It’s hard to survive in the jungle if all you know is the zoo

I recently posted a tweet that created an unexpected enthusiastic response. It read:

“It’s hard to survive in the jungle if you were trained in a zoo”

Virpi from BusinessIllustrator.com kindly created this visual for me.

I love using metaphors and analogies to explain the concepts I work with, like the difference between complex (jungle) and complicated or obvious (zoo) contexts. This is one of several that I’ve played with over the years, and I’ve been pondering why it seemed to resonate so widely.

I believe this analogy speaks to some of the trends we are seeing in new management and organisational paradigms in the world of work: the need for agility and responsiveness, experimenting with new organisational forms like holacracy; abandoning performance management to name a few. In this post I want to explore the structural differences between a zoo and a jungle, after that we’ll explore other differences such as the nature of change etc.

Zoos are unnatural, ordered environments where animals are kept in cages in order to protect them, or for the amusement of others. In this controlled world, life is predictable … cages are cleaned regularly; animals are fed once or twice a day; the enclosures keep animals apart (much like silos in modern organisations …). Because of this artificial order, there is no need for animals to be alert and situationally aware (as they’d need to be in order to survive in the jungle).  There are no hunters or prey, no competition for resources: complacency and lethargy soon set in. Animals born in captivity, who only know and understand this context will not last long in the jungle or African savanna.

In the current global socio-economic context with seemingly endless disruptions and volatility, the business context is much more jungle than zoo. However, the typical large organisation (politics and predatory leadership aside) more closely resembles a zoo. Predictability and homogeneity are the ideals we strive for; controlled environments where people are neatly arranged by function and are preferably behaving in prescribed ways (aligned to our list of values on the wall).  When our silos become problematic, we re-organise, trying to find more effective categories …  simply creating new silos, rather than encouraging the messy coherence of we find in the jungle’s interconnected web of relationships.

The result is that we’ve ended up with siloed organisations filled with complacent, cynical and disengaged employees who have become “domesticated” to such an extent that they simply do what they’re told or what they’re measured on. This may have been acceptable when people weren’t expected to bring their creative selves to work and mostly had to engage in routine work; but now, in a world where automation and AI are replacing these kinds of roles, it simply won’t do.  In this so-called creative economy, we need inspired, creative and thoughtful employees. We need people who are situationally aware, able to spot risks and opportunities and make wise decisions.

So seductive is the perceived order and predictability of the organisational zoos we’ve created, that we attempt to cage our clients as well. Most segmentation efforts involve creating simplistic categories that will allow us to supposedly predict consumer behaviour.   Problem is that clients are inter-connected and savvy jungle creatures; they don’t conform to our categories. When our segments no longer work, the typical approach again is to find new, better categories — maybe segments based not on demographics but on values or behaviour. Until that doesn’t work anymore either, and we need to find another new set of categories… and on and on it goes.

If companies are serious about becoming client centric and retaining their talent, they are going to have to venture out of their neat and safe zoos and learn how to thrive in the messy jungle.  This is not an easy task however, as we well know, simply releasing zoo animals into the wild will soon lead to their extinction.  So what can we do:

  • if change is required, stop focusing predominantly on training people to think and behave differently.  This certainly has a place, and it’s important, BUT we can send people on jungle skills training till the cows come home, if we put them right back into their cages we’ve wasted our time and money.
  • make an honest assessment of the work environment you are creating – the physical spaces, processes (e.g. performance management) and culture.  Is that environment conducive for the emergence of innovation, resilience and agility, or is it overly constraining like the zoo?
  • create an evotionary change plan to transition from zoo to jungle – to simply open the cages won’t work.  Based on the honest assessment of the current state, what small experimental steps might we take to move to an adjacent possible?  Maybe we can create larger, more messy enclosures?  Or transitionary, adaptive spaces between zoo and jungle as Mary Uhl-Bien talks about.
  • There might also be areas in your context that need to function like a zoo e.g. compliance or highly regulated environments.  Here the question is how to make sure those areas are humane, and not isolaged, cut off from the rest of the organisation.

I believe this conversation is going to become increasingly important as automation and AI become greater realities in our work places.  As machines take over the legitimately zoo-like spaces in our organisations, the ability to help people transition from zoo to jungle becomes ever more important.

I offer thinking partnership services to people in organisations who need to deal with complex issues like these. Feel free to contact me to find out how to scedule a couple of sessions.  I’d also love to hear your thoughts on the metaphor and how it might (or might not) apply to your organisation.

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