I love using metaphors and analogies to help make complex ideas accessible. “It’s hard to survive in the jungle if you were trained in a zoo” or a variation “It’s hard to respond to a jungle if you are structured like a zoo” has been particularly effective to help people understand the difference between complicated and complex contexts.

I believe it resonates because it aptly describes not only two different kinds of systems, but also explains much of our lived experience in modern organisations. Many of us are keenly aware of the mismatch between most organisations, which if we are honest, resemble zoos, and the messy jungle-like nature of the markets they try to serve.

Let’s explore the differences between a zoo and a jungle and some implications.

Zoos are unnatural, ordered environments where animals are kept safely in enclosures (some closely mimicking the animal’s natural habitat), grouped according to specific categories. Zoos have their place; they play an essential role in the conservation of endangered species and in education. However, they are not resilient, and they are fundamentally different contexts when compared to natural ecosystems.

In the controlled zoo world, life is pretty predictable: enclosures or cages are cleaned regularly; animals are fed once or twice a day; even breeding is controlled. The enclosures keep animals apart (much like silos in modern organisations), so there is no need for animals to be alert and situationally aware as they’d be in the jungle, as there is no immediate threat to their survival. There is no predator-prey dynamic here, no competition for resources: so complacency and lethargy soon set in. Animals born in captivity who have been habituated to this context will not last long in the jungle.

How does this relate to the business world?  Do our work and markets fit into neat categories or are they more like messy tangles?  Are our environments closed to outside influences and controllable and predictable, or open, hard to control, and unpredictable?  After the last two years, I doubt anyone would disagree that the world we live in is much more jungle than zoo. However, the typical large organisations still resemble zoos (or we try our best to make them so).

Even with the disruption of large-scale remote work during the pandemic, little has changed. The silos are still there; the control mechanisms in some have increased, not decreased. Predictability and homogeneity seem to be the ideal we strive for: controlled environments with neat, orderly categories and functions and people who behave in similar, desirable ways (aligned to our list of values on the wall). When these configurations (let’s call them silos) become problematic, we try to find different configurations, i.e. we restructure and create new silos rather than embracing a more jungle-like messily coherent web of relationships.

As many companies expect their people to return to physical offices now, interesting dynamics have become visible. One clear pattern is that many people have become “rewilded”. They have tasted the freedom of life outside their zoo cubicles, and they have no desire to return. Companies with hybrid mandates are losing key staff and find themselves unable to attract talent. Companies like Airbnb, which are fully remote, are inundated by job applications, while others (even the likes of Apple) struggle with disgruntled and resentful employees.

Looking back at what happened in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, we simply took the zoo and made it virtual. We never went to the trouble of rethinking and redefining work, structures, incentives etc., for the jungle. We ended up with a virtual, distributed zoo.

The result is that organisations are still caught in outdated structures and linear, reductionist ways of thinking that don’t enable the effective flow of value or the collaboration that complex challenges require. One effect of this is high levels of disengagement and burnout, zoos might be safe and predictable, but they are not particularly inspiring and motivating. In these contexts, jungle dynamics often play out inside the enclosures, with internal politics and power play. A cynical view of the current push for a return to the office is that many senior managers miss the physical “trappings of status” like preferential parking spaces and corner offices. It’s hard to see “who’s who in the Zoo” when we are all reduced to little blocks on a Zoom screen.

The reality is that the fast-changing and dynamic context we now operate in requires engaged and empowered workers across all levels of the organisation. Decision-making is no longer limited to the C-suite; the role of senior leadership has shifted to curating contexts where better decisions can be made by those closest to the decision context.

In addition, we need people to bring their creative selves to work. The challenges we face require imagination, curiosity, and diverse perspectives. Instead of focusing on getting people back into their controlled enclosures, leaders should focus on creating enabling environments where people can show up with :

Courage to challenge the status quo; Openness to learning and unlearning new ways of thinking and working; the ability to Observe and respond to emergence; and the Lightness of play, imagination, and curiosity.

What a year this week has been. If a pandemic and looming climate change weren't bad enough, now we have the trauma and the socioeconomic ripple effects of war (and possibly a looming world war). It is becoming harder to answer what used to be a simple question: how are you doing? One of the best answers I've heard came from one of our clients who responded with a telling analogy: it's like popping corn in a pot with the lid missing.

It feels never-ending … COVID, floods, fires, unrest. And now a war. Here in South Africa, we have the prospect of our fuel prices doubling with knock-on effects on basic costs of living; already crippling rolling electricity blackouts, affectionately (NOT!!) known as"load shedding", and an economy teetering on the brink. Pop …Pop … Pop … and there is no way to predict what will pop next.

For a large part of the world population, this is nothing new - life without privilege and a continual fight for survival have always been tenuous. They may frown when we talk of the VUCA world, for them, it is just their world. But for those who have lived more sheltered and privileged lives, a new anxiety-provoking dawn has arrived. In the large organisations we work with, people on all levels are anxious, stressed, and fed up. For them, on top of all of this, people need to navigate the complexities of hybrid work, returning to the office, retaining talent, innovating, receiving feedback … Pop … Pop … Pop …

Covid, while traumatic and challenging, came in semi-predictable waves. The war, on the other hand, seemed to happen literally overnight. I, for one, am experiencing not only profound fatigue in the present but also "future fatigue." Suddenly thinking about the future is simply depressing and exhausting - it is tough to imagine a better future than the present.

So what can we do? While I have no answers to specific dilemmas, one thing I do know: we need to shift from fatigue to fitness. Like an athlete who practices in preparation for a marathon, we need to prepare for the uncertainty and disruption we face in an unknown future. We need to become Future Fit, Change Fit, and Complexity Fit. It starts with practicing COOL:

  • Courage - to face the unknown, let go of the familiar, stand up for what we believe is right, set boundaries, and practice self-care.
  • Openness - to engage with difference without judgment, bridge divides rather than widen them, face reality, learn and unlearn, and find space in ourselves that is open to hope even in these dark times.
  • Observing - noticing and becoming more aware of our external context and internal responses. To pro-actively look for and notice ambiguity and multiple perspectives; to zoom in to the detail and out to the systemic whole. Observing reality from multiple perspectives, in order to be "response-able" not simply reactive. 
  • Lightness - last but not least. When darkness feels overwhelming, we cannot afford to lose sight of beauty and what makes us human. To laugh, play, imagine, make music, connect, this is where we can reconnect with being human, trust our hope, replenish and recalibrate.

If you and your team need to reset, reconnect and replenish, get in touch to learn more about our COOL Team Re:Set workshops.

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