February 9, 2010

Tight control or tolerance: which do you prefer?

Arie de Geus describes, in his book The Living Company (1997), how nothing is more important for a rose garden than how you prune the roses. The best way of pruning depends on the results you want to achieve. If you want the biggest and most glorious roses of the neighborhood you have to prune drastically. You have to cut each rose tree down to three stalks each. Each of those stalks can only keep only three rosebuds. Everything except these 9 rosebuds has to be cut down to get the maximum result: the biggest rose. This way of pruning is a strategy of little tolerance and tight control. You force the plant to make maximal use of the resources it has by forcing it to concentrate on its 'core business'. You can impress you neighbors that summer with the most spectacular rose. But if this turns out to be an unlucky year, you'll have late frost, end of April of in the beginning of May. This could create serious damage on the few remaining buds and could even cause the plant to die. In an unpredictable environment, pruning is risky and a strategy of high tolerance is wiser. You leave more stalks and more buds on each stalk. You may even keep buds which could only lead to very small roses. This way you are unlikely to get the biggest roses of the neighborhood but you'll increase your chances of getting roses each year. Furthermore, you'll stimulate a gradual renewal of the plant. By leaving younger and weaker stalks intact, you'll give them the chance to strengthen and to take over the role of the stronger stalks in later years. The tolerant strategy is less efficient and allows for weakness but has advantages in the long term.


  1. I know nothing of roses, so I must accept your explanation of pruning at face value.

    If you intended a connection between pruning roses and managing people, then I'm not sure I agree with the analogy.

    In the workplace, "tight control" suggests that people are required to comply with the rules of a predetermined process, while "tolerance" suggests that people are expected to find creative ways to achieve goals and fulfill responsibilities.

    As I read it, a management philosophy of "tight control" represents an attempt to prevent mistakes, while a philosophy of "tolerance" represents an attempt to enable success. The cost of trying to prevent mistakes is to limit the opportunities for dramatic successes. The cost of trying to enable success is to experience the occasional mistake.

    I think it is a valid and meaningful point, but the analogy with roses escapes me.

  2. Dear Dave,

    Thanks for your comment. The explanation on pruning is not mine but Arie de Geus'. I do think that this description of rose pruning is relevant to management of organizations. I did not yet specify here how I think it is relevant so as to invite thoughts on how it might be relevant.

    I am not sure I understand your point though. You draw a management analogy from the roses example and explain how it is relevant and then say you don't see how it is analogous to the roses example?


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