Building or Growing?


Are we building the things we care about, or are we growing them?


Building something means that you control where the pieces go and what pieces you use and how they fit together.  Building requires a lead decision-maker, someone or a small group of someones who have final say over which parts go where.  A designer, an architect, a developer, a founder – if you envision the thing and then play a central role in bringing it to reality, you are the Builder.
Building something means that you are responsible for making something that is inherently fragile.  The thing you are building may end up massive, and complex, and maybe even impressive, but it can all collapse with one seemingly minor break in the wrong place.  And when that minor break in the wrong place happens on a dam or a bridge or a skyscraper, we get an immediate, awful, heartbreaking, terrible demonstration of how fragile the things we build can actually be.
Things that grow can do something that things we build can’t:


they can come back.  They can regenerate.  They can heal.  Not always (the potted dill plant I just threw out testifies against making that an absolute) but much, much more often than things we build.

The difference between growing and building is in the mindset: it’s all about control.  A Builder makes it her responsibility to make the built thing right– to design, tweak, force all of the pieces to fit where she wants them and do what she wants them to do.
A grower knows that he can’t make the tree or the field or the cow or the forest do exactly what he wants it to do.  He can only give it the best chance he can of succeeding, and stick close to it, ready to adjust the conditions that impact the growing thing as much as he can to give it the greatest odds of succeeding.
When we envision and create businesses and organizations, we want in our guts to Build them.
To make them they way we want them to be.
To put the pieces together exactly the way we want.
To control them.
Two problems:
  • Once we let them out of out heads, we de facto give up a big piece of our control.  It’s not just ours anymore, perfect and safe in the china cabinet of our minds.


  • That means that maintaining a level of that control requires that we have to work extra hard once it’s Out.  We insist. We fight.  We argue.  We demand.  And sometimes, in the process of doing that,  we end up doing deep damage to the structure we are trying to build.


  • At the end of the day, the thing we Build is always primed to break. We might not see where the weak spot is, or what blow from what angle will bring the whole thing down.  We might not see it because we don’t know where to look, or what to look for.    Or we might not want to see the way in which our creation may be reduced to trash.
About 6 years ago, I published a book directed at change- makers in local communities- planners, economic development people, nonprofit managers and the like.
In one of the pieces in that book, I said that our normal practice was to managing our communities as though we were running a machine– put stuff in this end, twiddle the controls, get good schools or new business or happy residents out the other end.  And what I said was that instead we ought to think about our work as managing an ecosystem, like a field or a forest.  For all the reasons I said above.
What I didn’t appreciate back then was how hard, how incredibly hard, it is for us to give up that control — even that damaging, hurtful, fragile control– and learn to work in a new way. To learn to enable things to Grow by changing how we work, changing them in ways that fly against our expectations, our assumptions, our deeply learned behaviors, our reward systems and our fears.   And how that’s not just in the public sector, where I spent the first half of my career, but in businesses large and small as well.
But in a time where those assumptions are either falling apart or facing overthrow, we have to figure out how to change our mindsets and the systems that keep us trying to Build.
Because when we think we can Build it, we’re often fooling ourselves. Organizations that actually work have to be able to Grow.

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