Of jungles and zoos

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”

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 metaphor might resonate especially with those of us who champion new management and organisational paradigms in the world of work. It also speaks to some of the trends we’re seeing: the need for agility and responsiveness, experimenting with new organisational models 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 preserve 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 is no hunter 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 real world.

How does this relate to the business world? Certainly, in the current global economic climate and with seemingly never-ending disruptions and volatility, the business world is very much a jungle. However, the typical large organisation, politics and predatory leadership aside, probably more closely resembles a zoo (or at least we try our best to make them so). Predictability and homogeneity seem to be the ideal we strive to create in our organisations: controlled environments where people are neatly arranged by function and are preferably all behaving more or less the same (aligned to our list of values on the wall). When these created silos we become problematic, we try to find more effective categories … often simply creating new silos, rather than encouraging a jungle-like messily coherent web of relationships.

Our silos (I won’t even mention cubicles!), like the cages in the zoo, exist to control behaviour and reduce complexity by creating homogeneity and closed environments. OD & HR professionals spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find new and better ways of categorising, a direct result of which is the so-called “matrix organisation”. Linked to that are new and better ways of incentivising the “animals” to keep performing because like zoos, many organisations aren’t particularly inspiring places. Besides food and other treats, there’s not much else that can motivate, engage or inspire creativity.

The result is that we’ve ended up with siloed organisations filled with complacent 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 the creative economy it simply won’t do. Now we need inspired, creative and thinking employees. We need people who are situationally aware, who are able to spot risks and be pro-active. In addition, all indications are that the younger generation now entering the work force are jungle dwellers, millenials don’t do well in cages. So if companies want to attract and retain future talent, they are going to have to start creating new and different structures and ways of working.

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 are about creating simplistic categories that will allow us to predict buying behaviour, what marketing messages will yield the best response and create loyalty programs to lock them in. Problem is that clients are jungle creatures, who have an uncanny ability to ignore our categories. Again, the typical response 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, where talent can thrive and where real customers live.

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