Want to Be a Creative Leader? Look to the Garden

June 26, 2013 — 8 Comments


IDEO Chicago’s roof garden, and some of its bounty
I love to cook almost as much as I love to eat. When making a meal, the spontaneity of grabbing fresh herbs and other homegrown ingredients from the garden is an essential part of the whole process. Over the years, I’ve given a lot of thought to what gardening, design, and creative leadership have in common.

Gardening is generative, iterative, and user-centered
When designers in our Chicago studio first planted a roof garden, they noticed people were picking and eating the strawberries and tomatoes and leaving the eggplants and tomatillos to rot on the vine. They soon realized that planting a work garden for 60 busy people is very different from planting a home garden for a family of four. Project deadlines simply took priority over cooking, so any plants that took extra steps to prepare were ignored. The next year, the designers planted a “Grab and Go Garden” that contained only fruits and vegetables that could be eaten straight away. This time, more plants were eaten, less were wasted. A good garden, like good design, needs to meet the needs of its users.

Gardening helps us frame future design challenges
The old assembly-line metaphors of the Industrial Revolution won’t help us design the future. Our world is complex. Like a garden, we must tend it, cultivate it, steward it, and encourage it to meet our needs instead of always trying to be in control of it. Our solutions must accommodate the competing needs of humans and the rest of nature. Successful design, like successful gardening, is never finished and is constantly changing.

Gardening teaches us how to be creative leaders
My colleague Michael Hendrix recently wrote an article about his experiences co-leading our Boston studio. He describes his approach to creative leadership as “Gardening, not architecture.” It’s a powerful thought. An architect makes the physical world obey. A gardener helps living things thrive through attentiveness and dialogue. Good leadership starts by finding talented people, giving them a safe space to cultivate their creativity, and letting them grow into their full potential under careful guidance—not a controlling thumb.

What personal pursuits have helped you with leadership challenges?

Tim Brown


8 responses to Want to Be a Creative Leader? Look to the Garden

  1. This is by far the best analogy I’ve read about UX and the constant, never ending work it really means. Beautifully put Tim!

  2. I so hate to be a naysayer, because most people apparently prefer to hear from the nodding approvers – and not from anyone who might dare to disagree… but, come on. In my estimation, this emperor has no clothes. I hesitate to even make a comment about it, because I’m quite certain no good is likely to come of it. Still, probably to my detriment, I must.

    “The old assembly-line metaphors of the Industrial Revolution won’t help us design the future.” Really? Don’t you suppose it was incredibly creative thinking, of the free-est sort, that brought those thousands of assembly lines and their products into being? What single aspect about that thinking was not so-called “design thinking”? Every part of it was/is design thinking, if that’s the label you care to use.

    “Like a garden, we must tend it, cultivate it, steward it, and encourage it to meet our needs instead of always trying to be in control of it.” Again.. semantics. When you enter your garden to ‘tend, cultivate, steward, encourage…” you ARE seeking to control it. It doesn’t happen through osmosis, but through the controlling chop of a hoe or pull of a weed or clip with a shear. Those are controlling factors and the gardener seeks control no less than the factory builder or the architect. There is no difference. How is it that the gardener is not seeking to control things? Doesn’t she clear the land, hoe the soil to loosen it and cover it with fresh, rich topsoil? Aren’t planting seed, watering, weeding, pruning, debugging, sheltering from sun and storm, and reaping all a matter of seeking control? Of course they are.

    In fact, both the factory and the garden are created and maintained with no difference at all. The gardener first marks out the borders of the garden then frames it – likewise, the worker (and his architect!) make a blue print and build their factory. The gardener removes weeds, the worker removes rust; the gardener adds fertilizer and water, the worker adds oil and gas, and on it goes. Designing, planning, nurturing, dreaming, cultivating…. until the gardener or worker has, through “control”, helped bring about a new creation.

    Like I said, I won’t be too surprised if I receive more abuse and attacks from my comment than anything constructive – but maybe I’m wrong. I know how anonymous online forums tend to be most often with those who dare to call a spade a spade.

    I am an analyst by profession.. been doing such work for 35 years… and I declare everyone is born an analyst. I hope the analysts who see this do not mindlessly attack, but see if there is a creative, differenciating dialogue that might make me sit back and reconsider. That is always far better for us both. :)

    Leon Harte

  3. I think Leon makes a good point and I think it comes down to intent of the leader, and how we describe this intent, matters.

    If I were to distill the two words that seem to be at odds here, I would say they are ‘cultivate’, and ‘control’. They are remarkably similar if I consider them from the point of view that the gardener is growing plants for some existential gain. It almost sounds like Mike Judge saying, “we ask you to have 15 pieces of flair so you can _express_ yourself.” From another aspect, it sounds like a cultivator, in this case, a gardener, is there to help willing (as far as we can tell) participants, the plants, become who they truly are: tasty, beautiful plants that will nourish those that pick and eat them. A cultivator is there to allow the plants to achieve their full potential.

    A leader has two choices then, one to “cultivate,” and lead the creative process by facilitating the creative process, or, the other, to “control,” be prescriptive, and steer the creative process how he/she thinks it should go, which may likely result in rebellion and disaster.

  4. Marius Poliac July 2, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Real change or more of the same?

    Am I part of the solution or part of the problem?

    Can an organization full of high energy, intelligent, and positive innovators benefit from consulting with a low energy, highly intelligent realist?

    Dear Tim,

    My girlfriend and I were listening to you talking with a BBC reporter yesterday.

    “This guy and the society could benefit from hiring you as a consultant” I said.

    “Cut it off, you are stupid, he will never listen to me, stop bugging me”! she replied.

    I, and my innovator’s mind, after putting my name on more than 30 US Patents, full of positive energy, ready to ‘solve’ the next problem of the world, didn’t give up and read a little about you and your contribution to society.

    She, a thinker, with a sharp analytic mind, always asking why waste your money, time, effort, and precious energy on this, looked at me and replied: can’t you see he is part of the problem not part of the solution; he is never going to change.

    As I was falling asleep last night your garden analogy came to mind. May be my girlfriend has a point. When your designers noticed they don’t have the time to cook the eggplant, instead of eliminating the eggplant from the garden could have asked the question: why are we so short of time? Are some/most of the problems we are so busy solving created by us? May be instead of eliminating the eggplant, we/the society would be better of taking a break relaxing and finding the time and joy of cooking the eggplant and inviting our, low energy realist, neighbor to join in as well.

    So if you believe that good change can come from odd places, you may consider hiring my girlfriend for a few hours a week as a consultant. And if you do, I don’t know, she may accept. And if she does I am sure you, her, and the society will benefit from your interaction.

    With all the best wishes,


  5. Loved the Garden analogy. The most important aspects of the article was probably that like gardening, design is never finished and constantly changing – and that it is important to nurture the creativity of your designers so that they can reach their full potential.

    Another analogy I make sometimes is that of a musical instrument – a great violinist will sound enchanting even with the most inexpensive of violins, and a novice cannot even think about playing a stradivarius. A good designer can use all the resources he has to meet the best end, but having tons of resources does not mean the product has to be a good one.

    Thanks for the article!

  6. Leon you are not a naysayer, yet in my view you simply are not yet within your – feeling being – perhaps, not having studied it as systemically and analytically as you have studied other topics. No blame, shame or guilt, I don’t believe in those games as tools.

    However, there is a manner of gardening that doesn’t invite hoeing or mechanistic manipulations of land, soil or plants. It works with the soil, and the air and the sunlight. It works with the rhythms of the circling of the planets and stars around us. (Bio-dynamics was recognized in the late 1800’s by Rudolph Steiner). It is in the rhyme and rhythm of our cells in motion, in our e-motion filled bodies, on the soil in motion, on the planet in motion, within a galaxy in motion.
    There is no assumptive control in the best and brightest of garden, there is collaborative creation. Yes I understand the logic of your presentation and yes I celebrate your analysis. Yet while I wish to plan and analyze, gather my tools and work with great joy in the soil…I am not its master. I am the earth’s happy assistant, providing the design, supplements and seeds, mulch and compost for its best potential. We are saying the same things, simply approaching from different directions. May we choose to wisely learn together, rather than to create illusions of separation; may we recognize our similarities…and build on them.

    Good comment Dave… an excellent example. May we each choose to: “cultivate, and lead the creative process by facilitating…” focusing on the processes we can build upon…the agreements we share.

    Marius, however brilliant your girlfriend, until she’s ready to join a growth focused group to develop her own potentials of changing, learning and developmental growth; she cannot be a contributing member; not because she isn’t brilliant, but because her auto response is set to: “You are stupid, stop bugging me.” That auto response forbids her to be able to even consider other alternatives…she simply cannot hear them. (No shame, no guilt, no blame games…simply a viewpoint.)

    I’m delighted you are here…and learning new ways to manage your mind, develop your thinking processes and your future creativity. So, the answer to your question: Can an organization full of high energy, intelligent, and positive innovators benefit from consulting with a low energy, highly intelligent realist? Yes, please…!

    Brilliant viewpoint KR, I simply have two tiny edits to suggest: “The most important aspects of the article was probably that like gardening, design is never finished and constantly changing – and that it is important to nurture the creativity (of your designers) for Everyone, so that they can reach their full potential.” And help you to do so, as well.

    Happiest of trails,

  7. I rarely leave responses, however i did a few searching and wound up here Want to Be a Creative Leader?
    Look to the Garden | Design Thinking. And I actually do have a few questions
    for you if you tend not to mind. Is it just me or does it appear like some of the responses appear like left by brain dead individuals?

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    Could you list of all of all your communal pages like your linkedin profile,
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