A little while ago I was working with a leadership team of a company that was going through significant change. This change was critical to the future sustainability of the organization. As I listen to them talk about how they should handle the change in front of them, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Giant Sequoia.
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the Giant Sequoia, also known as redwood trees, is not only the biggest living things on Earth but they can range in age from 2,000 to 3,000 years.
Around the turn of the last century, national park officials believed it was their job to protect the Giant Sequoia groves in the national parks. Once every 5-15 years natural forest fires would burn through the parks and torch the redwoods so, in an effort to protect the trees, fuel breaks were constructed so the fire couldn’t enter the groves.
Years later what they found was the suppression of the forest fires were doing more harm than good.
You see, while the Sequoia is massive when fully grown, its seeds are only the size of oat flakes. The tiny seeds are protected by a little green cone about the size of a chicken’s egg. When the fires were suppressed, the cones would hang on the trees for years! They eventually learned that the fire was a necessary evil that was required to open the cones and spread the seeds. The fires are required for the Sequoia to reproduce.
Fire not only releases seeds from cones, but it also exposes soil for seedlings to root. It also recycles nutrients (via ash) back into the soil around the trees and it opens holes in the forest canopy so sunlight can reach young seedlings.
As I sat and listened to members of the leadership team speak I realized that they were not in need of first-order change but second-order change. What they are facing is a complete disruption in every area of their business. If the business was to move ahead they had to completely reinvent themselves. To do this they were going to have to make very tough decisions.
This was their fire.
If they are going to grow from this situation they will be required to become learners, to think deeply about their practice, and to adopt new and often challenging ideas about their roles.
It may be difficult for them to see right now, but what on the surface looks like a trial for the team is, in reality, a process that this team requires for their future growth! They will need to take lessons from this time and make a plan to shift forward. I just hope they remember they don’t need to stand alone. Even these giant trees stand together.