On the long drive down the A303 to Somerset yesterday morning, I caught a show on Radio 4 that was exploring the concept of “over parenting”.

It was an interesting listen, and one thing in particular has been bouncing around my head since, a metaphor for describing two different styles of parenting: the carpenter or the gardener.

The idea comes from Alison Gopnik, psychology and philosophy professor, who describes the idea of carpentry in child rearing as;

“The idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you’re going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult.”

whereas gardening…

“is…much more about providing a protected space in which unexpected things can happen than it is like shaping a child into a particular kind of desirable adult.”

This distinction has been resonating with me as I think about some of the perception challenges that face people trying to successfully manage technology in organisations on a day-to-day business. Simply put many people outside of the realm of IT (and too many still within it) see information technology as a carpentry challenge. Specify the dimensions of what it is that you want, and the carpenter technologist can go away and build it.

And whilst no doubt there are elements of IT practice that are akin to that kind of work, in the same way that you might construct a potting shed or a pergola in a garden, it is much more about being able to tend to what happens within a broad framework of systems and standards.

Gardening isn’t any less hard work. It’s just very different. Things won’t turn out quite as you expected. The predictability of the seasons is offset by the unpredictability of weather. Weeds grow. Plants wither or thrive depending on a stack of factors, some known, others not. Some parts are intentionally ordered and structured, others meaningfully not. It’s a constant exercise, not a one-off activity with a known end.

Successful technology management is very much the work of a gardener.

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