The nurseryman’s parable

Doug Samuelson

The community pool’s Labor Day party had reassembled the group of neighbors, enjoying one of the last hot days of summer and the leisure to enjoy an occasion such as this. Of course, many of them still worked full time during the summer, so the conversation was not just about vacations – although there were plenty of those stories, too.

Jean, the OR/MS analyst who had explained, in an earlier conversation, the importance of coordination and cooperation, seemed a bit fretful. “What’s the matter?” Bob asked. “Are things going badly in national security these days? Anything we should worry about?”

“Nothing beyond the usual, which is bad enough,” Jean shrugged. “You see the same news stories I do about all the backbiting and infighting in this administration, probably even worse than usual, although what’s usually going on in most administrations is pretty nasty. But these things happen in lots of organizations, public and private. I’m glad football season is back, so maybe we can be reminded of the most important lesson you can learn from football.”

“I didn’t think you were much of a football fan,” said Bob, somewhat surprised.

“I’m not,” Jean affirmed, “but you know just about everyone uses sports metaphors to describe management practices. And it makes sense, because it’s a common language, widely understood, and because in sports you have fairly complete information about what happened and what the results were. The scores and the stats get posted, everybody gets interviewed, there it all is. Quite a bit more transparent than, say, defense policy.”

Everyone laughed. “So what’s the big lesson?” Bob inquired.

“Simple,” Jean responded. “On winning teams, people don’t tackle their teammates!”

This brought another laugh from the group. “Sounds obvious,” Jean added, “but you’d be amazed how many organizations don’t seem to get the idea.”

Ed, who was more of a football fan than Jean, agreed, “You do have a good point there. You know who Bill Parcells is, right? He coached two different teams to Super Bowl wins and compiled quite a record. He was and still is widely regarded as one of the most knowledgeable commentators on the game. And at one time, when the teams were drafting players, he said something really interesting in an interview: ‘I’m not looking for the greatest players. I’m looking for the players who will do the most to make my team great.’ Good insight, no?”

The others nodded. “Team-building is an art, and not well taught,” Hugh agreed. “We see that in some of our management think sessions where I work, too, and I can tell you it isn’t easy for everyone to see how important conflict reduction is. Being cohesive is often more effective than being right. You don’t want everyone to think the same way, but you want the differences to remain civil and have everyone remember we’re trying to cooperate.”

“Good luck,” Ann chimed in. “Instead of all these sports coaches, maybe you and your colleagues need to talk to my nurseryman. He had the real picture.”

This, of course, got the group’s attention. Ann recounted, “He was talking to me about my garden, and why it takes so much work to keep it looking good. He explained, ‘From a distance, a garden seems like the most harmonious place in the world, right? All the plants just coexisting in peace, reaching toward the sun together, pulling up water and nutrients from the earth. You wonder why people can’t be like that.’ And of course I agreed that that was what I thought, too.”

Ann continued, “He told me, ‘That’s how it seems from a distance. But what you don’t see is that actually, under the surface, very quietly and slowly, those plants are all trying to kill each other! The trees drop leaves that smother the grass and run their roots where they’ll soak up all the water. The grapevines wrap themselves around other plants’ branches and literally strangle them. Some of the flowers attract bugs that eat other plants but not those flowers that attracted them. It’s awful out there! And the only thing you can do about it is decide which plants you want to keep, and whack the ones that are harming the ones you want. Simple – and brutal! So much for harmony!’ How do you like that?”

“That explains some healthcare providers’ meetings I’ve attended,” Jack agreed. “They say they’re all working for the public good, but somehow the new proposal for where to add a clinic often cuts into someone else’s practice. Your nurseryman seems to have the right picture of what’s really going on.”

“And that’s why truly open, unrestricted economic competition has never worked,” Bob noted. “You have to have laws to restrain unfair competition or nearly everyone ends up losing. Even in football, baseball and basketball, where the owners figured out they had to have some mechanism to keep the richest teams from dominating so much that the games became uncompetitive and caused people to lose interest in watching. Something to keep in mind!”

“Too bad we forgot to tell the Russians that when Communism fell,” Jean said dryly. “So they’re repeating what we call the ‘Robber Baron Era’ from the American historical experience in the late 19th century.”

“And so are we,” Ed added, “if we’re not careful. And it doesn’t look as if we’re being careful, now does it?”

“Walt Kelly, the cartoonist, had it right nearly 50 years ago,” Jean chuckled. “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., a small R&D and consulting company in Annandale, Va.