What we can learn from trees about growth, evolution and adaptability

Posted on August 4, 2021
By rita cincotta

What we can learn from trees about growth, evolution and adaptability

Photo by Richard Loader on Unsplash

I love trees.

I love them because they are beautiful, providing shade, food, spectacular colours as they change and mostly because I think there is a lot, we can learn from them.

I particularly like to think about trees as a great metaphor for growth, evolution, and adaptability at an individual, team and organisational level.    

For survival and optimal growth, a tree needs many things to thrive, and the right environment (or culture) that supports growth is crucial. 

As it grows, the tree establishes its root system.   It grows from the roots and its branches.  The tree needs the right nutrients below the ground and above the ground for optimal growth.  It needs to be in the right environment (culture) for it to thrive and evolve along with having food and water.  It adapts to its environment, in particular the change in the seasons.    

Provided the conditions are suitable, so the tree is in the right environment for its species and is adequately fed with access to the resources that it needs, the tree will thrive. 

People, teams, and organisations are similar in that they need the right conditions to prosper.  They need the right people, quality processes and systems, good clients, the right environment, and of course an excellent product or service. 

Growth

Growth on its own is great, but to what end?  On its own, it’s not enough of a measure of a healthy tree.  Because perhaps a tall tree doesn’t bear fruit or provide adequate shade if its branches don’t grow.  It may have height but not a decent canopy.    A tree growing out of control, can be unruly, wild and might need to be cut back.    It might become too big for its environment, getting in the way of other vegetation, or impacting the community in which the tree is in.  Growth needs to be managed and monitored, to ensure it’s not unruly, out of control and no longer fit for its purpose. 

In an organisational sense, growth needs to be supported by a clear strategy and good systems and processes that help you to grow.  This means optimising activities, systematising what can be systematised, and establishing processes that support growth. 

Evolution

As a tree grows it evolves.  It changes in its appearance.  It serves a different purpose, perhaps it now provides shade, fruit, or even strong branches for a wonderful tree house.   It’s evolution again, is dependent on the environment, or in an organisational sense, the culture.  The evolution of the tree is supported by what it needs for example nutrients, the climate, and the environment. 

There are some spectacular examples of trees that evolve.  The Rainbow Eucalyptus which is native to the Philippines and Pacific Asia is special because the bark on its trunk looks like a watercolour painting.  As it sheds layers of its bark in the warmer months, underneath it reveals beautiful layers of colour, not normally seen on the brownish greyish tones of a tree truck.  These colours are said to improve the photosynthesis process for the tree, thereby ensuring its health and survival. 

The Devil’s Walkingstick is another fascinating tree that is native to the eastern and southwestern United States.  This tree is said to be names based on the thorns that protrude from its thin trunk.  As it is a fruit bearing tree, it is believed that the thorns have appeared and evolved over time to protect the tree from being attacked by those seeking its fruit.   

These trees evolve as they do for survival.  To ensure they can grow to their maximum ability and contribute to the natural habitat and ecosystem they are in. 

Adaptability

Trees also adapt.   Should a tree find itself on sloping land, or behind another large tree, or building, it adapts or dies.  In adapting, it may grow in a different direction, reroute its root system or perhaps not bear as much fruit, or any at all. If it can adapt well, it may grow even bigger and better.  If it cannot adapt, it is unlikely to thrive, and may in fact die.  The tree needs to be aware of what it needs to adapt.  How can it make the best use of its conditions for survival and success?  In the business context, all organisations are required to adapt.  We have seen this many times, and most recently through 2020 and 2021, where organisations have adapted and thrived due to the global pandemic. 

Trees are a great metaphor for growth, evolution, and adaptability.  The key factors for the continued growth of the tree are the nutrients it receives and the environment that it is in.  Much like people, teams and organisations.   The nutrients, we access for ourselves, such as purpose, goals, sleep, exercise, healthy food and water, along with the environment we are in such as the culture of our team or organisation contributes to our own growth, evolution and adaptability.  

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