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The Gardening Metaphor

During the lockdown over the last 4 months, I’ve taken up gardening.

When I first started reading about agile software development, a lot of analogies for software development came from the world of construction. I guess it was a simple comparison that started due to the engineering nature of software development, but to this day we keep saying we are “building” software.

There are several other analogies that people have used over the years like building a car (the famous skateboard => bicycle => car diagram) or the one with the “Monalisa” picture. I guess these analogies are sufficient in describing the difference between the agile and waterfall but this way of thinking is incorrect and has deep repercussions.

Product Development

Sometime last year, a friend and I were debating something or the other about MVPs using the analogy of building a table and she said, “But you’re not building a table. A table just sits there. Once you build it, it’s done!”.

And I had an epiphany.

The main difference between projects and products is that there’s no end date to product development. It is an infinite game. You are playing the game to keep the product / business alive. You’re not done when the product is launched, you are just beginning!

This in my mind is much closer to gardening. When a seedling pokes up from the soil, the game has just begun. It needs constant attention and protection. You need to replant when it over grows the container, prune regularly to stimulate growth, water it, stress it, mulch, take out the weeds, fertilise, protect against pests. Growing a tree is an infinite game.

Organisation Culture

As I started gardening over the last few months my practical experience in the field increased significantly and I’ve been trying to test the limits of this metaphor. At least in my mind it still holds.

There’s an old saying in eastern organic agriculture.

You feed the soil, the soil feeds the plants

What it means is that you have to think of the soil as living matter. You have to feed it nutrition through composts and you have to encourage the right bio-organisms to grow in the soil. Such enriched soil will provide the right nutrition to the plants automatically.

If product development is equivalent of growing a plant then, organisation culture is the soil in the garden. You have to create the right conditions for your plants to survive and sooner or later, you don’t have to worry about individual plants anymore.

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