What Landscape Artistry Can Teach Us About Strategy

I’m (re)reading a book for my neighborhood book club; “Devil in the White City”, by Erik Larson.  It is one I read years ago, however I am now seeing it with fresh eyes.

It takes you through the build up to the World’s Fair of 1893 in Chicago.  One of the masters involved in the plans for this exposition was a well-known landscape artist, Frederick Law Olmsted.  As things are culminating to the commencement of the fair, there is much work left to be done with the landscape given the horrific timetables the builders have been working with, and unforeseen weather issues that brought all manner of precipitation and wind down on structures and land.

In a letter to his new business partner, Charles Eliot, Olmsted shares how due to an overwhelming amount of work and mounting medical concerns, he is unable to complete the task, and is asking that Eliot go to oversee the final work leading up to the opening.  It is in that specific passage I found a most resonating quote:

“Never lose sight of the fact that our special responsibility as landscape artists applies primarily to the broad, comprehensive scenery of the Exposition.  This duty is not to make a garden, or to produce garden effects, but relates to the scenery of the Exposition as a whole; first of all and most essentially the scenery, in a broad and comprehensive way…If we fall short in matters affecting broad landscape effects we shall fail in our primary and essential duty.”

Olmsted, in a conversation about landscape – a likely underappreciated yet supremely important part of the overall vision for the Exposition – unwittingly identifies why strategy is so incredibly integral to a mission’s overall success.  Many wanted him to simply add flowers to the grounds to hurry the work along and fill the space.  Olmsted refused.  He had a bigger vision for how the landscape could ultimately affect the overall success of the Exposition, and bring credit to the city of Chicago, and the Nation, as they were hoping to unseat Paris as the best for the latest World’s Fair.

We as business owners and leaders have a duty to not just focus on “garden effects”, but to survey the “scenery as a whole”.  With the increasing number of distractions and responsibilities at any one time, it is incredibly easy to focus on miniscule or mundane tasks, but in-so-doing you can easily lose sight of the broader picture.

Having a set of strategic documents and plans in place from which to build out core communications and have a foundation from which to pivot in unprecedented times, can only help support the growth of the company and evolution of its vision.  It is through “the grand plan” that the company will succeed; without a place from which to start, you may “fail in a primary and essential duty”.

This month, I give a shoutout to the esteemed Mr. Olmsted.  Someone for whom I feel a newly identified kinship; one who worked in an underappreciated, yet strategically important field of study, for which many of the country’s parks and landscapes would be severely lacking without his brilliance.

I leave you with this latest nugget:

What’s your broader picture?  Or are you focusing on garden effects…

Stay tuned for more from TCS next month!

Sarah Heximer, Owner & Chief Visionary Officer

True Colors Strategy