John Addis

SmartCompany /

Frustrated at your lack of progress? Maybe you’re just using the wrong yardstick.

The problem of scale

john addis

In 1822 seeds of the camphor laurel tree were brought to Australia from Asia. They’ve been here ever since, in ever larger numbers. I know this because I have more than two hectares that, up until a few months ago, were covered in the bloody things.

After the big scrub rainforests of northern NSW and Queensland were logged, these fast-growing, attractive trees offered cattle protection from the wind and sun and gave dairy farmers a way of countering soil erosion. But the decline of the dairy industry, and the subsequent abandonment of pasture, has given the camphor laurel a free hand. It’s now classified as a noxious weed and bushies everywhere curse its proliferation.

But it’s a remarkably successful species. Each adult tree can produce more than 100,000 seeds that do something very clever: they don’t all germinate at the first sign of rain. Some do, but many stay in the ground, waiting for the next wet period. And when that arrives, still more wait another few months. In this way, the species gives itself the very best chance of survival through extending the period over which germination can occur. It’s a remarkably sophisticated system that took thousands of years to perfect.

It was the recounting of this story by Tom, a bush regeneration expert, that got me thinking about what we might learn from his tale. There are, I’d suggest, three things.

The first concerns the lure of the big deal and the seductive nature of the new project. There’s no doubt that these things can transform businesses very quickly but they should not be at the expense of the incremental improvements that should be occurring in a business day-to-day, minute-to-minute. Like the camphor laurel, it is the accumulation of almost imperceptible changes that we make to our businesses that first enable them to survive and eventually to prosper.

The second concerns our evolutionary bias. While self-help manuals press upon us the power of positive thinking, we’re actually hard-wired to detect and respond to perceived threats, to think negatively, as so many people (incorrectly) term it.

A few thousands years ago you might have been top of the menu for the local pride of lions, so it made a lot of sense to think this way. It still does. Thinking about things that might go wrong is a more useful activity for our brains than pondering what might go right. It helps us to survive, it creates the motivation to change our behaviours. It’s the positive effect of negative thinking.

But in focusing on what is or might go wrong, we pay a price: it can make us anxious, frustrated and stressed. If you spend lots of time thinking about problems you need to fix, issues you need to resolve and things you need to do, it’s probably causing you some anxiety. An antidote lies in the third point: the issue of scale.

We tend to evaluate our progress using comparative measures. Am I doing better, am I happier, healthier, than my friends at school, the people I met at university or my neighbours? This is a natural but not always helpful criterion. As a species we’ve been around for about 200,000 years, a fraction of earth’s history. And yet a human life averages about 70 years. It’s hard for us to think of time frames longer than the lives we experience so we tend to measure our progress using very short yardsticks.

But if we can allow ourselves to take that step, to think of our lives not as isolated individuals with a beginning and an end, put as part of a long continuum, each one of us making our minuscule but vitally important contribution to the welfare of our species, it brings a fresh sense of perspective to the problems we face. It sets them in a grander context and makes them easier to bear.

Darwin, like the camphor laurel, was on to something.



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