September 19, 2016

Jungle vs Zoo - Reflections on change and resilience

In my previous post I introduced the analogy of a jungle vs a zoo to help us make sense of the complex contexts we face and the often ordered organisational structures and processes we tend to create.  In this post I want to explore this analogy further and look specifically at how change and resilience from the two perspectives.

Let's first look at a zoo: under normal circumstances, change is a pretty linear process in a zoo.  Zoo management decides for example to change the layout of the animal enclosures and after some planning they "roll out" those changes.  The cage participants aren't consulted on how they feel about the change, it is simply forced on them.  They might sulk or throw minor tantrums, but in the end they simply have to adjust to their new environment.  Change is seen as something that is "managed", and even if it sometimes proves to be a complicated logistical process, eg. creating temporary enclosures, hiring design experts, construction teams etc, linear project plans and change best practices are usually adequate to handle it.  Also, because zoos are highly siloed and ordered places, changing one enclosure has very little impact on the others.  In essence the zoo can be revamped and optimised by using a linear, reductionist approach ... one enclosure at a time.  Doesn't this approach sound familiar?  Think about the way office moves or restructurings are typically planned and implemented in large organisations ...

In a jungle however, everything is interconnected.  Change is not something that can be mandated or managed, it is a natural, non-linear and co-evolutionary process.  Jungles are open, interconnected systems with emergent properties i.e they are more than the sum of their parts.  In contrast to the zoo, they cannot be optimised by optimising parts, and small changes in one part could cause massive unintented consequences in another.  Unlike zoos, jungles aren't closed or siloed - they are open systems that co-evolve, both internally and with their environment.  For example, they need a certain climate to thrive, but over time they also create microclimates that influence the local climate.  Internally, co-evolution shapes the local bio-diversity of the jungle; for example,  trees in denser jungle canopies can't use the wind to spread their seeds, so they have to rely primarily on animals for dispersal and pollination. Because insects are primary flower pollinators, many plant and insect species co-evolved together and now have intimately interlinked life cycles.  Sometimes up to 30 unique species of insect may be dependent on one species of tree, and in turn that species of tree may be dependent on several others species to complete its life cycle (e.g. bats or insects for pollination, birds to disperse seeds).  If the critical tree, bat or bird is removed from the system, it may therefore cause many others to die out as well.

If one were to see an organisation more like a jungle than a zoo, it would therefore radically change how we think about change in our organisations, especially when it involves culture.  In any but the most technical of changes, we could no longer treat change as a project that can be managed, but rather as a natural evolutionary process.  Also we'd need to realist that every small intervention could potentially impact on the whole system, even if it directly involves only a small part.  We'd need to look at creating enabling environments where positive behavious change can emerge or evolve naturally, rather than trying to mandate it centrally.  This may seem counter-intuitive, even daunting, and it might seem easier to simply continue with our familiar zoo-like change recipes, but at what cost to our organisational resilience?

In both zoos and jungles, the external environment may sometimes force disruptive change on the system e.g. a natural disaster like a drought, flood or fire.  A jungle normally has enough resilience to survive such a disruption, even if it may be fundamentally transformed by it.  A zoo on the other hand has very little resilience.  Because everything is centrally controlled through governing constraints, when an external disruption like a flood or hurricane comes along, the animals are unable to fend for themselves and the entire zoo's survival is threatened.

In the face of disruptive and continuous change, I have been assisting many of my clients to build change resilience as a core capability across the organisation vs simply finding new and different change management methodologies. A key question for your own organisation is: when (not if) disruption comes, will your organisation be resilient like a jungle, or vulnerable like a zoo?

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