Preventing Forest Fires in an Organization of Dead Wood

One of the greatest challenges in embedding a new innovation is – what do to with the dead wood.  Do you clear it, minimize it or leave it be? This discussion always reminds me of forest management, in which there is a debate as to how much dead wood is healthy for new growth and biodiversity.  One side of the argument is that the dead wood creates fertile ground for disease and increases the risk of wild fire.  The other side of the dispute is that deadwood provides healthy compost for new growth, acts as shelter for animals and other new forms of growth.  In fact a nurse log is a fallen tree which, as it decays, provides ecological facilitation to seedlings. 

“Dead and dying trees play a key role in the functioning and productivity of forest ecosystems through effects on biodiversity, carbon storage, soil nutrient cycling, energy flows, hydrological processes, and natural regeneration of trees.” (UK Forestry Commission 2002)
Still – how much dead wood can a forest sustain and still be considered healthy?  How many non-adopters, skeptics, laggards, and dead can an innovation sustain before a wildfire breaks out?  According to Matt Russell from the University of Minnesota Department of Forest Resources dead wood can average as much as 20% of the total forest biomass. There are other factors that influence this figure; the type of tree, the size and density of the tree, its biomass, carbon level, structural integrity as well as the level of its decay. ( ) I find it of particular interest that hardwood species advance into decay more rapidly than softwoods and the colder the climate the slower the transition to decay.  My experience has taught me the most inflexible in an organization often are the first to go.

As a leader you can learn a lot from the management of dead wood in the forest industry.  First you need to examine the forest in which you reside.  How much dead wood do you have? Exactly what type of dead wood do you have?  What role is the dead wood presently playing in the forest? Is it already decomposing - if so at what rate?  How much structural integrity does it possess?

According to innovation diffusion theory, you can anticipate about 16% dead wood. But, remember all dead wood is not created equal. If you’ve read Todd Whitakers book LEADING SCHOOL CHANGE; 9 STRATEGIES FOR BRINGING EVERYBODY ON BOARD, you know during an innovation he thinks of a staff as being comprised of three types of educators; superstars, backbones and mediocres. 

The Superstars: Educators who have earned the respect of students, parents, peers and are virtually irreplaceable. In the forest this is the old growth native trees that have weathered the test of time, disease, have deep roots and stand tall protecting the undergrowth. They have a great deal of structural integrity. They are the power brokers of the forest.

The Backbones: Typically comprise about 80% of the staff.  Backbones do much of the work of school they may have a few quirks or traits that you could easily do without but in general they are okay. A few of these may be near superstar status but come up short in at least one area. This is the vast majority of growth in your forest.  The native hardwoods, softwoods, bushes, flowers, berries, flowers and other varieties of growth, the just don’t dominate the forest. You need them to sustain your organization.   

Mediocres: They are on the opposite end of the spectrum from the superstars.  This is the educator that parents and other teachers don’t want for their own child.  They are into the blame game – nothing is ever their fault –accountability and responsibility are not an expectation they have for themselves. Too often they have high expectation for everyone else and demand respect where is hasn’t been earned.  Most importantly it would be easy to find someone better to fulfill their position.

You will find your dead wood within this group.  The problem is often they do not leave because no one else wants them.  In Minnesota this might be what we call a scrub oak. Be cautious – before you remove them or burn them remember a healthy forest does not grow without compost. 

Just as an arborist is an expert in the cultivation, management and study of individual trees, shrubs, vines and other perennial woody plants you must become an expert on the individuals within your organization. Like the arborist your role is to care for the health of the entire person. Dan Pearson in his blog post from Sunday December 14, 2014 Gardens: dealing with deadwood reminds us, “Clear what you must, but deadwood left for worms and insects allows nature to work its magic.” Just as trees and shrubs that are dead, have lost their leaves and are now bare and exposed, people you may consider to be dead wood are exposed. Many of their action are bark for self-protection that has grown over the years.  If you are paying attention, the dead wood may show you what matters most to the sustainability of your organization. 
Ken Thompson a computer designer gives some wonderful advice about dead wood “Next time you have some weeding or a bit of pruning to do, start looking and ask yourself: ‘What made that hole in that leaf?’ or ‘What’s living in that hole?’ You start looking at your garden in a completely different way.” The trick is find a way to examine the dreams, beliefs and principles of the dead wood in private.  Schedule time with them individually and listen deeply. Giving them a public forum risks sparking a wildfire which can quickly consume any fuel nearby. Find a strength they possess that fits with the vision of where the organization is going. Dig behind what they are saying – some dead wood possess the history of an organization which can be an asset to you; allowing you to graft the new growth your desire to the old. Thus allowing the old and new to grow together.

For new growth to take root in any organization the story you are creating must hold room for the culture to expand and evolve, without individuals feeling threatened or judged. Trees are not planted on top of each other or asked to compete for vital resources.  They are planted where they are most likely to grow and near plants that will feed them and increase their chance of thriving. The nutrient-intensity of some plants is compensated for by the addition of organic matter to the soil by others. Be strategic in creating connections. Fertilize with an overabundance of access to information. Be sure to place the deadwood in areas where it is less likely to spark a wildfire. Planting a tree in the right place is important for the tree’s long term health.  

In landscape design, just like any other design process, empathy for the user is important. One way to express empathy for those intended to adopt new actions it to link the unmet dreams of the individuals to the desired culture. This is especially important for those on the edge of becoming dead wood. It means having a clear succinct vision, connected to the beliefs and principals of the members of the organization. Just as a landscape designer combines their knowledge of plants and trees leveraging the empathy/dreams of the end user and turns that into a clear vivid picture of the new landscape, you must do the same by creating a compelling, vivid, detailed picture of the new landscape. Because the vast majority of our decisions and behaviors are driven by our perceptions and mental models taking your vision and turning into a completing story is powerful.  

Your story needs to focus on what you want to create not what is, or what you don’t like. All the greatest speeches painted a clear picture of the dream or the Promised Land without bashing the present. Be for something rather than against something.  For example, promote student centered instruction rather than criticizing PowerPoint lectures. Heidi Hayes Jacobs has mastered this idea.  When you attend one of her sessions you are asked to name a student and from that point on every example reflects what school will be like for the Named Student. Naming the student helps create a passionately, captivating picture. Find ways to make it difficult for people to keep telling the same old story about the organization. Create a buzz around the new – nurture the young plants, take care of the 80% that let you know you are a thriving forest. Keep nurturing the soil. Ralph Snodsmith, gardening teacher at the New York Botanical Garden, said “It’s better to plant a 50-cent plant in a $5 hole, than a $5 plan in a 50-cent hole. His words are a good reminder to focus on gaining moment with the new growth by engaging the Backbone members of the organization.

The key is to nurture the new growth in your Backbones by building on their strengths and providing them support and clear models.  Get out of the way of the Superstars because they will be like kudzu and grow exponential overnight. As far as the dead wood goes - See the beauty and possibilities of how the dead wood can nourish an organization. To do so you will need to be a skilled leader who can maintain your focus on the end goal while you manage the dead wood so that nourishes rather than destroys.  At the least leaving it alone to decompose on its own is sometimes the best solution. Most importantly don’t ignite it to create a forest fire.  Like Smokey the Bear says “Only you can prevent forest fires.”


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