On Forests and Factories

Posted on October 10, 2023

On Forests and Factories

A few miles from where I live is the The Pilgrims’ Way, a prehistoric trackway which stretches from Stone Henge and Avebury to the English Channel. It earned its name in the middle ages as the route followed by pilgrims to the tomb of Thomas Becket. A journey immortalised by Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

The stretch where I live is through an avenue of trees on the edge of forest as old as Chaucer’s tale. My son has found a rope swing hanging off the gnarled branch of a veteran Hornbeam. There is a sign stuck to its trunk urging people not to climb it. The tree is over 300 years old and has just been pruned to encourage new growth which needs to be protected and nurtured.

As I look around I spot a number of old Hornbeams forming a canopy with a variety of other species. Oak, beech, ash, chestnut. Some of which are thought to be up to 800 years old. I reach out, touch the trees and realise I am connecting with a living organism which has stood on this earth for ten or twenty times my own lifespan. Who else has passed below its branches? What other children, in another century climbed its trunk or swung from a rope it patiently held firm? 

The sign in this story is more significant though. These trees have reached these old ages thanks to the people who tended them and managed this woodland. From generation to generation the responsibility has been handed over. I am appreciating the trees they tended at an age they would never witness.

Managing a forest requires a very different approach to the ones we are used to. Most of us have been trained in the ideas of optimising organisations to become a well oiled machine. To treat problems like a factory.

Mondrian style image

A factory is a stable system. It has a hard boundary with predictable inputs and predictable outputs. It’s made up of human engineered processes which aim to make production robust, repeatable and efficient. Sometimes these engineered processes become so sophisticated they may make the factory very complicated and hard to reason about. Even so the factory maintains the overall relationship between cause and effect.

Our engineering brains default to seeing things as factories. Our first move is to break everything down into its component parts and then optimise the individual elements.

An engineering approach works well for things that are a factory. The parts of the system where inputs and outputs are stable and need to be predictable and processes need to be repeatable and efficient. Like a build pipeline or a payroll system.

The risk is with what happens when you take this factory approach and apply it to a forest?

A forest destroyed by logging

Forests are a complex system formed by natural processes interacting with each other to produce a whole different to its parts. Their boundaries are fuzzy; where does the forest begin and end? They are in constant states of flux, continuously changing yet the forest as a whole is self regulating and resilient.

“Many leaders are tempted to lead like a chess master, striving to control every move, when they should be leading like gardeners, creating and maintaining a viable ecosystem in which the organization operates.” - General Stanley A. McChrystal

When thinking of an organisation as a forest we switch from an engineering approach to a cultivation approach. One which acknowledges the fact that you are working within the natural processes that already exist. A forester cannot actually “grow” trees, or ferns or fungi. They can’t give them targets or objectives to hit. They “can only foster an environment in which the plants do so.”.

The way we solve problems in the forest is different from the factory. Rather than assign experts to diagnose cause and effect and propose solutions, we become responsible for spotting patterns, both desirable and undesirable and discovering ways to amplify or dampen them.

Forest light show

It would be a mistake to view Forests and Factories as good verses bad. Two adversarial approaches which demand a shift in mindset from the way I label as wrong (your way) to the way I label as right (my way).

There are parts of the forest that benefit from the engineers carefully designed solution. Technology which improves surveillance, firebreaks, pathways, improvements to soil, coppicing and production of sustainable wood products.

As long as we tread carefully and ensure that our engineered processes work in balance with the forest and, at best promote its health and at worst do no harm, then we should encourage the pursuit of efficiency in those areas which make sense.

One challenge I see for many of us is that the engineering approach is so deeply ingrained that we lack the exposure to the thinking, tools and techniques of the organisational forester. The difference between what is often condescendingly labelled as hard and soft skills.

Hopefully though, by simply acknowledging whether we are dealing with a Forest or a Factory we can shift our approach, define different outcomes and look for different signals before we jump straight to our engineering toolbox.