The Case for Pruning


There are two things I know about pruning.

Now, you should know that I actually shouldn't use the word “know” as if I'm a master gardener. I'm not. It's probably more accurate to say that I read this on Wikipedia and learned two things.

But the reason I was able to grasp them so quickly is because these two truths are well known outside of pruning. They're a key part of how I lead others, grow leaders, and coach the companies I do.

But before we get into that, let's talk about pruning for a second.

What is Pruning?

It's the process of making strategic and careful choices to cut a plant – not because you want to hurt it, but rather because you want to train it, and help it grow.

Here's what my friends at Wikipedia say…

The practice entails the targeted removal of diseased, damaged, dead, non-productive, structurally unsound, or otherwise unwanted plant material from crop and landscape plants.

Wikipedia entry on Pruning

While their definition is more accurate than mine, my earlier articulation of pruning sounds a lot like parenting or coaching, right?

Thankfully the plant doesn't question us like our kids do.

The Two Things I know about Pruning

First, it's better to prune early than later.

In general, the smaller the branch that is cut, the easier it is for a woody plant to compartmentalize the wound and thus limit the potential for pathogen intrusion and decay. It is therefore preferable to make any necessary formative structural pruning cuts to young plants, rather than removing large, poorly placed branches from mature plants.

Wikipedia entry on Pruning

Second, pruning now will bear fruit for a long time.

It is widely stated that careful attention to pruning and training young trees improves their later productivity and longevity

Wikipedia entry on Fruit tree pruning

Can I Tell You a Story?

I was a moron. Let's start there, ok? I was in my 20's and working with some brilliant people at a government research lab. We were building things that had never existed, doing things that we didn't even know if they would work. All around this new thing called the Information Superhighway (in 1993 & 1994).

One day a division director (think Vice President) wrote a note to my boss about a project we were working on. Just about every line in the note was incorrect. Not because he was a bad guy. Clearly he'd gotten bad information. But it made me self-righteous, angry, and defensive (all at the same time).

Instead of reaching out to my boss first, I hit reply. Actually, I hit REPLY ALL. That option really should have some guard rails around it. But it didn't, and I was glad, at the moment, that it was the case.

I wrote back a long email explaining why everything in his email had been incorrect. Even typing this email I'm feeling stress. My adult self knows how bad it was that my child self did this.

I sent it on its way and didn't think anything of it until a few hours later when I walked my my bosses office and he called me in.

“I would fire you today, for that email. The only thing that saved you was that I told the division director you were already leaving and that this Friday would be your last day.”

I would have been fired.

Instead, we had a 45 minute conversation that can't be described in any other way than “pruning.” For almost an hour we talked about what had caused me to respond.

  • Why those emotions didn't serve me.
  • Why I needed to pay attention to the political context of any email.
  • Why I should never write in anger.
  • Why I was wrong.
  • And the consequences for being that kind of wrong.

I felt small. I felt humbled. I felt hurt, sad, rejected, and admonished.

In essence, I felt pruned.

But I have never, and I mean never, sent an angry email every again. A painful lesson, but one that has stuck with me for the rest of my professional career.

Embrace The Suck

In the military, there's a phrase you may have heard by now, “embrace the suck.” It means that even when things aren't great, you don't run from the hard stuff – you run towards it. You accept the challenge in front on you and you make it better by working at it.

Today it's easy to see tons of people who want to go from novice to expert with shortcuts of every kind. But no one wants to embrace the suck.

Here's the thing – if you don't embrace the suck, you won't experience the pruning. And if you don't embrace the pruning, I guarantee you're going to suck.

No one likes an admonishment. No one likes to learn the hard way. But there is a cost to skipping the hard way. The cost is all the learning you miss. Here's what I tell my coaching clients – the cost of learning hard lessons later in life is really expensive.

Embrace Business Pruning

I started by telling you two things I know – that early pruning is cheaper than later pruning and that early pruning pays dividends. So we should want this. We should embrace this. But how do we go about embracing it?

Here are the three things I think you have to get right.

Expect to be wrong sometimes. Let's face it, we can't be right at everything. But if we change our orientation to keep the option open that we have something to learn, it will be a lot easier to embrace feedback that prunes.

Surround yourself with folks further up the road. It's a lot easier to ask for advice from folks you're already looking up to. They're further ahead of you and can share insights that will change how you look at things.

Separate who you are from what you do. A lot of times we tightly bind our identity with our actions, and it's not always wrong. But if you require correction, it's easy to take things personally and not make changes.

Sharpening a Blade

Here's another way to think about it.