I took a week's vacation in northern California recently.  It was wonderful to get away from the crowds and traffic of city life and spend time in nature.  There, I had the chance to take a guided drive and hike through the woods.  I came away with a new appreciation of an area of the country I had never visited before as well as a few broader lessons.  All of them center on the unanticipated consequences of well-intended actions.

Be careful what you protect

On the drive from the Mendocino coast to the redwoods, we passed through the pygmy forest.  This region contains trees that are much smaller than what are normally found in forests.  Unfortunately, the Bishop Pine in the forest are dying.  They are reaching the end of their typical lifecycle.  Normally, forest fires kill off trees and allow new trees to sprout up.  For a variety of reasons including the presence of many homes in the forest, fires have not been allowed to spread.

That is, by protecting the forest and its human residents from fires, people have contributed to factors that are leading to the widespread death of trees.

The same thing often happens in business.  Companies protect projects that end up taking resources that could have been used more effectively in other places.  Old software packages are maintained long after they are useful in ways that create significant inefficiencies in workflow for employees.

It is worth thinking about the things in our work environment that we protect reflexively.  What are the opportunity costs for this protection?  What could be done differently? 

Transplanting can be risky

Of course, you would think that a simple solution to the problem of old trees in the pygmy forest would be to grow new trees in nurseries and to bring those trees to the forest when older trees die off.  This way, the forest could be regenerated without having to subject it to fires, which might endanger people whose houses are in the forest.

Unfortunately, Bishop Pine (as I learned on my hike) have a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal funghi that present in the soil in the pygmy forest.  Without those funghi, they cannot properly absorb nutrients from the soil.  Consequently, it is hard to grow these trees successfully in nurseries and then to transplant them successfully in the forest.

Hearing this, I was reminded of how difficult it can be to combine work teams.  Often, organizations feel that it is more efficient to combine people performing similar functions across the company into a single group.  These mergers are often unsuccessful.  A big reason why these groups do not thrive is that the newly combined group may not have all of the support structure that the people had when working separately.  There may have been resources that these individuals used from the groups they were part of before that are not transferred to the new combined team.

In the planning process for a merger, though, it is critical to take stock of the way the independent teams interacted with other people and resources around them.  These people and resources are like the mycorrhizal fungi in the soil--crucial and underappreciated.  Part of the planning process for a successful merger has to include an understanding of where team members got their support in the past to plan for how the team will be supported in advance of the merger.  Often, it is assumed that groups will work out these issues as they come together.  However, the workflow does not stop just because a group merged.   Thus, there is often little time after the merger to negotiate new ways to get support that was part of a team's original ecosystem. 

Be wary of simple solutions

As we hiked through the forest, we passed a low-lying stream.  A number of fallen trees crossed the bed of the stream.  Our guide said for many years the fallen trees were cleared away from the stream, because of fears that the trees were interfering with salmon spawning.  Surprisingly, salmon numbers decreased when the trees were removed.  Among other reasons, the fallen trees created still pools in the streams that helped protect the salmon eggs and spawn.  Now, the fallen trees are allowed to stay where they fall.

Hearing this, I was reminded of many situations in which new leaders come into a group and see what appears to be an obvious inefficiency in the processes of their new team.  Rather than trying to understand the role that this inefficient procedure plays, leaders may try to make a change in order to demonstrate their savvy.  Unfortunately, many of these changes may cause at least as many problems as they solve.

It is important for any leader to spend time understanding how the procedures in place in their team fit into the overall ecosystem.  Often, a seemingly innocuous change can have significant consequences down the line.  To understand the group ecosystem more completely, it is useful to get both an understanding of procedures from the standpoint of those who are implementing them as well as from the vantage of a leadership role.  Often, things that look inefficient from a birds-eye view are actually more sensible when seen from the perspective of the day-to-day workflow of people who are actually carrying out those procedures.