Things that are, aren’t

You think things are but they aren't. Until last week I thought banana skins were bio-degradable and it was ok to toss them into the wild from a hiking trail. Now I find that although they are bio-degradable it is not ok to toss them. They take two years to disappear. I didn't meet any banana people but I wasn't on Ben Nevis: I was on a conservation week in the Caledonian Forest when we got this piece of information.

Before the week I naively thought there were Christmas Trees aka pine trees, but it turns out that there aren't really – there are many, many types of pine some native to the Caledonian Forest and some not. The non-natives are rooted out to make room for the natives and you can learn why here but on the first day to me that smacked of a lack of diversity policy.

I quickly found that wasn't true either. The idea is for a diversity policy around native tree species – specific pines, alders, rowan, birch, aspen. So although there is a diversity policy it isn't as diverse as it could be if non-natives were included.

But having accepted that non-native species are 'bad' and native species 'good' I read a review of a recently published book 'Where do camels belong?' The author discusses 'the contradictions of 'native' and 'invasive' species, a hot issue right now, as the flip-side of biodiversity, [and asks] But do we need to fear invaders? And indeed, can we control them, and do we choose the right targets?' According to the blurb:

'Ken Thompson puts forward a fascinating array of narratives to explore what he sees as the crucial question – why only a minority of introduced species succeed, and why so few of them go on to cause trouble. He discusses, too, whether our fears could be getting in the way of conserving biodiversity, and responding to the threat of climate change.'

He is of the view that we needn't fear (all) invasive species and some are good. So more to add to the pile of things that are, aren't.

It was a fascinating week of finding out new stuff. Among other things I learned how to take out a wire fence, how to plant trees, how aspens are grafted, how ospreys fly from Senegal, that ants tend to build their hills facing south. Watching the ants on their hills reminded me of Meteor, a short story, by John Wyndham. In this, intrepid travelers from an ancient, distant planet land on Earth believing that 'This planet [Earth] is very young, and if we do find intelligent life, it will be only at its beginning. We must find them and make friends with them. They may be very different from us, but we must remember that this is their world. It would be very wicked to hurt any kind of life on its own planet. If we find any such life, our duty is to teach, and to learn, and to work with them.' Sadly, the things this species think are, aren't – and they cannot understand the reality of what they have landed in. I won't spoil the story but it is a powerful tale.

This clash of are/aren't continued all week. A seven turbine wind farm proposed close to the Glen I was in has generated much local protest, but in the village post office there's a flyer about the ten myths of wind power and I find that Friends of the Earth 'supports the development of windpower in the UK'. So now I'm confused. Are wind turbines something to be in favor of or aren't they?

An amusement in the local restaurant was being given a dinner menu and when I asked whether 'tattie scones' were available the manager said 'Only order things that are on the menu. Don't ask for things that aren't.' In this instance tattie scones are available for breakfast but not for dinner. This customer service approach was a direct contrast to the thoroughly recommendable Rendezvous in Inverness where I was able to order a tattie scone (ok it was on the menu but not as a separate item) and when I said how delicious it was the manager served me another at no cost but less crispy because he wanted to know whether I preferred the more or less crispy version. Some restauranteurs are good at customer service, others aren't.

Off and on during the week I've been looking at some of the parallels between this conservation week and what I've experienced in organizational life. In fact, the conservation week was a microcosm organization. We were 11 people randomly flung together (in this case by calendar date choice). We seemed to have some shared values. We were expected to work as a team to achieve specific outcomes while following the rules of 'head office'. We had two managers (aka focalizers) – one very experienced and the other new. Of the workers (volunteers) some had done this type of work before and others hadn't. We were a mixed bag of ages, backgrounds, experiences, and lifestyles. (But all white, UK nationals).

It transpired that even with shared values we batted up against lots of things that are and things that aren't in this organizational mix – all typical of organizational life. For example – rules are/aren't there to be followed, managers are/aren't there to control, workers are/aren't able to make autonomous decisions, tested ways are better/newer ways aren't (or vice versa), and so on.

Reflecting on the are/aren't dichotomy and the difficulties and conflicts polarization causes I wondered what made the week so good. It could have been a recipe for disaster – in fact we heard lots of stories of weeks that were much less than wonderful – but ours was terrific.

What seemed to work to bridge the are/aren't divide in this instance were a range of factors that are not possible to design in. (Or are they?) The perfect weather most days helped as did having all the right tools for the jobs in hand. The background infrastructure/administration appeared to run smoothly although there were hints of mad paddling behind the scenes.

But beyond this – in terms of interaction people respected each other's perspectives, asked lots of questions, listened to each other and were curious about the context, history, and approach to the work and the environment in which we were working.

Learning was made easy because the experienced people were happy offering/sharing/teaching their knowledge and skills and seemed delighted to have the opportunity to do so in an adult to adult way – there was no talking down to inexperience, people were willing to ask for help (and accept help when it was offered), managers relaxed to become facilitators of getting things done not commanders of making people do things.

The work was challenging but not overly demanding, and was balanced with plenty of opportunity to socialize both on and off the job and in this learn more about each other's life experiences that had made us who we are today. This work/social balance quickly built a spirit of co-operation: people looked out for each other, were willing to go along with changes in plan and stick with a positive mindset.

Best of all everyone had an always bubbling sense of humor. We all spent a lot of time in gales of laughter at one thing or another.

This all sounds like organizational nirvana – I wouldn't go that far, but I think all the factors listed served to bridge the are/aren't divide, to keep things on track and to make the whole experience enjoyable.

What attributes do you think act as bridges in the organizational are/aren't divides? Let me know.