I have a confession to make: I kill houseplants. Never on purpose, of course, but that probably doesn’t make a great deal of difference to them. I invariably forget to water them, or I water them too much, or I neglect to fertilize them or repot them or a hundred other things you’re apparently supposed to do to plants. Then they wither away and die, cursing my name. As a result, the collection of houseplants my wife and I have at home has dwindled to a cutting of bamboo (somewhat sickly), a pair of succulents (very hardy) and a handful of spider plants (seemingly impossible to kill). I’m undoubtedly on some kind of most wanted list, if the Plant Kingdom has such things.
Given my obvious disregard for the lives of potted plants, it’s frankly a bit odd that I’m in charge of keeping the plants alive at Black Lake Studio. We only have two, admittedly, and I think persistent watering has solved the problem of the tree’s leaves turning brown and falling off. I hope.
Then there’s the fern. It’s pathetic, really. No amount of watering has changed its yellowed, patchy appearance. It just sort of mopes in the corner, the plant equivalent of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, looking like death itself, yet stubbornly refusing to get it over with and kick the bucket. Yesterday, I finally took pity on the poor thing and did some cursory googling to find out what I could do for it. My research revealed that I should 1) keep the soil damp, 2) move it out of direct sunlight, and 3) prune away any dead or diseased foliage.
Steps 1 and 2 were simple enough, but step 3 was going to take a bit more work. More than half of the fronds displayed unhealthy-looking brown spots, and there was a great deal of dead or dying plant material to pry out. However, after only a few minutes of surgery with a pair of scissors, the dilapidated old thing was already looking perkier. It’s a lot smaller now, but also less cluttered. The remaining fronds are actually green, and they are no longer being choked out by stalks that will never regain their vitality. For now the fern still looks a bit sad, kind of like a plucked chicken, but with any luck it’s on the road to recovery.
So, why have I subjected you to this story? There is actually a point: the principle of pruning applies far more broadly than just feeble office ferns. Creative and business processes also require regular maintenance and decluttering. Over months and years, unproductive processes build up. Workflow habits, client interaction protocols, teamwork methods, organizational policies, brainstorming techniques, management structures, and more can be effected. Not everything we try works, and we often forget to dispose of failed processes, allowing them to take up space and siphon off our effort. Even when they just sit there, demanding no work from us to maintain them, vestiges of old processes have a way of choking out new, productive processes, just like dead foliage chokes a plant’s growth. Keeping them means you can’t put something better in their place, or that you’ll bump into obstacles if you try.
We don’t do this on purpose, as if taking aim to shoot ourselves in the foot, just as I don’t kill plants deliberately. I kill them slowly through neglect while my focus is on other things. Likewise, process clutter accumulates and threatens to kill our productivity whether we notice it or not, and all we can do is fight back. As William Butler Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” In physics terms, entropy will be the end of us unless we regularly put energy into the system. Removing unproductive processes is the only way to make way for growth and renewed productivity in the future. And it has to be done regularly, or else entropy will silently undo our best efforts.
As a fern must be pruned to thrive, so too our processes must be pruned from time to time. As the new year began, we at Black Lake reviewed how we craft ideas, create deliverables, and manage projects. We pinpointed processes that weren’t working and either modified them or threw them out in favor of something better. When necessary, we brainstormed or did research on how to improve our processes. Going forward, we decided to devote one day a month exclusively to building our own brand, including our marketing and professional development efforts. We determined that we would start sending out a monthly newsletter, which you’ll be seeing in the weeks to come. We figured out how to clean up our files and project management software. We even considered how we use our physical space, eliminating detritus and rearranging furniture to maximize output. Sometimes, this means throwing things out and having fewer processes in total, but the goal is more effective processes, not just more processes. There’s no point in paying the opportunity cost on a process that isn’t producing as it should.
Pruning well requires vigilance, wisdom, and perseverance. We can all learn to be better process pruners, just as I still have a long way to go as an indoor gardener. First, recognize the problem, like I did when I saw that the fern was pathetic. Then figure out how best to prune, whether by researching or brainstorming or consulting an expert. Finally, follow through in the long run. Keep watering and pruning, strategically adding and subtracting. Preliminary steps will help (the fern already looks a bit better), but unless you’re consistent, your initial efforts will be for naught.
So, I’ll keep trying to prevent this fern from falling back into a state of squalor, and I trust you’ll do even better pruning your own processes.