From the Bottom Up

The Surface of the Pond

When you look at a pond, what do you see?

It might be crystal clear, with the bottom and anything moving there being easily seen.

Birds or frogs might be visible on the surface, or water skippers or water spiders.

It might be covered with surface floating plants, hiding most of the water from view.

It might be mirky, with only what is on the actual surface being visible.

It might be covered in algae growth, obscuring any visibility into the water below.

It might be covered with floating debris that has fallen from the banks or trees around.

All these might show a healthy pond. Or an unhealthy pond. Can you tell the difference? Sometimes you can, but often you can’t. The reason is that the surface is a poor indicator of the health of the pond unless it is already very unhealthy.

Beneath the Surface of the Pond

Going a bit deeper, plant stems might rise up from the bottom toward the surface.

Fish or frogs or any number of other animals may swim or float.

The water might be clear here. The water might be murky.

The water might move with a current. The water might be still.

Debris or particles may fill the water. Grasses from the bottom might obscure the water around.

Can you tell here if the pond is healthy or not? Maybe, maybe not. It is easier here. The surface can be deceiving, but this portion of the pond is a bit more obvious. But only past a certain point. A pond can be drawing toward unhealthy quite a while before it is noticed.

At the Bottom of the Pond

Now we move deeper to the actual pond bottom. Here live snails and worms, bottom feeding fish and those that eat them, bacteria and some small amphibians. Basically, the things that live and eat in the muck at the bottom, the things I mentioned when discussing stirring up a pond. These are also the things that help keep a pond clean and healthy, as they help remove dead and toxic things from the bottom.

This is also where the plants put their roots, and where algae and other such things get their start. The bottom of the pond is the heart of the pond’s ecosystem, the place the most happens but also the place trouble is first seen.

Why is trouble first seen here? Because this is the furthest from the air, the sun, the rain, and often the ingress and egress of the pond. It is less forgiving, more dependent on a balance to keep it going.

When Things Go Wrong

There are a number of threats to the pond bottom.

One of these is toxins and pollution. Many things that are most harmful enter from the surface and sink, and when they sink to the bottom, the pond and its denizens have to adapt or suffer. There are limits to how much of this they can survive.

A major toxin, which is needed but can cause issues in higher qualities is salt. Salt saturates in the water, and can be harmful to freshwater plants and animals like are found in a pond. In addition, it can reduce the water’s capacity for other needed substances.

Another major threat is the loss of oxygen. Oxygen is required for life for many things in the pond, notably the animals and bacteria I mentioned above. This oxygen is diffused in the water, and removed by the animals and bacteria to function.

Oxygen is added mostly by disturbances to the water. The water flowing in will bring oxygen and can mix oxygen in when it hits the stiller water. Rain and wind disturbing the surface help diffuse oxygen into the water. Things like birds or fish breaking the surface tension and creating disturbances help add oxygen. Plants and algae in the water release oxygen into the pond.

Stillness can lead to low oxygen. This includes less rain and wind than normal, insufficient flow into the pond, insufficient flow out of the pond, a decrease in animal life to disturb the surface, and other similar factors.

Higher temperatures can lower the oxygen level, as warmer water can’t hold as much. Similarly, increased salt content, as I discussed above, can reduce the capacity of the water for oxygen.

If there is a large amount of algae that dies suddenly, because of environmental changes, the decay of these by bacteria will consume much more oxygen than normal, resulting in a lowered level in the pond. This is true of anything that increases decomposition within the pond, including an increase of outside plant matter falling into the pond.

These are just a few of the possible causes.

And More Wrong

The results, though, are what is important here. When oxygen decreases, it drops fastest at the bottom, because oxygen is mostly added at the surface and because oxygen is lighter than water and tends to rise when levels drop further up.

As the oxygen at the bottom drops, the animals and bacteria I mentioned start to die. This has a two fold effect. First, this means more to decay, meaning what bacteria are still alive work harder, consuming more of the decreasing oxygen. And it means those things that keep the pond clean are less and less able to do so.

The muck gets thicker and richer, as it is no longer being recycled by the animals and bacteria. It becomes fertilizer for the plants and algae, which increase their growth as a result. The growing weeds and algae block out sunlight and clog the pond, preventing larger things further up to have the freedom of movement. More things die, bacteria tries to break it down, more oxygen is consumed, and the pond slowly dies from the bottom up.

The Big Pond

Back to our metaphor, of the Pond Principle, most businesses and organizations have a similar stratification, with a top, middle, and bottom. The larger the company, the deeper the pond, but the principles remain the same.

In a large corporation, the top is the C Level management, the executives and similar positions, CEOs, CTOs, CFOs, and the like. These are the most visible. Customers might interact with the bottom, but the face of the company are this portion.

Middle management, those who aren’t executives, aren’t chief of anything, but still in a management role, are the middle of the pond, beneath the surface but not the bottom. These are more visible than the bottom, but less so than the surface, and often see the issues at the bottom before the surface notices them.

The bottom are those not in management, where the day to day work gets done. They rely on the higher portions of the pond to direct where things need to be done and make sure what they need, the oxygen, gets down to them.

Smaller Ponds

This is true in smaller contexts as well, though not as visible. Medium and small businesses, startups, and organizations all have layers.

The surface might be small, a few people who founded the company or are the managing partners of it, maybe, or maybe just one owner.

Unless the company is very very small, there is likely to be management as well, those beneath the surface but not at the bottom. These might be a store manager, a shift leader, an office manager, a department manager. The larger the company, the more people fit this role typically.

And, as with the large corporation, the people doing the day to day work without doing the managerial and supervisory aspects are at the bottom of the pond.

From the Bottom Up

Regardless of the size of the business or organization, the metaphor applies.

It is the surface where oxygen, all those things like investment capital, acquisitions, policies and guidelines, new opportunities, and vision typically come.

These are then distributed downward with the help of those below the surface to those at the bottom.

These things are what keeps the company healthy, because you can’t be successful without resources, direction, and opportunities to make happen. Without these things, the company will die, but with them, it will thrive.

But, just like the pond, the company starts having issues at the bottom first. If those doing the day to day work don’t have the resources to accomplish what’s needed, this will hurt the company. Employees might leave, which means more demand on those remaining, and less resources. Projects might fail, meaning the time and resources put into them become a drain on the company instead of helping it. Employees might become unproductive, hurting the company instead of helping it. Resistance to improvements, or new ideas, might flourish like algae and weeds and choke out those that are productive and trying to make things better.

And as these things increase, those beneath the surface, the managers and supervisors, have to deal with this issues and in some cases take up the slack in the work. They are less able to do their job, so get worse at getting resources to those that need them, and at communicating these needs to the surface.

And the surface will often not know the extent of the problem until it’s very far into the problem and hard to recover.

From the Top Back Down

The solution is similar to that of a pond, planning ahead and prevention. In a pond, you can decrease the chance of issues by gauging current levels and responding quickly, by adding rocks and other things to create more turbulence, by cleaning debris off the surface, and by aerating the water. Similarly, in a company or organization, you can gauge where things are by actively getting feedback from the lower reaches, by adding things that will help both the company and employees to succeed, by actively removing anything that is causing issues or preventing you from fixing issues, and by deliberately adding to resources, opportunities, incentives, and guidance.

~Bethany Davis
Caer Illandria Enterprises

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