A Team Is Not a Bonsai Tree by Salma Alam-Naylor "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs June 06 2020 True mtp engage manchester, Product Team, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 659 Salma Alam-Naylor on stage at MTP Engage Manchester Product Management 2.636

A Team Is Not a Bonsai Tree by Salma Alam-Naylor


Teams are imperfect and beautiful things, just like us. Salma Alam-Naylor, a Software Development Lead at Code Computerlove, illustrates this in her 2020 MTP Engage Manchester talk, where she draws on her experiences as a tech leader to present a very horticultural metaphor that explores leadership, cultivating empowered teams, and the human condition.

To understand her point, we first need some context.

What is a Bonsai Tree?

Salma provides a very concise description:

Small trees, grown in shallow containers, shaped to inflexible aesthetic ideals, to be contemplated by the viewer, and which celebrate the efforts and ingenuity of the grower.

Hopefully, the metaphor is not too obscure but, to be explicit, far too many leaders consider their teams to be a kind of static, idealised creation. Something they have crafted in a controlled environment, and which reflects well on their team leadership skills.

What Does This Have to do With Teams?

As you might have guessed, a team needs more than a “shallow container” to flourish, and no team fits into an inflexible aesthetic. They are not static creations, purely reflecting the craftsmanship of their “grower”, and they are far from ideal. Indeed, a team is recognised for its own collective efforts and ingenuity, not those of it’s “grower”.

Indeed, not all teams are beautiful – some are flawed, but hopefully in ways that generate friction or conflict that they can use to solve problems. And solving problems is the true purpose of a team – they are not made to be contemplated, but to be given a vision to drive action.

What Does a Team Need?

Continuing the metaphor, a team is a tomato plant.

In its beginning, it needs warmth, light, scheduled care, and an optimum environment. A team doesn’t just spring into being – it is nurtured and given external support until it can build its own internal structures, and become more self-sufficient.

When the time is right, a team must be supported to make the transition to “open space”. By that Salma means that teams eventually need less close nurturing, as they’ve developed the systems and practices they need to become whatever they need to be to achieve their goals and vision. At this point, the team is much more self-sufficient, although you should still monitor their progress, and occasionally remove weeds or guard it against pests (such as rogue stakeholders, or possibly internal disruptions that prevent it from flourishing).

Of course, sometimes a team will come under much more pressure than it ever anticipated. If a team starts to bend under pressure, it needs to be supported again – given a structure to hold it up, and to have any waste or obstructions that are preventing growth removed. This might mean unblocking resources or paths within the organisation or stripping away processes and practices that are no longer meaningful or helpful to the team.

How to Frame – and Care for – a Team

Fundamentally, there are two phases in team development:

  1. Nurture – This is equivalent to an MVP of a team. At this stage, the team will need regularly scheduled care in an optimum environment to help if establish structures, goals, and self-sufficiency
  2. Growth – In product terms, this is the period of constant iterations and improvement, and can be seen as three phases:
  1. A supported transition to self-sufficiency.
  2. Ongoing monitoring, remove obstacles as necessary.
  3. Long-term maturing, driven by the team’s reflection and self-direction.

A team is made up of people – living, changing, flawed organisms. We are imperfect, unique, and wonderful and by extension, so are the teams we are part of. In the same way that we care for our gardens by creating optimum environments for self-directed growth and flourishing, we should accept that teams, if given a clear purpose, the resources they need, and occasional monitoring and care, will flourish in ways that we may not expect, but will solve the problems we need them to.