Beyond the garden wall

IMG_8881“The grass is always greener where you water it” Neil Barringham

When I left book publishing in London after 15 years, I had a dramatic career change – working as a Community Enterprise Coordinator in the Cambridgeshire Fens. That beautifully stark part of the country is another world where, I was told, change happens by generations.

Like many relatively remote rural areas, if you aren’t born in the Fens, you’re an in-comer for ever. Imagine my situation then – I didn’t even live in Cambridgeshire, let alone the Fens, and the European Union was paying me to tell the local population who’d been there for generations how to live their lives. And I had absolutely no formal qualifications for the job.

I’d been advised that I had two advantages – I was male and mature. I’d never been described as mature before, but they were right; people did at least give me a hearing. But then on my third day in the job, someone said ‘you know Chris, we’re a terribly self-sufficient lot’. I knew I wouldn’t have people queuing up outside my door asking for help.

Then I got some great advice from a community development worker in Devon who’d been in the field (literally) much longer than my two weeks. She said, and this is the point of this blog…

“Think of yourself as a gardener, sowing seeds. You plant the ideas and if some of them sprout, you water them and nurture them. If they shrivel up, you know they’re non-starters and you plant other seeds in, you hope, more fertile soil. And don’t give up trying – it might just be the wrong time of the year.”

I found that advice amazingly useful over the following 18 months – it was an analogy that fitted the rural soundings and helped me explain my role to local people.

And then the gardening analogy cropped up (pun intended) when I was back in London working with the biggest and friendliest charity that’s ever been foolish enough to employ me.

In the course of advising people about business planning, I learnt about SHARE Community in south west London – a charity that provides training, education and personal development for disabled people and those experiencing social exclusion. SHARE Community’s CEO Annie McDowall describes a strategic planning day with a difference…

“To be honest, I was a bit bored with the same old format … SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. This was my first away-day with SHARE and I wanted to make it special. Also, I wanted to include a fair number of SHARE clients all of whom experience some level of disability…

SHARE has a horticultural project and we’re all very enthusiastic about it… How about we did a SWOT by imagining SHARE as a garden? We could use art materials to build up a picture with strength represented by trees, ladybirds and so on, weaknesses as weeds, slugs etc, opportunities as birds and bees, threats as greenfly – that sort of thing…

The next part of the planning session looked at what features of SHARE we wanted to keep and what to throw away. We kept the metaphor of the garden identifying what were weeds (to be got rid of) and what were hardy perennials (hold on to them). Next we asked each group to identify new garden features they wanted to introduce to SHARE. This was a really useful exercise because it produced a list of action points for the year ahead.”

Even though that planning session happened over a decade ago, it struck a chord with me as a brilliant idea. It’s remained in my memory because it connected at a higher level.

I’m pleased to say the garden analogy (or is it a metaphor? I never know) is still thriving – another intended pun. Just last week I read two blogs – from that wise man at Strategic Edge, Nicholas Bate, and the other was a 2013 blog post from another insightful writer – Seth Godin. Nicholas linked gardening to business, parenting and life, and in Seth’s blog he observes “Great projects start out feeling like buildings… but in fact, great projects, like great careers and relationships that last, are gardens.”

So plant seeds, grow well, and may your life, career and relationships bloom.

Further reading:

Nicholas Bate’s blog

Seth Godin’s blog

SHARE Community’s gardening enterprise



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