Complexity lessons from my garden.
Growing up in Africa, I’ve always been a nature lover and keen birder. So, I dreamed of creating a garden that would be a haven for wildlife in the middle of the city. Our neighbourhood was brand new when we built our house in 2001, so there were no established trees. Once the house was complete, the yard was essentially bare soil, rocks, and rubble. Over the last 22 years, this has become a flourishing ecosystem, providing a haven for birds, insects, frogs and even a mongoose (we have no idea where it came from in the middle of the city!). We have breeding pairs of several birds that aren’t common to typical city gardens, including sparrow hawks and kingfishers. A key difference between our garden and the others around us is that we don’t have neatly manicured flower beds and large swathes of pristine lawns. Our garden is an excellent example of “messy coherence”… it’s not neat and orderly — but somehow, it makes sense and is filled with life.
Why am I telling you this? Creating a healthy, flourishing human ecosystem like a company or family is similar. So in this post, I want to reflect on some of the learnings I’ve distilled from the process of cultivating a garden.
- Design for emergence, not a particular outcome.
In creating this garden, there were some things we had control over to shape what emerged, but we couldn’t manufacture or control a specific outcome. We really wanted a garden with diverse wildlife. However, there was no way we could force specific bird or insect species to come. We couldn’t catch a hawk or mongoose, release it in the garden and expect it to stay. All we could do was create the conditions for emergence and foster an environment that they might find attractive.
The same is true in human systems like companies. You cannot design a culture the way you create an office layout. You can’t force talented people to work for you. You can’t mandate psychological safety, innovation, or well-being.
You can, however, create the conditions or containers where it is more likely that these things will emerge.
2. Constraints and affordances
Understanding the interplay between constraints and affordances is vital to designing for emergence. Psychologist James Gibson coined the term affordance in 1977.
“The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment. (Gibson, 1997)
According to Gibson, affordances are relational or contextual and characterize the suitability of the environment to the observer or perceiver. So, fruiting trees in my garden will afford a meal for fruit-eating birds. A protected bird bath with a strategically placed stone will afford a drink to various birds. Trees afford nest-building. It’s helpful to note that a landscape of affordances always surrounds us, but we will only perceive or notice relevant ones based on our intentions and capabilities. An insect-eating bird will probably not even notice the fruit — because they don’t offer any relevant affordances.
In human systems, perceiving and making use of the possibilities for action offered by an affordance depends on the perceiver’s current intentions, capabilities and social context. For example, if I am in a hurry to get to a meeting, I will walk right by a chair that, under other circumstances, will afford sitting. Similarly, even if I am tired, I will probably not notice a tiny plastic chair for toddlers to sit on because it won’t hold my weight and therefore doesn’t allow sitting. A floor always affords sitting, but whether or not we can act on that affordance depends on the context: in the middle of the street or on a crowded dance floor, we probably won’t be able to act on this affordance. Similarly, my physical capability will determine if I can act on that affordance, e.g. am I flexible enough to easily sit on the floor and get up again? Maybe I have a knee injury that prevents it.
Hopefully, it is already clear how constraints shape not only the landscape of affordances around us but also our ability to perceive and use them.
A simple typology of constraints I find useful
There are many different constraint typologies around; one I find particularly useful in human systems is used extensively in constraint-led coaching in sports. Friends like Mark O’Sullivan, Carl Woods, and others introduced me to this thinking.
In a 2021 paper (Sullivan, M. O., Woods, C. T., Vaughan, J., & Davids, K. (2021) — they describe three kinds of constraints that coaches use to craft learning environments that fosters adaptive players, i.e., players able to perceive and act on emerging affordances, not simply follow game plans.
These three constraints were adapted from earlier work by Newell, who conceptualized the constraints that shape and guide learning (see the image below).
Let’s look at these in more detail, specifically how they apply to my garden and organizational contexts.
a. Environmental constraints
The best way to think about these constraints is as ambient conditions. Our property is in the Highveld, a region in South Africa with summer rainfall and winter frost. We don’t have a mild tropical climate, so some plants cannot thrive here. Also, South Africa is generally a water-scarce country, so we couldn’t plant overly thirsty plants.
We also had to consider city regulations — we have a defined space to work within, and we can’t extend our garden beyond certain boundaries. We also can’t plant trees too close to neighbouring fences.
Then there are social constraints, i.e. what is considered an appropriate garden in our culture. What is beautiful? What is ecologically sensitive? What would support our typical SA outdoor lifestyle?
In business, there are similar limits that you must work within. Labour laws, budgets, health, and safety requirements, complying with anti-money laundering standards. There may also be self-imposed limits — non-negotiables like zero-tolerance on bullying and discrimination.
In the sport context, these are the ambient conditions within which the learning or coaching takes place. Physical conditions play a role, e.g. the playing surface and weather conditions. Also, geography and culture, e.g., peer and parent expectations in a country like New Zealand, where rugby is deeply entangled with cultural identity, might differ significantly from Brazil, where soccer is probably as or more popular. Cultural narratives about success (win at all costs vs playing for the love of the game) also significantly impact the learning landscape.
b. Task constraints.
What are we trying to achieve, our task creates a set of constraint options. Initially, our task was rehabilitating a piece of land filled with building rubble and cement. So, we had to get rid of unfertile, polluted soil, enrich the ground with the proper nutrients, and install an irrigation system. We would make different choices if we had an established garden that we needed to evolve into an indigenous wildlife garden. In our case, we had a blank canvas.
Then the task shifted to cultivating a wildlife garden — this influenced the plants we chose as well as the layout of the garden. Early on, we decided we would only plant indigenous and endemic plants.
I was a bit of a pain in this regard … I had a list of endemic plants that attracted either birds or insects, especially butterflies. Any plant that didn’t attract something wasn’t on my list. This made finding plants difficult, as indigenous gardening wasn’t fashionable at that time. But we persevered. The only exotic plants we allowed were veggies, herbs, and rose bushes. (It’s worth noting here that even with my list and best intentions, I had to remain open to adapting … things don’t always work to plan!).
We also had to work within a strict budget. We were newlyweds, so many other priorities forced us to be creative, making cuttings, propagating our own plants, etc.
Because we want to foster a wildlife garden with many insects, birds and small mammals, we can’t use pesticides. We had to find creative ways of getting rid of pests. Our garden layout is also very different to a typical garden designed primarily based on aesthetics or supporting outdoor activities like a lawn for children to play on. We have several zones in the garden — a veld garden with lots of grasses and aloes, an exclusion zone where you plant in layers, and you don’t pick up any leaves that fall.
This creates a bit of a mess, but it attracts a lot of life (unfortunately, mosquitoes as well!).
Our choices meant we couldn’t have a neatly manicured English-style garden as many in South Africa covets. At times, our neighbours probably thought we were lazy and neglectful gardeners! The task (creating a wildlife garden) shaped our choices, which in turn determines what our garden does and doesn’t afford.
Similarly, in business, every choice you make impacts your available options. Ideally, your task will shape these choices at the level of the organization or team. Choices around ways of working, e.g., hybrid work, incentives and rewards, organizational structure etc., all influence your affordance or option landscape. It is essential to ensure that all these constraints support the task, work towards enabling a rich landscape of affordances and build adaptable cultures.
In the sport context, task constraints include the exercise rules, e.g., where and how to score, the number of players on the team etc. These determine what would afford scoring or winning. Sometimes a coach might create rules that create an environment that enables players to learn the value of collaboration; other times to learn a skill in situ, like dribbling a ball.
c. Individual constraints.
Creating an ecosystem that supports a wide variety of life is not easy. Individual plants have different needs and constraints. Some plants simply weren’t fit for our garden, so we couldn’t even consider planting them.
Some plants need more water than others; some need sun, others need shade; some need acid soil, and others alkaline.
Some don’t do well with neighbours and need to be planted independently, while others love company. Some need to be supported with trellises. We had to consider which plants to establish first so that they could provide shade for others later. We also had to ensure opportunistic weeds didn’t overgrow our young plants. The first winter, we had to cover the young frost-sensitive plants (and we still lost a few).
Once the birds and insects settled in, they also started to shape the environment in ways we couldn’t predict. We shaped the affordance landscape that invited them, but they changed the conditions in ways we couldn’t control once they arrived.
Similarly, in business, we deal with people with individuals with different skills, experiences, motivations, and emotional states. While there has long been an overfocus on individual employees and behaviour change, we cannot remove the individual from the equation altogether. The landscape of affordances that is available to us in the workplace involves all three of these constraints — individual (who is involved), task (what are we doing, what resources do we need etc.), and within what context (culture, industry, society etc.)
Also, like the birds and insects shaped our garden, people will shape the culture in ways you can’t control or predict. This means that tending to organizational culture, just like tending to a garden, is an ongoing task. If you don’t keep an eye on it, it may evolve in non-beneficial directions.
In the sports example, individual constraints relate to individual players, e.g., physical attributes like age, height and weight and psychological aspects like a sense of agency and grit. Also, prior experience and skill levels play a role. When shaping a learning environment, the coach needs to consider all these constraints to create a context that is challenging but not disabling.
By working with these three constraints, we created an environment that affords the thriving of many species of wild birds, insects, and small mammals. We have fostered enabling conditions to support life.
Similarly, in business (or any other social system, e.g. our families), we also need to focus on enabling environments that afford the emergence of health, safety, thriving and adaptability.
This, in turn, will enable sustainable business performance. Such environments afford healthy relationships, a sense of belonging, co-learning and motivated performance, adaptability, change resilience and innovation.
3. Temporal constraints
In his excellent article “On the importance of a certain slowness”, Paul Cilliers writes: A stew should simmer slowly, but a good steak should be grilled intensely and briefly. The argument is against unreflective speed, speed at all cost, or, more precisely, against speed as a virtue in itself: against the alignment of “speed” with notions like efficiency, success, quality, and importance. The point is that a system that has carefully accumulated the relevant memories and experiences over time will be in a better position to react quickly than one that is perpetually jumping from one state to the other. “
We often want to optimize for speed. But some things take time. A garden doesn’t become established overnight. Similarly, culture change doesn’t happen in a week or month — some things will change quickly in response to your interventions, and others will take however long they need to take.
This also means that we need to cultivate discernment around when and how to intervene. Sometimes we need to leave things alone for a while to see what emerges. Other times we need to sense and respond more quickly to avert disaster.
We can’t force a plant to grow or flower on our time scale; all we can do is steward the context and remain responsive.
4. Reframing change
Our garden is never static; it is constantly evolving and changing — this is what keeps it vital and alive. Some changes are seasonal, i.e. in winter, some of our trees become bare, and our grasses die back. Others are more unexpected, like pest attacks, hailstorms or surprising (and unwelcome) new residents like a non-endemic parrot species. Like water becomes stagnant when the flow stops, change is the lifeblood of a garden, families, organizations and teams.
The temptation is always there to protect and preserve our current culture or the business model that has always worked for us. Still, the context around us is ever-changing, and we must remain open to adapting, learning and unlearning, embracing new personalities and generations and new thinking. This is how we stay relevant.
We can’t fully know what the future holds or accurately predict what will happen next week. However, we can proactively create environments where people can learn how to learn, build adaptive capacity, and be prepared to cope with whatever comes next. In short, to become complexity fit.
I hope you enjoyed this reflection on my garden as much as I enjoyed looking out on it while writing this piece.
Cilliers, P (2006). On the importance of a certain slowness, E:CO Issue Vol. 8 №3 2006 pp. 105–112
Gibson, J.J (1979). The Theory of Affordances. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), Boston. p. 127.
Sullivan, M. O., Woods, C. T., Vaughan, J., & Davids, K. (2021). Towards a contemporary player learning in development framework for sports practitioners. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 16(5), 1214–1222. https://doi.org/10.1177/17479541211002335