Watering Plastic Plants

I was just trying to be helpful.  

My wife was out of town for 3 days and aside from ordering my favorite take out food and watching Sportscenter til all hours of the night, I made an effort to keep some resemblance of order in our home.  In my case, that largely consisted of running our new Rumba auto vacuum and loading (not running) the dishwasher. 

I also took it upon myself to care for and water the various plants we have sprinkled throughout the house. I figured, dead plants could equal a dead me when she returned so I filled a pitcher and preceded to generously water everything in sight. And I mean…everything. 

It was pretty satisfied with myself until a few hours later I noticed that the two small potted plants underneath our kitchen window were 1/ Leaking water all over the counter.  And 2/ Actually plastic. 

Yes. Plastic. 

Plastic. Looks like a plant, feels like a plant … is not a plant

My effort was admirable.  The results were inconsequential. And also embarrassing. 

It also led to a term I have been using around leadership and strategic efforts.  I call it just that, “watering plastic plants”.  My working definition is… “Leadership efforts that look and feel satisfying, but actually are producing no real value or growth toward the mission of the organization”.   It is easy to invest time, energy, attention and even money into things that we know won’t actually produce impact.

Or maybe we don’t?  Is it possible we are watering plastic plants and don’t even realize it?  We observe and measure, but see little change.  Perhaps we are convinced if we just “pour more on” there will be a change. But in reality, no amount of our current efforts are going to produce the transformation we desire.  It’s just producing a silent satisfaction that is meaningless.

Edwin Friedman leans into a leaders core responsibility when he asserts, “In the search for the solution to any problems questions are always more important than answers because the way one frames the question, or the problem, already predetermines the range of answers one can conceive in response”.  (Failure of Nerve) 

Watering Plastic Plants = “Leadership efforts that look and feel satisfying, but actually are producing no real value or growth toward the mission of the organization”

It’s the team member that we are constantly pouring more energy into that just isn’t getting it…and honestly isn’t going to. And yet, we persevere.

It’s the

The tendency to keep asking the same question over and over again with similar results is a reflection of watering plastic plants.  We are going through the motions while expecting momentum from something that is never going to produce our desired objective or outcome. 

Here are four ways we frequently do this: (I’m sure there are a bunch of others). 

These all involve the delusion of more.  

It usually goes something like this, “If we just ____________________ MORE”.
(You’ve said this… just admit it.  I know I have) 

1/ Talk about it MORE
…the solution is for the primary leader to use their platform to try to create momentum. Or we believe if we talk about a problem enough, after awhile we will believe we actually did something. 

2/ Meet about it MORE
…the solution is for key individuals to spend more time together and it will change things

3/ Strategize MORE
…the solution is intentionality. If we plan better, it will work.

4/ Focus on it MORE
…the solution is alignment.  Let’s get everyone on the same page and momentum will be the result. 

Here’s the truth.  It’s still a plastic plant.  Nothing is going to change that. 

In fact, doing more with something that actually has no potential for impact is just frustrating the team and expending the limited energy available toward something that truly could grow. 

But what if we took a different approach. As we look at increasing our efforts around engagement, it demands asking new, unique questions and pouring our energy into living, breathing solutions. 

Here’s some ways and conversations to have with your team asap. 

1/  Risk a Reality Check: 

The first responsibility of leadership is to clearly define reality. 

Begin an honest assessment of what we are pouring our efforts into.  Yes, an honest one. This will need to consist of both conversations AND any actual data that we have.  Think of it as an ROI conversation. Return on Investment.  I know, I know. You feel weird about that because it’s spiritual church stuff.  Get over it.  Our calling as leaders demands that we be stewards of resources. It may feel a bit painful, but it needs to happen before more “water” is wasted and spilled. 

2/ Reconsider your Assumptions

Anytime we hit a season of unrest, uncertainty and crisis, it is also an opportunity. As we emerge from that recent season, now is the time to really ask the difficult questions and question everything.  Every. Thing. Our tendency will be to cling to the previously held assumptions for as long as possible. 

3/ Ask Hard Questions around Values

There may be gaps in what we say we value and the actions we take. Often these gaps will reveal the plastic paradigms in our organizations. Maybe there are competing values at work that need to be confronted and dealt with. 

5/ Detect and Adapt from Default Thinking. 

As leaders, we all have an overflowing chest of ideas and stories around what once worked.  And so, we naturally default back to those. This tendency, while helpful in crisis, can lead to wasteful strategies that also embed the default thinking deeper into the organization.  

4/ Seek out New Perspectives Through Candid Assessment

As Andy Stanley says, “time in erodes awareness of”.  This truth forces us to aggressively seek outside perspectives and input.  This could come from a number of places both internally or externally (BTW: everyone needs a coach), but gathered correctly, these insights will reveal where we may be wasting water and drive us to make appropriate changes. 

This kind of thinking is going to require leaders who will approach problems differently than they have in the past and uncover solutions that will create a more impactful future. 

Buy yourself a plastic plant. Grab your team. Place it in the middle of the room. Have a conversation. 

You won’t regret it.  Plus … you’ll save some water. 


Leading is hard.
Leading alone is harder.
Leading alone is unnecessary.

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