Engineers or Gardeners: Who make the best organizational change managers?

Article by Ken Thompson, last updated May 2019

Image: A Garden Clock - a harmonious blend of gardening and engineering

In his book “The Hidden Connections”, Fritjof Capra, acclaimed physicist and author of "The Web of Life" and "The Tao of Physics", describes the 5 main metaphors people have used to try and understand organizations and organizational change:

  • Machines
  • Organisms
  • Brains
  • Cultures
  • Systems of government

Capra concludes that the fundamental debate is really whether we see our organisations as Machines (predictable) or Living System (unpredictable)? 

In other words – are we thinking about our organization as a Clock which needs tuned and wound-up or a Cell which needs nurtured?

You see these two world-views very clearly when you facilitate team-based business simulations about change management or high performing teams or collaborative working.

We have people who fixate on the numbers on the screen and the scorecard – I call them Engineers.

Then we also have people who look at the big picture and if things are moving in the right direction or not – I call them Gardeners.

But who has the most effective approach to change?

The main blind-spots of the engineers is that they think of the organization as a machine (e.g. like a clock) and expect consistency and predictability. Engineers often make the things which can be measured overly important. However the engineers attention to detail can be vital in organizational change.

The main blind-spots of the gardeners is that they may forget about measurement altogether and miss some very important details which may come back and thwart their plans. Gardeners also understand that living things are not managed but rather perturbed – you can’t predict the outcome. However, gardeners struggle to make measurable the things which are important (to them).

So who is the best at organizational change?

In reality you need a mix of gardening and engineering to succeed at organizational change.

Gardeners know how to handle the living nature of organizations but Engineers know how to successfully repeat something which has proven effective before. 

However, whether you are gardener or an engineer, you will need to have a very good sense of what success looks like or you will only be tinkering with your clock or garden!

So what is your natural tendency – engineer or gardener and what might you be blind to?

What about your team – what is the mix  and do you have enough of both world-views – engineers and gardeners?

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More about Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson

Ken is a practitioner, author and speaker on Leadership, Collaborative Working, High Performing Teams, Change Management, Project Management and Business Acumen. His work has featured in major publications including The Guardian , Wired Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Henry Ford Magazine. Ken has also spoken at many international events including TEDx, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), Learn Tech (London) and NASA.

Ken is Founder of Business Simulations Ltd.

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