Of jungles and zoos

A few days ago I posted a tweet that garnered a bigger response than I thought it would. It read:

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

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

I believe this metaphor might also explain all the changes we are now starting to see in organisations: 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 for the amusement of others (or sometimes to help preserve the species).  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 …).  Zoos are ordered places where animals are categorised and kept according to the species they belong to … all the antelope together, all the primates, all the predators.  Because of this artificial order, there is no need for animals to be alert and situationally aware as they’d need to survive in the jungle.  There are no hunter and prey relationships, no competition for resources, so complacency and lethargy soon set in.  Animals born in captivity, who only know and understand this context will not last long out 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 resemble 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 many organisations:  controlled environments, people neatly arranged people by function, and preferably all behaving more or less the same (aligned to our list of values on the wall).  When these silos we create become problematic, our solutions often involve trying to find more effective categories … often simply creating new silos, rather than encouraging a jungle-like and messy web of relationships.

Our silos (I won’t even mention cubicles!),  like the cages in the zoo, is an effort to control behaviour and reduce complexity by creating homogeneity and a closed environment.   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” and linked to that new and better way of incentivising the animals to keep performing because zoos aren’t particularly inspiring places, besides their food and other treats, there’s nothing much to motivate animals to be “engaged”.

So 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 internal zoos we’ve created , that we attempt to cage our clients as well.  Most segmentation efforts are all about creating predictable categories that will allow us to predict their buying behaviour, what marketing messages they might respond to and hopefully what will make them loyal to our company.  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, and we need to find another new set of categories … and on and on it goes.

If companies are serious about becoming client centric, they are going to have to venture out of their neat and safe zoos and learn how to thrive in the messy jungle, where the customers live.

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