Organizational culture is the mycelium in your garden.

Something I’m grateful for and lately missing, is the opportunity to grow a garden. 12 years of country living in rural Vermont, living close to a number of amazing gardeners, spoiled me. I received so much wisdom from neighbors walking by, observing my progress with discernment, and offering specific directions based on their observations. These ranged from how to space my plantings, to how to put the garden to sleep in the fall.

The most significant tip was not to till the soil before planting. Minimize disruption to the soil, and preserve the mycelium – the branching network of fungai that threads throughout the soil. Mycelium helps a garden by breaking down organic matter, keeping moisture in the soil, and helping to prevent erosion.

The first year of a garden has specific challenges, dependent on the type. The terrain matters – are you working in a field or garden boxes? The soil where I lived in Charlotte was clay plain – hard to work and relatively impermeable, so not good to plant in. Boxes were the best option for me, but the ground can be the better choice. Unless you live somewhere with perfect soil, you’ll want to amend it – add compost for instance. You plant, care, and harvest. And then you put the garden to sleep for the winter, if you have winters.

When spring comes, you need to start things up again. The gardener has a choice about how much to disrupt the toil – till and turn over the rows, or minimize disruptions and only disturb what’s needed to plant the new years’ crops.

My instinct was to turn over the rows each year. It seemed like the right move – to get fresh nutrients into the soil and spread evenly throughout. And that instinct was wrong. As my my third season began, I pulled out my shovel and hoe and was about to turn over the soil when my neighbor walked by and started chatting with me. My neighbor is someone I could term a ‘master gardener’ – she grows a little of everything: fruit trees, veggies, mushrooms, flowers…even a lemon tree. Her advice – don’t turn the soil. Only disturb what you need to place new starts into the ground.

How could that be? Everyone knew from movies and books, that each year one tills the soil. Seems conventional wisdom is wrong. Mycelia branch throughout the garden soil, and have their own network. We need to leave it in place as much as possible.

I think of an analogue – a company’s culture. It takes years to build, and as much as we can try to shape it, the most we can do is create conditions for it – people, values, norms, ceremonies. The culture network grows informally where and when it can thrive, and it feeds the organism (organization) by moving key nutrients (information) around the body (staff).

Celebrate the mycelium in your garden, and the informal culture networks in your organization. Resist the urge to till and disrupt those networks.

The 20th Horse

This parable, one of my favorites, was told by my teacher Manoj Chalam during a yoga retreat in 2018. I hope you enjoy it.

A householder, having lived a long life raising horses on a quiet farm, had passed away. Their 3 children, after laying them to rest, read their parent’s will. The will specified how all the householder’s possessions were to be divided, including the 19 valuable horses they had cared for.

The will stated that the oldest child was to have 1/2 the horses, the middle child 1/4 of the horses, and the youngest child 1/5 of the horses. As 19 cannot be divided equally along these fractions, the 3 children argued about how to divide the horses. No amount of negotiation would satisfy any of them.

At that moment, a traveler was riding past the farm on their horse. Upon learning of their predicament, the traveler offered to help. The traveler dismounted their own horse, and offered to add it to the group of horses. There were now 20 horses in total.

10 horses were given to the oldest child (1/2 of 20). 5 to the middle child (1/4 of 20). And 4 for the youngest child (1/5 of 20).

10 + 5 + 4 = 19 horses.

The traveler then took the reins of their own horse – the 20th horse that had been added, and was no longer needed – bowed to the 3 children, and departed.