Agile Gardening – How to “grow” your association.

As the sun slowly set behind the dune near our house, I looked over at my wife, Martha. She had been diligently planting a new, native plant in our garden. You could already envision the color of the flowers, their scent on a cool morning.

Suddenly, she stood up, swept her hair back and glanced at the lowering sun. Then, like some sort of Instagram model, she turned and smiled at me.

Wow, I thought, gardening provides great lessons in business strategy.Community Garden

She said something then, but frankly I’d stopped paying attention. Bloggin and all.

My wife and I are not (yet) farmers, but it seems that way sometimes. Between our house gardens and community garden, most of our summer scheduling revolves around how to keep everything watered. Work is a welcome break.

At our home in Chicago, our first garden together began as a house surrounded by small grass covered lots. Earlier this week, I picked fresh strawberries from our backyard strawberry patch for my breakfast.

Our new place in Miller Beach, Indiana was apparently designed to highlight “decorative” nonnative and often invasive plants. When combined with what professional arborists call, “vines with big thorns”, our new place was a showcase of what to plant (or allow to grow) if you don’t plan on ever living in the house.

I’ve been watching Martha’s battle against the forces of nature for some years now, and it fascinates me how many of the techniques she has applied to make our gardens successful, apply easily to business.

As she explained to me, just the other day, she has applied Agile techniques to our garden, treating it as a dynamic process, not a place.

Agile methodologies come out of the software industry. While there is a lot of discussion and debate surrounding their use and efficacy, in essence, the key words are “iterative” and “incremental”.

For those of us immediately bored by our tech colleagues techsplaining, the essence of Agile according to several seconds of Internet research, can be distilled to the following.

  • Iterative, incremental, and evolutionary development
  • Efficient communication
  • Short feedback loops
  • Focus on quality

See how much easier that is? You’re welcome.

Without meaning to, we applied these Agile techniques to creating our garden. That’s what you get when you have two consultants in the family.

I watched, and occasionally participated, in Martha’s Agile Gardening Process Design and Execution Framework for Success in Life, or MAG-PDEFSL, for short.  Here’s what I learned.

Man vs. Nature – Destruction is sometimes your friend.

I have begun each garden project by digging up, removing, or hacking or killing the current plants. Plants that don’t contribute to Martha’s strategic vision of the garden.

Too often in business we are afraid to get rid of something that isn’t working. We fear the embarrassment. We struggle with the Sunk Cost Fallacy. We convince ourselves that if we just stick with it, it will work.

For Association Laboratory, for example, we’ve been producing educational events and webinars for about 3 years. They are based on our sector research and consulting. We create intensive instructional design. We commit to the education.

The result? Sometimes nobody shows up.

Our response? We just cancel it. Why continue with something that isn’t working or achieving our goals. Sure, we’ve refunded some money and offered a few apologies. But in the end, we didn’t waste time, money, and energy on failure.

Native not Invasive – Some things create actual harm.

Much of our new property is covered with invasive species. Things that grow out of control and make the success of other plants more difficult. They drink the water, block the sun, and take resources away from what we want to grow. Kinda like your brothers and sisters, AMIRITE? HA! #fistbump

Now think of the programs at your association that do this. They aren’t bad; they simply don’t belong.

Unfortunately, they drink up staff time, financial resources, and volunteer energy. You have less to devote to the programs, services and initiatives that create real value.

Don’t hesitate to cut out things from your strategy that create harm – bad staff, bad execution, bad ideas, etc.

Native not Non-native – Some things don’t belong.

The land not covered by invasive species is covered by nice, but non-native species. They are perfectly fine plants, but they don’t belong here. While they may be pretty (think flowers) or delicious (think mulberry trees) they compete for resources and attention.

Look down your list of association programs. Is there something that just doesn’t belong? How would you say that your life insurance discount for members relates to your Mission for example?

Everything that dilutes your focus and is “non-native” to your strategy inhibits your success. Destroy it.

Dying but not Dead – Don’t be afraid to move something.

When gardening, Martha is experimental. She’ll plant something, see how it does, and move it to a different spot if it isn’t successful.

Too often in strategy we stay committed to something that would be more successful somewhere else. Maybe a staff person would do better under a different boss. Maybe a program would be more successful under someone else’s leadership or overseen by a different committee.

Don’t be afraid to uproot something and put it somewhere different.

The environment matters – Understand what is happening around the plants.

Plants, left to their own devices, will sort themselves out on their own. The environmental plant bullies will win. Survival of the fittest and all that.

Gardens (they are a metaphor for strategy for the slower readers) require planning, execution, and maintenance.

Our gardens are impacted by a host of surrounding factors, including but not limited to the following.

  • Sunlight
  • Shade
  • Changes in sunlight and shade
  • Wind
  • Bugs (or insects if you prefer)
  • Too much water
  • Not enough water
  • Soil type, soil composition, and other scientific sounding words about soil
  • Deer eating it
  • Deer walking over it
  • Deer who are fucking dancing on it like they own the place and clearly don’t have any respect for anyone’s life or property or the hard work they put into the garden and oh, see how smug they are, staring at you with their big deer eyes, knowing you can’t hunt them in an urban area while they taunt you about your blog What Deer Hunting Taught Me About Strategy. ARRRRRRGH!!!!

But I digress.

You can’t develop and implement successful strategy without knowing how the environment influences your target audience. You must understand the world within which they live and work and how it influences their decisions.

For tips on the environment facing association leaders, check out Association Laboratory’s Looking Forward®, the leading environmental scan of the association strategy environment.

Edibles, it’s all about the edibles – Create strategy that is a “force multiplier”

One of our early goals for our backyard garden was to have an “edible garden”.

Our first attempt was unsuccessful. Once the probation period was up and ankle bracelet off, I looked up “edible garden” and discovered it meant something different. Apparently, there are plants that you can also eat. Who knew?

Think how pretty an apple tree is in the spring. The blossoms moving in the wind. The scent of the flowers. You get all this beauty from a food tree. A food tree that provides the base ingredient for delicious applesauce, refreshing apple cider, and additional treats for the ravening Deerosaurus.

All from one plant.

Now consider the elements of a particular strategy. Content strategy for example. You develop a journal article. Sure, you publish in the journal, but it is also the base for a webinar and a presentation. You offer it as an incentive for some other engagement idea.

The singular article “multiplies” across these pathways, adding to each.

Consider how individual elements of a strategy help each other out or contribute to the success of other strategies. See how you can make the strategy a marketing “force multiplier”.

Bambi alert – Beware and adjust to competitors.

BambiRecently, we had a visit from Bambi. SOOOOO CUTE. SOOOOO ADORABLE.

You know what Bambi becomes later in life? A ravenous Deerosaurus – eating everything they don’t stomp to death. In essence, a competitor. They are the piranhas of the fields.

Much of our recent planning has to take the wildlife, or competition, into account.

Now one solution is to have your competitors killed. This is, according to some ethicists, considered “wrong”. As a result, we’ll consider a Purge Strategy as nonviable.

Once, years ago, I presented to the Board of a state medical society. They talked about their partnership with their national association. I reminded them that, right then, a twenty-something staff person at national headquarters was trying to figure out how to get the time, money, and attention of their members so she could get her bonus.

You must be aware of, honest, and realistic about the impact of competition. How do they influence the decisions of your target market? How do you need to position yourself successfully relative to their efforts in the minds of your audience?

Dynamic not Static – you are in charge, not the garden.

In the end, don’t be married to your garden, be prepared to divorce it and start fresh. (That didn’t come out the way I meant it.)

What I mean is, the garden, as metaphor for strategy, requires planning, maintenance, and adjustment. It is a living thing, not a static place.

Look at your strategy as a process of ideation, implementation, monitoring and adjustment. A process that never ends but produces outstanding results for years.

StrawberriesYou’ll know your successful when, instead of digging up weeds, you’re eating your fresh, home picked strawberries before cooking up some delicious venison.

Ending on a different note. During the pandemic I re-titled this blog, From My Seat at the (Home) Bar since I was off the road. Now, 14 months later, as of last week, I officially began work travel again, speaking at the Georgia Society of Association Executives.

Enjoyed delayed flights, poor sleep, bad diet, etc. Ah the good times are back.

We’re now officially returning to, From My Seat at the Bar.

Good luck everyone.

If you have comments, advice, or suggestions, I encourage you to keep them to yourself.