheap revenue to get his quarterly target met.

    We need to totally rethink how we measure value creation and success in business. We should reward people who can think in absolute value terms, not those that can shoe-horn stuff into a calendar. That’s not to say things should meander and be done when they’re done. You can still drive business and projects hard and get them out of the door. It just means that you don’t get penalised because of some Catholic called Gregory.

    • “you don’t get penalised because of some Catholic called Gregory”…thank you for your food for thought, Mr Fridayfood. Apologies for not replying more quickly. I want to reply and reply quickly to comments – because I like the conversation. BUT I’ve been dithering because when I started my blog 2 weeks ago, I did not expect to have the (very nice) challenge of having such fantastic and thought provoking comments to reply to. It’s great. I haven’t worked in project management, although I’ve certainly managed a lot of projects, and so many do have to conform to the financial calendar. Many a time I’ve wanted and needed to start up a piece of work, but couldn’t do because it was at a time of year when financial caution was needed. And likewise, I’ve been involved in mad rushes to push through work or commitments to suppliers, simply due to a looming end of financial year. In a previous role, I designed a performance review system for which the name was ‘Adding Value to XXXco & me”…and the review questions were around ‘how much value have I added?’ As opposed to, ‘how many boxes of objectives have I ticked?’ I haven’t got this stuff nailed down yet, but like you, and like the others who have commented, I think it is important to keep on trying. E.g. Ian (two comments back) makes a really important point about how we as individuals apply ourselves to our work. And Steve also describes how a selfish ‘I’m just taking experiences/achievements for my cv, then I’m off’ attitude does nothing to create long term value.

  9. Pingback: Learning in the woods « Careergro Blog

  10. Flora, in common with at least one other commenter, I started with a very long comment and then ended up writing a post about this. Here’s the short version.

    Your post got me thinking about learning I’ve done in the woods over the last 18 months, mountain biking. I thought about what worked well in that learning experience and how that is relevant to the workplace.

    In particular how learning can work well when it’s social, engaging and supported by the right environment. When it’s continuous and building over the long term.

    The issue of balancing short term and long term development is one that I think is tied to what is driving development. Performance gaps drive much short term learning and development, while learning and development driven by career development can be more long term. If the company is responsible for the learning and development is it unavoidable that the focus will be short term? If the individual is responsible can they balance the short term and long term in a way that is relevant to the company and their own career?

    • John thanks so much for (a) commenting and (b) writing your own post about trees and learning. There’s a whole lot of mileage in trees and learning, I think! In fact, now that I think about it, my mum is involved in ‘Teaching Trees’ which is an initiative to bring children into woods in order to learn about our environment, and my sister over in Denmark works in a Forest Nursery. That’s a really interesting idea: the children’s nursery school is actually outside, in the trees. So I guess the woodland thing is in the genes 🙂

      Anyhow, I think you ask some really great questions about WHO is responsible for an individual’s development. There’s a ton of stuff to debate there. From my point of view, I feel totally responsible for my own development. It’s my career, my own personal growth and it’s my life. You raise some great points in your post – and I love the way you explain how trees helped give you the right environment for learning. Anyone else reading this, go check out John’s post at http://blog.careergro.com/2012/04/30/learning-in-the-woods/

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