Are you a resilient jungle dweller or complacent zoo resident?

In my previous post I introduced the analogy of a jungle vs a zoo as a way to make sense of the complex contexts we face and the ordered organisational structures and processes we tend to create. In this post I want to explore this analogy further, looking specifically at resilience.

Zoos seem to be places that breed complacency … as long as you are satisfied with monotony and routine, they’re pretty safe and comfortable places. The cages protect but also completely constrain the behaviour of the animals inside. Predators have no need to hunt; antelope or other “prey” animals are kept in separate enclosures, so there’s no need for them to be situationally aware or “street wise”. Besides internal squabbles for dominance, animals have little agency and a conflict-free existance.

There is no need for learning and adapting and therefore virtually no opportunity for evolution or renewal; change is either introduced intentionally (zoo management deciding to reorganise the zoo layout) or it is forced upon the system from the outside. It’s a peaceful and safe, but monotonous existence — until the external context unexpectedly shifts …

Whenever a war breaks out (e.g. the US invasion of Iraq) or a natural disaster strikes (e.g. Hurrican Katrina) stories circulate about zoo animals in dire need of rescue. In times of crisis the very structures that used to provide certainty and safety become a deadly threat. And even if some of the animals were to escape, many would not survive outside their enclosures as they were conditioned to be dependent and never learned to fend for themselves.

Jungles on the other hand are not very safe places. There are no fences to separate predator and prey; jungle dwellers must be savvy and adaptive in order to survive. The variety and interconnectedness in this environment create opportunities for continual evolution and renewal. Species learn to co-operate through symbiotic relationships and the jungle eco-system co-evolves with its environment. In most cases, jungles are able to survive disruptive events, even if survival entails a fundamental transformation from one state into another.

If one considers the typical organisation, whether a corporate, a university or government: are they resilient like jungles, or vulnerable and fragile like zoos? Besides the unrelenting politics, I don’t see much evidence of jungle-thinking in most organisations; mostly I see complacency based on the seeming stability created by traditional organisational structures and strategies. Change and renewal is often resisted in an effort to cling to the perceived certainties.

I like how Diego Espinosa, Prof. Finance at the University of San Diego describes the “zoo dweller mentality … he says (and I paraphrase):

Our personal relationship with uncertainty is fundamental to being human, yet over the last 30 years we’ve begun outsourcing it to certainty merchants.

Besides our organisational structures and cultures, I also wonder about the role that modern parenting and education styles play. If we relentlessly protect our children from failure, hardship and discomfort are we not creating coddled zoo dwellers who will never survive in the jungle of the real world? Karen Arnold, a researcher at Boston College recently followed 81 top high school performers (valedictorians and salutatorians) from graduation onward to see what became of the “leaders of the academic pack” once they leave school. One might expect these “cream of the academic” crop students to be world changers and impact makers, but that is not the case. One of the key findings of her research is that schools reward students to consistently do what they’re told — i.e. they teach them to comply with rules and not challenge what they’re taught.

Arnold says “ … we are rewarding conformity and the willingness to go along with the system”. Most of the subjects of the study were classified as “careerists” — they saw their primary objective as getting good grades and giving teachers what they wanted, not as learning.

Like zoos, schools and today’s typical organisation have clear rules; life, like the jungle, doesn’t. If all you know is how to get ahead by following instructions and not rocking the boat, you won’t survive very long in today’s VUCA world.