Every morning when I head out of home, I spot this broken and abandoned vehicle. It is parked in front of the local police station, where vehicles that have troubled history are parked. They mostly have a bleak future too, being abandoned, unused and slowly rotting. Amidst this gloom, in one of the broken vehicles, I see a growth of weeds and plants. Some soil in the broken and exposed part, a little bit of water from the rains and abundant sunshine, has led to this most unusual sight. It makes me smile.
It shows that it takes very little for a plant to sprout. All it needs is the three elements of nature to help. However, for the plants to grow into trees and forests and entire ecosystems, they need each of these natural elements to be available in abundance and yet well moderated. Too much or too little of one or the other, will not lead to thriving forests. Great ideas, can sprout anywhere and are present everywhere, but for them to thrive and flourish, three things need to come together, in the right amounts.
Soil – The Foundational Element
My 11year old had this great idea when he was 5 years of age- to do a blood test without drawing any blood. He was extremely upset about having a needle poked. It was his first blood test experience after some illness. What a great idea it would have been, if only his parents had the foresight to fund it, test it and take it to the market.
While a plant can grow in a small pot with a little bit of soil, it needs the soil to be changed from time to time for continuous nourishment. To grow a forest though, soil is required in great quantities. It is the same with ideas. They sprout easily. We see this in the eruption of startups that are trying to address various obvious and untapped needs. Each one has unique strengths and propositions to take the market by the storm. Yet, for one idea that grows into a tree, thousands die quiet deaths or languish as stunted shrubs. If the idea does not appeal to the market, if it does not make a deep impact to the life style, if it doesn’t have the potential for an economic return, then it doesn’t receive the capital infusion it needs. Many ideas die halfway, for want of funding. Just like the huge quantities of nutritious soil is required for the plants to grow beyond the potted plant, capital infusion and financial returns are necessary to go from an idea to a thriving business.
But it is not always the money that’s the issue, there are other elements too.
Water – The Structural Element
While growing up in a small town, I had a neighbour who was a year younger to me. He was extremely creative and constantly came up with some innovative ideas. No one in our neighbourhood had a refrigerator then, so he came up with an idea to use earthen pots with some modification that could be used for keeping vegetables from drying. A few homes bought his idea and he was soon filling up more orders, which resulted in him staying up late night modifying the pots carefully. His father though believed he was wasting time and strictly imposed the rule of being in bed by 9 and insisting the lights be turned off. With no structural support to expand on his idea, he was not able to execute his orders. After a few weeks, he gave up on his brilliant proposition.
Too much or too little of water, both harm plants. To thrive they need water at the right time in right doses. Ideas too, thrive when they are supported by the right structural elements in the economy and in organisations. Economies that have created welcoming structures for startups, have seen them thrive. Easy ways to fund, supporting infrastructure, ways to minimize risk when one fails and relearn, flexible employment laws, are some of the structural elements that are favourable, akin to having sufficient water in the soil for the ideas to take strong and healthy roots. Only some economies have been able to offer this structural safety. Many others want the economic benefit, but do not have the structural support.
One of the reasons that many good ideas die in organisations, is the structural misalignment. Businesses by nature want to protect themselves, so the focus is on sustaining profits, margins and market performance. The structure is designed to maintain the status quo, not to break it.
But structure itself is rooted in an even more deeper element.
Sunshine – The Cultural Element
Dull, cold and dark weather, like harsh winters are not ideal for the plants. They shed all their foliage to conserve energy and try to survive till the summer arrives. Even plants that are constantly in the shade or under another tree end up being short and stunted.
Akin to sunshine for plants, is the culture in which the idea takes birth. The people and their mindsets have a huge influence on ideas thriving. When the culture supports risking, accepts failures, where filing for bankruptcy or borrowing hugely to fund ideas is not seen as a taboo, the ideas take life. In cultures where stability is preferred, risk taking is discouraged, borrowing money beyond means is a no-no, very few ideas take life. Organisations like 3M and Google have built themselves on a different mindset. Innovation is rooted in their culture.The structures and the economics are built around an enabling philosophy of experimenting and failing fast.
About 10 years ago my husband wanted to quit his job and start an investment management company. He had developed a plan along with a friend of his and they were ready to register the company. Everyone in the family, his parents, my parents and me, panicked. There had been no one in our families with any entrepreneurial trait. We only had people who worked for others, managed to grow slowly and steadily and earn a monthly income that could sustain a certain lifestyle. We had no idea how to manage a life with income ups and downs. We just did not have a family culture for running a business.
The plants in the abandoned mini truck will probably survive a couple of months, they may regenerate and grow again next season. But we want more than that. We want forests, we want healthy trees. We want ideas to grow into sustainable businesses that contribute to social and economic wellbeing of the society. Observing the plants in the mini truck, here are three takeaways: if you are someone responsible for creating an environment to encourage the generation and cultivation of the innovative ideas, then think holistically. Provide timely and sufficient financial support, push for quantification of the returns, establish structures and systems to support each step of the way and work on fostering a culture that allows risk taking and entrepreneurship.
Then of course do not forget to celebrate the fruits of the new trees.