Ramifications in Innovation (Lessons from Bonsai)
Posted by Plish on February 17, 2016
When people say, “There will be ramifications if you do that,” most people interpret that to mean that there will secondary, negative consequences to an action. In the world of Bonsai, ramification is good; it means (often artist assisted) branching, and a healthy tree branches, and branches, and branches, with leaves growing from the smallest branches. More leaves means more sunlight gathering capacity and that translates into more energy being captured and sent to the roots. Stronger, finer roots means strength during lean times and stability in storms.
Without ramification, a tree will be a one trick pony. It will have few branches and large leaves. Young trees start out with little ramification. However, older trees, like those pictured above, optimize their light capturing ability with multiple little branches and many leaves. At the heart of this growth is a battle – the survival of the fittest branch. You see, as a tree branch grows, cells at the tip of the branch stimulate growth and simultaneously create hormones that inhibit the growth of branches below it. It’s a tree’s way to ensure that the strongest branches get to the light, and keep it.
In the world of innovation, the same thing happens. Certain projects or products, certain mindsets start soaking up energy -they grow at the expense of other projects sucking up money and personnel. The lead projects can often send signals, cultural hormones if you will, that stifle the growth of other projects. It’s a self-sustaining cycle. Even though the energy obtained from success goes back to the roots of the company, a tree doesn’t grow stronger from one branch and a couple of leaves. It needs many branches, many leaves. It needs ramification.
But, contrary to trees growing in the wild, bonsai are constrained in vessels. This puts stressors on the plant, and if you don’t make adjustments for these stressors, the tree won’t thrive, and in fact, may die. So, you need to optimize the leaf output because that means you optimize energy capture, thus helping optimize the root system, effectively giving the tree physical support and a place to store energy in lean times. (Not to mention, a tree with ramification looks nicer :))
How do you do it?
You create ramification by cutting off the ends of strategic branches. By doing this, you are giving the plant the opportunity to change direction. You’re effectively telling the bonsai tree that even though it is growing in a certain direction, you now give the tree freedom to grow somewhere else; in fact, you’re forcing it. New branches, and hence new leaves, will come out near where you had cut, but these branches will take different directions. In addition, since the inhibitory hormone is temporarily inactive, the tree will sometimes find some other place to bud from where, for reasons known only to the tree, there is a perceived better opportunity.
In the world of innovation and creativity, the equivalent process is to give people opportunities to take things in new directions. It’s telling people to forget what’s gotten them this far, forget the direction they’re going, and let the dormant ideas sprout and be nurtured. Just as ramification unleashes new growth in a tree, in a company (and in people!), active branching out fosters creative growth. When the tip of a branch is trimmed, the dormant buds respond to the environment, to changes in sunlight and moisture. Similarly, when creative ideas are no longer subject to inhibitory cultural hormones, they are free to respond and grow, sensing and responding to the light of market moving trends and needs.
One way of achieving ramification is to do what some companies call the 20 percent rule (or 10%, 15% depending on the company). Dave Myers, an engineer in one of W.L. Gore’s medical product facilities, spent his 10% time working on his mountain bike. From this seemingly disconnected activity, Gore developed Ride-On bike cables and Elixir guitar strings.
Remember, ramification, is a subtler process in contrast to more aggressive pruning. Pruning can take away major resources from a tree and causes gross restructuring. Once a major branch is gone, it’s gone and not coming back any time soon. Conversely, ramification is gentler way of reallocating the way a tree receives energy and expends it in growing. In organizations of all types, ramification is about recognizing the organic structure that is present and fostering the growth of those organisms (i.e. people) within it. Organic growth occurs when there’s abundant nourishment and a lack of inhibitory signals – growth finds its way to the light.
What steps can you take to start the process of ramification?
Start by asking some key questions:
Ask yourself what your people are doing. Heck, ask the people themselves! (see the Innovation Audit.) Do they have opportunities to grow organically and hence help the company grow organically? Are there signals being sent by the culture at large that stifle the growth of latent potential within the company? Do people mock what others are doing? Is there an acceptance of what people do and what they bring to the table? Are there projects that have great promise but are consuming large amounts of energy with little to show for it? If things start growing are they given opportunities to continue to grow?
Have people ask themselves if they are hitting a wall; perhaps even more importantly, ask yourself! The best way to stop hitting it is to stop going in the direction of the wall! Re-route yourself, forget what direction you’re going, and go in the direction you want to go. Learn anew!!
Dormant buds are present in trees and they never sprout because dominant branches stifle with their inhibitory hormones. In a creative culture, innovation occurs when people’s understanding of the markets are allowed to percolate; let them feel the light and give them support by giving little opportunities for people to feel part of the bigger organism. Nourish people!
I remember in high school our principal, Dr. Duffy, pointed out that we were green going into the world. “That’s okay,” he said, “because green things grow.”
The same holds in a company. You want ramification. You want people learning alternate ways of branching out and finding success. One branch, one project, isn’t sustainable. Ramification in some ways is synonymous with diversification. Abundant ‘leaves’ means more ways of absorbing energy from the markets of the world, and more energy means stronger roots. Become lush with greenery, foster the growth of many branches and the results will not only benefit your company, but people (employees and customers), their families, and the world, in richer and more diverse ways.