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Pop Goes the Business [Growth
Posted on January 13, 2014 @ 05:56:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In today's blog I will offer up some thoughts on how growth occurs in an ecological garden and compare that to how it might occur in a business.

An ecological garden is different than a traditional garden because in an ecological garden we are concerned with making sure that each plant offers an ecological service to the other plants in a planting guild. Plants can fix nitrogen, attract pollinators, repel pests, cycle nutrients via deep tap roots, offer shade, offer mulch, act as a fortress plant preventing the incursion of grass, offer ground cover, act as a nurse plant, etc.... When all of these needs and relationships are attended to and you have planted a guild accordingly, then you wait and see what works and fix what doesn't. There comes a point, however, when a properly planted ecological garden "pops", meaning that it becomes highly productive and highly resilient. Whereas you may have struggled to establish a plant before, now a rich array of plants and soil micro-organisms are all working together to promote growth within the guild. At this stage, it is easy to expand the guild by setting up a nearby guild and forming supportive connections between them.

There is no rule book on how to setup an ecological garden but two important aspects to attend to are your soil and building a nucleus.

The soil has to be prepped for growth. Adding a thick layer of mulch in the fall and adding more as you go is one very important strategy because it adds organic matter and multiplies your soil microorganisms. You can also do soil testing and add amendments. The point is that prior to growing anything you need to get your soil house in order so that whatever you plant has a good chance to get established. Likewise, a business needs to get it's house in order before it can grow. Most businesses can look at what they do or intend to do and figure out how they will be slowed down in their growth if specific processes, legalities, tax issues, company vision, or human resource issues are not in alignment. If these processes and issues are not in alignment prior to trying to grow your business, there is a good chance that your attempts to grow will not take root.

In addition to making sure your soil is ready for growth, you also need to consider how you will begin planting your guild. One option is to go big right from the beginning. Prepare alot of soil and plant alot of plants. Not only is this very costly, it is much less likely to succeed than a strategy that involves starting small by planting the nucleus and then extending that nucleus, or planting other nuclei in such a way that you can form supportive connections between each nuclei. Once you have a working nucleus of plants it involves less effort and cost to setup another nucleus of plants. Not only can you use cuttings, divisions, and seeds from your first nucleus of plants, you can also use the shade, nitrogen fixing, and pollinators supplied by your first planting to help establish plants in your extended garden of plants. Similarly, when we want to grow our business, it is generally better to start small and get something working and extend from there, than to try to take over all of the market in one big undertaking. Figure out where to position your business in the initial stages so that you can readily grow into other parts of your market once your nucleus is established.

To summarize, to make your business "pop" you need to get the soil of your business ready for growth, start small and strategically, and then be very careful in selecting the companion businesses that you want to include in your business guild (your business in association with other reinforcing businesses). If you proceed in this manner there is a better chance that, in time, your business will "pop" just like an ecological garden "pops" when all the connections you have built into it start to self-organize to become productive and resilient.

I want to leave you with Toby Hemenway's description of what it is like when an ecological garden "pops" so you have a better feel for the metaphor I'm applying to businesses. Much of today's blog drew inspiration from my reading of Toby's book, Gaia's Garden, this weekend.

In chapter 12, Pop Goes the Garden, Toby marvelously describes revisiting an ecological garden 5 years after his initial visit when the plants weren't doing so well:

The strategies worked. In about the fifth year, life began to take hold and gain momentum. The soil was rich enough, the shade amply dense, the leaf litter so abundant, the roots sufficiently deep, for the pieces to coalesce into a whole. The system "popped." Plants that had struggled in the harsh desert for several years suddenly were detonating, growing several feet in a season. The soil stayed moist through month-long droughts. Glistening fruit shouldered through the thick foliage. The most useful tools were no longer shovel and sprinkler, but bushel basket and pruning saw. Birds filled the new forest with song. And a nearby closed canopy of greenery now cast cool shade that offered refuge from the intense New Mexico sun and kept the soil from burning to a dry powder. A completely different energy now suffused the place. Someone with a mystical bent would say that a spirit had come to inhabit the land and give it life (p. 264).

While ecological gardens and businesses are very different beasts, they are complex interconnected systems that might be expected to exhibit similar discontinuities (i.e., they are both capable of "popping" into a new steady state) in how they grow over time. Why this occurs might be clearer if we use ecological gardens as a frame of reference for understanding the positive feedback loops that arise over time in properly constructed plant and business guilds.

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