Why We’re All Gardeners

December 12, 2010 — 2 Comments


My last post on Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science centered on the role that relationships have to play in organizational leadership. Now I want to take a closer look at what Wheatley has to say about organizational behavior and leadership. For this, she draws from the image of fractals.

A fractal (like the snowflake above) is, simply put, a repeating geometric shape that, when it is split into parts, each part is roughly a smaller copy of the whole. This gives the fractal the appearance of infinite magnification. In nature, fractals can be seen in the patterns of ferns, snowflakes, even broccoli. Mathematicians make fractals by writing non-linear equations–problems where the answer is fed back into the equation each time it is solved, resulting in a new equation with a new answer. This behavior is called “self-reference.”

Self-reference is important to our discussion on organizations because, as Wheatley notes, “All organizations are fractal in nature. I can’t think of any organization that isn’t deeply patterned with self-similar behaviors evident everywhere” (loc. 2010). Yet we are not always in the best position to see such patterns. Instead, we consume ourselves with trying to deconstruct our organizations, examining the individual parts, and tweaking them in hopes that a new machine will emerge at the end of it all. Wheatley assures us that

In a fractal world, if we ignore qualitative factors and focus on quantitative measures, we doom ourselves only to frustration. Instead of gaining clarity, our search for quantification leads us into infinite fogginess. The information never ends, it is never complete, we accumulate more but we understand less and less. When we study the individual parts or try to understand the system through discrete quantities, we get lost. Deep inside the details we cannot see the whole. Yet to understand and work with the system, we need to be able to observe it as a system, in its wholeness. Wholeness is revealed only as shapes, not facts. Systems reveal themselves as patterns, not as isolated incidents or data points. (locs. 1964-1969)

What we miss are the patterns and the self-similarity that is causing the patterns. This can be incredibly frustrating because closer examination doesn’t change the pattern.

So, for those that lead organizations, we need to become experts at pattern identification. When we see patterns that are unhealthy, we need to identify what the self-referential factors are that have resulted in those patterns. What is the organizational environment that has led to the unhealthy pattern? We often speak of this in terms of vision. It falls within a tight set of “simple governing principles: guiding visions, sincere values, organizational beliefs–the few self-referential ideas individuals can use to shape their own behavior” (loc. 2039).

I like fresh vegetables. My grandfather had a garden. In it he grew corn, tomatoes, peas, blackberries, and raspberries. Each year he brought in an abundance of fresh food with remarkable consistency. He was able to do this because he had a simple, guiding vision that dictated his behavior as a gardener: grow fresh food.

Within the confines of his garden plot and with the tools available to him, he tilled, planted, fertilized and watered, pruned, and harvested, year after year. As time went on and seasons changed–dry one year, wet the next, cooler the following–he found that he had to alter, slightly, his practices to ensure that he was going to have food to harvest that year. He always did. My grandfather understood the lessons of fractal leadership. He set up the right conditions for growth and then let the plants do their thing.

When I think about leading churches, there are a lot of points for application of fractal-style leadership. Within Scripture and the creeds we have the self-referential equations that are needed for fractals to exist. These patterns have been replicating down through the centuries in parallel traditions (Kärkkäinen’s Introduction to Ecclesiology describes these in illuminating detail). Our job is to understand the bounds of these traditions and then help to maintain clarity around them.

Instead, we often get caught naval gazing. We focus on one or two outcomes (notably attendance and finances) and elevate them above the rest. What would happen if my grandfather became obsessed with counting the number of corn kernels in his garden each week and comparing them to the number of kernels he had last week, last month, and during the same week and month in previous years? He’d certainly become an expert in kernels, knowing each one by name. However, he’d spend so much time focusing on corn kernels that the rest of his garden would suffer. His myopic obsession with numbering his kernels would eventually lead to the death of the entire garden. Unfortunately, he’d probably have no idea why everything else died.

Wheatley urges us to be gardeners before we’re accountants. There will always be a need for measuring things. Elsewhere she writes that we can’t know what is happening if we don’t make observation (locs. 1069 & 1135, among others). Yet most of us tend to go so far into the minutia of observation that we miss patterns. We get too close. That’s why we need to be gardeners. Clarity of outcome, freedom for growth, and the confidence to make changes along the way.

Anderson Campbell


  • Michael Ratliff

    I’ve been thinking a lot about our obsession with counting things, our need for more each year, our desire to be the best (which is rooted in counting to see if we really are the best by some measure). After all, is Sprint’s 4g faster than ATT’s 3g? and now Verizon says they have the fastest connection as well…and is your youth program the best? and how many people do you have in small groups??? It’s all a game, and we’ve got to find a better way. I’m just wondering if it’s a learned behavior that we need to let go of or an innate instinct we need to learn a behavior to move beyond. If this sounds like rambling, it might be…

  • Anderson Campbell

    I think that we will always have a love-hate relationship with measurement. In that sense, I lean toward its “innateness.” It seems, though, that over the past century church leaderships have bordered on obsessive-compulsive behavior regarding the need to number and count things.