How does your Business Grow? Lessons from a gardener to a business-owner

This weekend, with the days starting to get longer and (whisper it?) a little bit milder, I managed to get out into the garden for the first time since the Autumn, to start the process of creating this year’s displays, and spent a happy couple of hours getting stuck into pruning, cutting back and clearing the borders of weeds and died-back foliage from last year.

Gardening is something of a passion of mine. I love the process of seeing in my mind’s eye what it could look like, planning what changes to make, deciding how to develop it, shape it and plant it with a combination of old favourites and new discoveries. I love watching it grow, slowly, over the course of a year, two years, five years, and the feeling of anticipation and excitement about what is to come over the following years when making a bigger change – like the brand new border we dug out and planted up last year. And I love getting my hands dirty, literally and figuratively! The planning part of the creative process is fun, but so is the hard work of turning the plans, the ideas – the vision – into reality. Yes, even weeding. I actually enjoy weeding.

As I sat back with a cup of tea on my garden bench, I reflected that what I love about gardening and what I love about business are actually quite similar. And as I thought about that some more, I realised that there was a lot I could learn from the way I approach my gardening that I could use to help me as I develop my business.


It starts with a vision, a goal and a practical plan

The process of creating, developing and growing a garden is pretty similar to creating, developing and growing a business – or, for that matter, to developing a plan for any big new project at work.

Whether you’re designing a garden from scratch, or just redeveloping or replanting a part of it, it always starts with working out what you want to achieve and visioning what you want it to look like.

You give some thought to how to incorporate and work with things that simply can’t be changed (a joint boundary, a difficult wall, the fact the largest part is in shade most of the time), to things that you really don’t want to move or aren’t prepared to tackle (a large tree maybe) and to the practical requirements you have (space for the kids to run around, somewhere to keep the wheelie bin, a space for the barbecue and seating area that has the evening sun).

From there, you create some kind of design plan (even if it’s just in your head), because you can’t start developing something –digging, building, buying plants – if you don’t know what the end shape is going to look like.

And you work out which times of year are going to be best for doing the things you are planning so you get the best possible results – considering when you need to plant the kinds of things you’re planning to grow, doing the digging when the ground is soft, building when the weather is good in summer – so you know when you’re able to start and when you need to plan to keep your weekends clear for buying, planting, building, and clearing. It’s possible to plant a new sapling or shrub in the middle of July, but it will take a lot more work to establish it and make sure it doesn’t die, than planting it during the Spring or Autumn

So let’s quickly catch up on what this has to do with business: We can see that in both cases we need a clear vision, and then a plan for achieving it – a plan that considers what you are and are not prepared to change, and realistically takes into account practicalities and how to work around obstacles that you can’t control or that can’t be changed.

But once the planning is over, where are the similarities , and what can we learn? Well, these are the things that sprung to mind for me…


Stop giving yourself a hard time when you don’t achieve overnight success

With the garden, it’s obvious that it’s going to take time to grow. Unless we can afford to spend a small fortune buying mature plants, we begin by planting seeds, small shrubs and perennials and saplings and we give them space, and time, to grow. And then we happily and willingly invest time and effort feeding them and caring for them so they grow strong.

So why do so many of us give ourselves a hard time when a new business idea we have doesn’t grow and become successful quickly? I’ve been guilty of that one on a regular basis. But actually, isn’t it crazy to give yourself a hard time when business success doesn’t happen over night?

Fact is, things start small and grow and need attention to mature to their potential. Just like plants, in business some things grow quickly quite naturally, some can be forced, but others will only ever grow slowly even when encouraged, fed and tended to regularly.

The lesson? Be realistic about how long it will take to grow your new idea into a mature part of your business.

Some things will naturally grow more quickly than others, and different things will have shorter or longer lifespans. So whatever you’re doing, work out what the growth timeframe of your business project is likely to be, and what the milestones will look like along the way so you can be sure things are on track (when will the first shoots start to appear, how long after that until the first blooms, how long until it’s reached its full potential…and what is likely to happen in between?).

But most of all, accept and enjoy the fact it will take time to mature and congratulate yourself when it develops right on track. And definitely don’t give yourself a hard time when a seed doesn’t turn into an acorn-producing oak tree within a few months.


Every Business is Unique: There is no single formula for success

Of course, gardens, as businesses, are complicated things and no two gardens are alike. What gives each its character and uniqueness is the different combinations of plants, trees and structures that we put together. We choose different plants and combinations of plants based on our tastes and on the requirements of our garden: there’s a myriad of possibilities, many possible successful combinations.

What grows well in one garden, won’t thrive in another. What looks good when planted together with a rose may look ridiculous planted next to lavender.. Something beautiful but hidden from view seems a waste, but moved to a more visible location may become the final piece of a beautiful jigsaw. What works as a centrepiece in a small space may get lost in a larger one.

And, as with our businesses, sometimes the choices we make about what to do and how to combine things are very practical and don’t give us too much joy – we plant what know will work in a difficult spot and what we know will give the garden some interest all year round – it makes the garden as a whole work, even though we don’t love that particular small part of it.

The point, is that through a combination of trial and error, and by taking into account the specific and unique environment of our particular garden we work out what works and we find unique combinations that create overall, big picture success. We wouldn’t try and replicate another garden exactly, and we wouldn’t expect that a small garden would contain the same plants and structures as a large one. We accept that each has its own unique character, content, structure and environment.

And yet, when it comes to business we so often look to see what others have done and follow a kind of set of “rules” that will bring us the same result that someone else has achieved. Even assuming we want to create something identical to something that already exists (and I’m not sure why we would?), our environment, our people and personality, our strengths and weaknesses, our location, our size, our pre-existing structures, processes and content, our unique brand and vision, means we have a completely unique starting point. So expecting to do the exactly the same as someone else and achieving exactly the same outcome is, frankly, crazy!


And then we get to the times when things go wrong.

When something doesn’t work, it doesn’t make the whole thing (or you) a failure

Sometimes things we’ve done don’t work or we make decisions that don’t bring good results: planting combinations or planting positions – they just don’t look as good together as we’d thought they would, or one plant grows bigger, more quickly, than we expected – casting others into shade, or simply over-running them.

Other times, we misunderstand what a plant is going to need to thrive, or we know but decide to take a chance anyway…and it turns out not to be such a good decision because it doesn’t survive. Sometimes we’re a bit too harsh with our pruning and the plant can’t take it, we remove some “weeds” that turn out to be a forgotten plant just coming into growth that leaves our border looking poorly balanced, or we over-water something and it drowns

And occasionally, a favourite plant that’s flourished for years suddenly becomes diseased, or dies with no obvious cause. It is a shame and we feel sad, but we feel grateful we were able to enjoy while it was living, and accept we have to take it out and replace it.

Whenever any of these things happen in my garden I see it and make a change of some kind to improve the situation. I accept I can’t bring dead plants back to life and I remove them so they don’t ruin the impact of the rest. I take out diseased plants so they don’t infect others. I move plants that are causing problems for others – either taking them out of the equation altogether, or putting them somewhere else where the overall balance will work.

And when the “failure” is a result of something I’ve done or not done, I shrug, make a note of what I did (or didn’t do) that would have given me a better result, and make sure next time to do it differently.

Nothing more, nothing less.

I don’t give myself a hard time. I don’t think: “Aaargh, I’m a rubbish gardener, I can’t even keep an *insert plant name here* alive”. I don’t feel like the whole garden has been ruined just because one plant, or one area, is struggling or has died off. The rest of the garden still looks great and is still growing and thriving, after all.

But in business, I’ve found myself hanging onto something I have believed in or loved when it’s clear is not working, because it feels like I will have failed if I let it go, or because I feel shame about having made a poor decision. It somehow feels if I keep going, give it another few months, something will change and it will all turn out fine. And yet, I’d never do that with my garden. If it’s dead, it’s dead. If it’s not working, it’s not working. I cut my losses without a second though (other than working out what to actually do), make a change and move on to something else.

I know that a garden is an ever changing thing. And the thing is, so is a business. Some things are within my control, and others aren’t. Sometimes changes are easy, others are harder to achieve. Some are just cosmetic, while others are more deep-rooted and will impact on a wider area or on the overall health of a section or the whole thing. Am I talking about business or gardening now? Well, both!


I’ll remember that even when the need for change is brought about by something going wrong, it’s an exciting new opportunity

So from now on, I won’t give myself a hard time when something in my business dies, when one aspect is negatively affecting another, or when I make a decision that doesn’t work out well: I will just deal with it.

I will make a change, and enjoy the anticipation of planting a new seed, investing time in it and giving it attention so that it grows. I will accept that even with love and care it will take time for a new area of my business to mature – I will notice the first shoots, then the first growth, celebrate when it starts to bloom and then enjoy the fruit as it matures. And I’ll accept that even the most successful things may become less successful and die in time and need replacing, and will start the process again, beginning with the excitement of creating and designing something new.

A garden is always going to be a work in progress. It will never be complete, there will always be changes to make….just like a business, large or small.

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