The Koi Pond Analogy

My Dad went and built himself a Koi pond.

This started about four years ago. A professional landscaper dug the hole, laid the lining, and plumbed the pond. Then my Dad started his endeavor to create this small ecosystem in his very own backyard in central Indiana.

He failed about 6 times. Quite a few Koi met an untimely demise. This was not for a lack of effort, education, or persistence on the part of my curious Dad.

Building a Koi pond involves finding the right water, the right balancing agents, the right filters, and the right vegetation to work symbiotically with the fish. A Koi pond is a complex adaptive system. Complex adaptive systems, broadly defined, are collections of micro-elements or micro-structures that interact in emergent and self-organizing, but non-linear patterns. Complex adaptive systems have a constant flow of energy and never achieve stable equilibrium, but are rather in a state of trying to maintain balance. And so managing the Koi pond became a process of balancing – creating an environment in which the fish and the vegetation could thrive equally. A small change, like buying a new filter, could affect the water quality, the ability of the fish to find their food, and the growth of the vegetation. With every change he made in the name of improving the pond, my Dad found a series of unexpected ripples, so to speak, in his eco-system.

What he came to realize is that successfully maintaining the Koi pond required that he become a part of the system himself. He could not follow a checklist of a wiki-how to achieve a balanced system. Rather he had to pay close attention to the current state, making slight alterations that would not disturb the whole system, but rather make smaller ripples that could easily be attenuated or altered if necessary.

What an excellent analogy for an organization! The leader must attend to the balance of the eco-system, working to provide an environment where the people inside the system can thrive, allowing them to create the value for which they were hired. The leader is not well served to make forceful decision that create large disturbances in the system, but rather engage small changes so as to allow the system to adapt to those changes more quickly. This is not only a sustainable model for growth, but an ethical model for the stakeholders of the business.

Today my Dad has a dozen colorful fish, many have had babies, and some have grown to three times their original size. But success cannot breed apathy. He continues to attend carefully to the system to ensure the environment remains sustainable for the continued success of the pond, the vegetation, and the Koi. And so must the leader continue to balance the ecosystem of the organization.