Innovation: Are You a Gardener or an Architect?


When you’re doing something new, do you plan it out in advance, or start in and see what emerges?

Those are the two approaches that George R.R. Martin describes as common for writers.  In an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald (h/t 99u), he says:

There are architects and gardeners. The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another, and I am definitely more of a gardener. In my Hollywood years when everything does work on outlines, I had to put on my architect’s clothes and pretend to be an architect. But my natural inclinations, the way I work, is to give my characters the head and to follow them.

I think that the same idea applies to innovation.  There are people that work hard at building a good structure to support innovation.  Jeffrey Phillips and Paul Hobcraft are two examples of this  – at least I think so, they might debate the classification! Innovation gardeners are more likely to try stuff out and see what works – I’d say that Jorge Barba and I both fall more into this camp.


My sophisticated approach to gardening

It seems pretty straightforward, right?  Either you plan things out in advance and then work to the plan, or you try stuff out and see what emerges.

But, like all dichotomies, this is a false one.  It’s a false dichotomy for innovation, and I suspect that it is for writing as well.

Innovation is filled with tensions between goals that seem to be opposites.  Roger Martin says that we need to use integrative thinking to resolve these tensions:

Integrative Thinking is the ability to constructively face the tensions of opposing models, and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generating a creative solution of the tensions in the form of a new model that contains elements of the individual models, but is superior to each.

These aren’t either/or choices – they are both/and decisions.

Here are three actions that you can take in response to this:

  1. Avoid the comfort of black and white thinking. The comments on the posts discussing Martin’s quote consist of things like “architects are great, that’s the only way to write.”  Of something similar in favour of gardeners.  But doing new things means that it is never black or white – things are always grey.  We have to learn to be comfortable with both ends of a spectrum, and accommodate both.  We need to explore for new ideas while at the same time we exploit the advantages from the great ideas that we executed earlier.  These require different skills, and it’s easiest in the short run to choose one or the other.  But to succeed over the long run, we need to do both.
  2. Become a gardening architect. I tend towards the gardening side – this was very obvious this afternoon when I was outlining a book chapter.  That’s architect’s work, and I’m not so good at it.  But I need both skills.  So do you.  Figure out which approach you’re more comfortable with, and then develop a strategy for getting both skills into your process.
  3. Collaborate to address your weakness.  You don’t necessarily need to have both skills yourself – innovation is a social game.  But you have to think about how you build your alliances.  It’s easiest to collaborate with people that are most like us – so architects will be drawn to work with other architects, and the same for gardeners.  But the key to innovation success is to have cognitive diversity.  Nilofer Merchant wrote an excellent post on this idea – and quoted Scoot Page, who said the value of diversity is a proven mathematical truth, not a feel good mantra.  If you’re an architect, the best way to become a gardening architect is to find a gardener to work with.

I love Martin’s metaphor – it feels right to me.  I can see both ways of writing, and of innovating.  But I also think that while it makes a great soundbite, the reality is a bit messier. 

We need to find ways to integrate apparently conflicting ideas.  This is a key innovation skill.

While you start thinking about how to build this skill, I’m going to go hack around some more with that outline, to see what emerges from it…


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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

15 thoughts on “Innovation: Are You a Gardener or an Architect?

  1. Super post Tim! I find myself in a double role a lot: planning to build structure, but flexibly adapting the plan as new shit comes to light (as the Big Lebowski would say). Being either is I think a comfortable position, but very hard for optimising peoples’ efforts to realise outcomes. Combining for some reason is where gains are, but at the same time where the pains reside. Not comfortable, but working on change never is.


    • Ah, the parlance of our times.

      The more I try to comment on the gardener vs. architect discussion, the more I realize it’s one of those black & white constraints! I can see both sides, and though I tend more toward the gardener, I also need a little architecture; there needs to be some structure and order to things. Which seeds go in which holes? Where are the holes dug? Why is there an Ozzie in my salsa garden, ripping out my jalapeños?

      It seems I struggle most with the details. Give me the clean canvas and license to apply the outline and broad strokes, then spare me the death of a thousand paper cuts that is following through with each minute detail for all eternity.

      Consider the works of Monet. I love the impressionist movement for the fluid motion within each piece. I love the colors, the subtleties, and the subject matter, but ask me to duplicate those thousands of painstakingly precise brush strokes which make up the painting and you’ll find I’m more a Pollack man in practice.


    • Lebowski was 100% a gardener! Your point about discomfort being where the opportunities are is exactly correct, I think. And that’s why it’s so important to figure out how to integrate these seemingly opposing ideas.

  2. Hi Tim.

    I’d like to think I’m an architectural gardener. I like to start with a framework and then see what develops as the concepts grow and the culture matures. The frameworks can’t be too rigid or they constrain new opportunities and growth, but with no frameworks the opportunities proliferate. This is beginning to sound a lot like the discussions within the book Being There.

    • That sounds right to me Jeffrey. My impression is that you work out the framework first – after all, that’s part of the point of the Innovation Work Mat! But like I said, I could be wrong, and I do think that you need both elements, as you describe.

      Being There is a great book, though I’m not sure that Chance is the best role model. Or maybe he is…

  3. Hi Tim,

    I’m definitely in the controlled chaos camp with a tendency towards chaos first. I do think about some structure, but not too much where I feel it narrows serendipity and some happy accidents.

    How to integrate messiness into what looks like a systematic process of innovation is where there is tension but, as you said, reality is a lot more messy than what appears.



  4. Hi Tim
    I fall into both camps as well. But I like a baseline structure (architecture). I see no value in gardening with vegetables where someone has already started a rainforest or a super highway in that spot. But once you know that you are planting the right seeds in the right places (i.e. veges in a vege patch) then I would look to allow the chaos/disorder/innovation/art to start taking hold.

    Innovation is a creation/discovery/problem solving process that is hard and exciting enough as it is. Why would you make it harder and less exciting by trying to start your new garden on the spot where someone else is planning their rocket launcher? (Unless your garden absorbs exhaust gases at 3,300 degrees C).

    With a good foundation though, then the cool stuff can happen, with enough flexibility that you can stretch high and wide and everything important stays in place, while all the new parts and the innovation can do their thing too.

    Have a good Christmas,

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