How Does Your Garden (or Business) Grow?

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Spring has sprung and the lengthening days, dawn chorus that greets my waking moments and green shoots appearing in my garden all herald a time of rebirth or starting something new. There’s a feeling of optimism in the air as to what might be possible. For the gardeners amongst you it’s also a busy time as there are seeds to sow, plans to make, grass to cut, young plants to nurture and tend. All of this horticultural effort is expended to make sure that the conditions are right for growth, so nature can then take its course. Without growth we won’t get to see the fruits of our labours; the flowers, the vegetables, or, indeed, the fruit.

Last year I attempted to grow some sunflowers. Now I’m not particularly green-fingered and as I was growing impatient, one sunny day I just popped the seeds straight in the ground ignoring the instructions on the packet. It being March the soil was of course still too cold, so none of them germinated which meant no sunflowers. I had been seduced by the promise of giant blooms over 8 or 9 feet high and expected it to just happen but the conditions weren’t right so they failed. I was determined not to make the same mistake this year and used the supplied seed tray and soil plugs to start them off on the kitchen worktop. While I was reading about what I was supposed to do it got me thinking. The seeds I have this year came with a promotion to win the height of the sunflowers in pound coins — no small amount of money — if yours are the tallest. Taken at face value, it’s a bit of simple fun to encourage me to look after them properly so I can enjoy watching them grow. But it also hints at something that doesn’t feel quite right; that I should be striving for ever more growth, my sunflowers have to be ever taller…

Nature doesn’t work like this. Natural laws determine the maximum size of plants (and animals) based on environment, predators, available food, nutrients, and energy, from a giant sequoia tree all the way down to simple cells. They grow to their natural level then stop. You can’t artificially inflate organisms and if you did, this famous animation of the Impossible Hamster illustrates what the consequences would be.

Yet this is what business is encouraged to aspire to all the time. Any conversation around a company, or an economy for that matter, includes some allusion to growth as not just desirable but the very reason for its existence. A business’s future is inextricably linked with how much growing it is going to do. To extend my analogy a little more, my packet of seeds could be considered the sunflower’s “start-up” phase. I am struck by the commonality of language surrounding this stage of a business; “seed funding” refers to the initial capital investment to get things going, and then you move on to an “incubator” that suggests some intense nurturing to artificially stimulate growth. There has to be some impetus otherwise you’ll get the same result I had last year but after the incubator phase what then? This year’s sunflowers will grow to the whatever height they get to and once I have planted the seedlings in my chosen spot in the ground there will be very little I can do beyond watering them. I don’t care about winning the money, for me it’s missing the point.

So the question is: Why don’t business owners think in the same way? One answer is that our westernised society is culturally programmed to expect our companies to grow unfettered and creates the right conditions for that to happen through free market economics. The point the Impossible Hamster is making is that if unlimited growth doesn’t occur in nature, it is nonsensical to expect business to behave with that aim in mind. You can easily find commentators that agree with this argument and those that posit that nature’s laws don’t apply to economics. My point is that business owners should think more about what the right size is for their company, where the natural stopping point lies. Has the shopkeeper or market stall holder who has run his or her business the same way for years without expanding got it right?

Most people join a company when it is already on the escalator of growth and it would take a bold CEO to declare that the firm had reached its natural size where it could operate comfortably. But those who have the responsibility for thinking about such matters should do so more often otherwise the world will have a greater number of, if not impossible, then certainly very large hamsters with voracious appetites consuming everything in their path (Google, Amazon anyone…?) with consequences for us all. Anyway. Time to check on my sunflowers — they have all germinated after just 4 days! I wonder how many pound coins there are in a stack 10ft high…

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