life in the jungle

How can you survive in the jungle when you live in a zoo?

“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.” —Sonja Blignaut

In our efforts to tame complexity we constantly look for ways to simplify decision-making. It’s why best practices and case studies are still popular, despite their uselessness. It reminds me of a client who proudly declared that his company was a ‘fast follower’. Followers in the jungle are eaten or survive as scavengers.

I have looked at this phenomenon from several perspectives and have incorporated other views, such as from Niels Pflaeging and Esko Kilpi. All of these perspectives have some things in common:

  1. Order and structure do not help us deal with complexity.
  2. To get work done we still need to constrain it.
  3. Formal structures are effective at accomplishing set and understandable objectives,
  4. Formal structures are not good at dealing with complexity.

I advocate temporary, negotiated hierarchies to get work done. These are what Esko Kilpi calls ‘Flash Networks’. These need to be temporary so people can reform into different groups, according to the situation. The real value is ‘in the jungle’ as Sonja Blignaut states, “clients are jungle creatures, who have an uncanny ability to ignore our categories”.

The challenge is to survive in the jungle. Pop-up zoos (temporary, negotiated hierarchies) may be a solution. Short-term informal communities can function as game preserves to develop skills necessary for the jungle, but in a safer environment. The challenge for an organization is to have a flexible enough structure to let people move in and out of the jungle. Keeping them in the zoo destroys their jungle instincts and disconnects them from their clients.

I am riffing on a theme here, and posting my half-baked ideas as I make sense of them.

Follow up post — hunters in the jungle

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