05/07/2015 8:28 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Which Organisation Are You - The Forest Or The Garden?


How should you approach the problem of culture in a company, especially a startup? Should you aim for a warm, friendly place that lives by "work hard, party harder", or should you become more process-oriented?

In truth, asking such questions is an exercise in futility, not because cultural models don't work, but because most efforts at building organisational culture are short-sighted. Before you get down to debating the merits and demerits of different cultural models and theories, ask yourself this: do I want to make this a company that transcends time, or am I just looking for a quick exit? If it's the latter, you might as well stop reading now. If, however, you have a vision to build a company that will live for very long, you might find this article presents an interesting model.

Forest vs. garden explained

The way companies operate versus the way they should is captured neatly in the comparison between a forest and a garden.

A garden is a limited, manicured green area that is the result of a person's (or a few persons') fastidious efforts. Naturally, then, it takes immense hard work to maintain a garden in the desired shape: "undesirable" growth needs to be removed, and the plants need to be protected against changing weather and external disturbances.

By contrast, a forest is the result of all the possible natural influences to which it is exposed. It doesn't depend on anybody for its survival, and is capable of self-evolution. Outside events can cause a temporary disruption, but a forest responds by adapting and evolving.

Most company cultures are like gardens: manicured enclosures that are actually the extension of someone's vision; once that person is not around, everything falls apart. On the other hand, companies that follow the forest philosophy don't have hard-set guidelines on what type of people should join them or how they should approach their work; instead, they work to welcome diversity: in talent, in thought, and in approaches. This results in a culture that might not make an elegant academic study, but is guaranteed to work. Driven by the laws of natural selection, the forest culture easily assimilates new ideas, while effortlessly dropping anything that doesn't contribute to survival.

Hiring according to the forest philosophy

More specifically, hiring according to the Forest philosophy requires steering clear of biases in conducting tests and interviews, essentially not worrying about "the right fit". This approach extends to skill-sets and behaviours as well, welcoming divergence. So, a forest company would hire super-specialists, generalists, and even drifters with equal gusto. The forest culture does the rest, applying the laws of natural selection and weeding out people and skills that aren't able to sustain.

The trees make the forest

Culture is the result of everyone's contribution, and so it should be with organisations. The forest culture makes sure everyone contributes and that there are no hidden rules. Given how consistently organisations have failed at conceptualising and maintaining the "ideal" culture, the forest philosophy might provide an effective alternative.