Don't Paint the Roses

In one scene of the classic “Alice in Wonderland” movie, Alice encountered cards painting rose bushes.

The fact is, miss: we planted the white roses by mistake. And, the queen, she likes them red. If she saw what we did, she’d raise a fuss and each of us would quickly lose his head.

Unfortunately for the cards, the queen notices the paint and beheads them anyway.

Anything which evolves organically is like rose bushes - they cannot be engineered or planned, only grown. You can constrain growth and direct it to some degree - that’s what rose arbors are for - but constrain it too much and you kill the plant. In any case, there’s really no way to tell what color the roses will be util they bloom. If you want red roses you better get the right seeds, and even then there’s always the possibility of mutation. Otherwise, just plant plenty of rose bushes and hope that one of them happens to be red.

“Painting the roses” is the act of trying to artificially force an organic situation into a pre-conceived notion of how things should be - a specification. And like in Wonderland, it never works. A painted rose will smell of paint, not roses; And it will continue to bloom white flowers so you will have to paint it forever. it is a grotesque imitation of the real thing, conforming to a superficial specification but devoid of essence.

We are surrounded by painted rose bushes. If infidelity statistics are to believed 20-40% of monogamous relationships in the USA are in fact not monogamous, except that often only one of the parties involved knows about it. Diversity is another common example; rather than slowly growing a culture of acceptance and inclusion companies paint the roses with diversity hires, the end result being superficial diversity and growing homogenity of opinion and thought. Self proclaimed “diverse and inclusive” communities are often bigoted, close minded, violent and completely lacking self criticism. “Digital transformations”, “Agile” and “DevOps” are also common examples of painted rose bushes - thin coat of managerial paint which only makes the situation worse, only superficially looking like the real thing.

The rose painter mindset

Painting roses is obviously absurd, so how come so many people do it? Our machine age culture has a propensity to focus on external properties rather than essence. With machines, anything that cannot be measured does not exist - at least in theory. A machine can be deconstructed to parts which can be measured independently; reduction is the prime assumption of analysis. In machines there can be no hidden internal state - you can always pop the hood and measure the state of internal parts. Thus if all measurable properties of two machines are the same the machines are functionally the same. This is why construction by imitation, also known as “reverse engineering” works well with machines.

This approach fails miserably when it comes to organisms. One of the primary functions of organisms is homeostatis - the preservation of a stable internal environment. Organisms protect themselves from meddling in their internals, making direct measurements impossible. If you try to take the organism apart to measure the internal state you will wound or kill it, making any measurements invalid; Hidden state is the norm for organic systems. In other words, organisms have “essence” which cannot be captured by measurements of the organisms current visible state. Thus construction of an organism by imitation of another is bound to fail.

Although the shortcomings of analysis are not widely discussed, many people have intuitive understanding of them. After all, humanity has been dealing with organisms far longer than it has dealt with machines. The dominance of reductionism and analysis seems to be the result of the industrial revolution, not innate to human thought. But given we know how to deal with organics, why do we still resort to obviously inadequate methods of handling them? The answer seems to be the prevailing desire for quick results. While changes in machines propagate almost instantaneously relative to human lifetime, organic processes timescales are generations - which in companies often means a few years and for social changes decades. A white rose bush can turn into a red rose bush - if you are willing to breed them for a few years.

One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” The man replied, “Seventy years.” Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?” The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”

There’s nothing wrong with white roses

If you want to stop and smell the roses, does it really matter what color they are? if you learn to appreciate the roses for what they are instead of focusing on what they aren’t, you might discover that white roses are just as delightful as red roses if not more. But if you insist on red roses you are going to kill the plant. You need to work with what you have or go get another plant. Similarly, cultures cannot be forced into whatever arbitrary form you desire; You must work with what you have. You might end up in a place you never imagined - we tend to focus on details rather than the whole picture - but it will be in harmony with your plant because it grew to fit it. If your company ends up successful and makes shitload of money, does it really matter that the product was not the one you initially set up to build? Success in organics - and relationships - often looks quite different from what you imagined. Perhaps your kids won’t become Doctors or engineers, but isn’t it more important that they would be happy? Maybe the woman you fall in love with isn’t a blue eyed blonde Disney princess like “the woman of your dreams”, but hair color isn’t that important no matter what the specs say. If you set out to find your fantasy spouse, to build your fantasy relationship, the company of your dreams - you will end up in a nightmare, fulfilling all of your specifications but devoid of love, happiness, friendship and utility.

Sometimes it’s a better to be a gardener than an engineer

In engineering we start with the desired form - a specification, walk backwards from there and iterate until the system conforms to spec. It’s an approach that relies on control and predictability. In contrast, in nurturing organics we start from the essence - a seed, and walk forward to an unknown form. In organics the form doesn’t really matter, because organic systems are adaptive and thus their form can vary wildly - but the essence will be preserved. The adaptive nature of organic systems means that they are well suited for taking advantage of opportunities as they occur. It is an approach that relies on adaptation, variety and unpredictability. If you want to grow a fulfilling relationship or an amazing company, you should be a gardener and not an engineer. Focus on finding good seeds, nurturing and protecting them. As they grow slowly direct their growth with constraints and sunlight, taking care to never overburden them. Once in a while you will have to trim a dead twig or cut down a diseased branch before it infects the entire bush. Above all, you will need a lot of patience and develop an intuitive feel for essence (often called “a vision”), because flowers will bloom far in the future. And because there is no way to significantly rush the process, you must be forever vigilant against the painters who come armed with their brushes and paint buckets (and they will come!) lest they destroy your beloved rose bush.

Don’t be a rose painter.

culture systems-thinking
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