Culture is an interesting outcome of people interacting in specific environments and can be difficult to influence. The Organisational Zoo metaphor provides a simple way to understand culture as an outcome of:
(i) What animals you have in the zoo
(ii) Where they are in the hierarchy and
(iii) How they interact with each other.
The Zoo represents the organisation and each animal an individual behaviour (not a person as a whole). People are far too complex to put into a “box”. They behave differently in different contexts, sometimes automated (instinctive) and at other times somewhat deliberately. All organisations have an overall stereotypical culture, which in reality is the combination of many smaller subcultures. As you drill down through specific contexts, different behaviours are displayed resulting in variation on how the collective accept some behaviours and not others depending on the situation.
We can come to understand this better as we analyse the types of behaviours and how those involved categorise them according to context. A useful exercise to understand your (sub)culture is to determine which animals you prefer in each of the following categories:
• Expected (this behaviour is considered absolutely required in this context)
• Desired (we would like to have this behaviour if possible)
• Tolerated (prefer this was not displayed)
• Not tolerated (this behaviour is disruptive in the context and likely to lead to conflict)
Participants are asked to include twenty of the Organizational Zoo animals (place five cards into each of the four categories). In doing so, they engage in a rich exchange of perspectives of the impact of each animal on outcomes and performance. They often disagree and with good facilitation, insights into why this diversity exists and impacts each animal has in each category can generate terrific understanding between the people involved. This exercise has been done in a range of cultures/countries using a range of groups and every time it generates positive outcomes: participants learn from each other and have fun whilst disagreeing!
One key learning that often comes out is why cultures have clashes (see photo). Where two cultures (or subcultures within one organisation) have similar animals in the expected and desired categories, they are very compatible and cross fertilisation of ideas seems easy. There is a strong sense of common identity and willingness to engage with each other as indicated by the green zones. Cross overs between desired and tolerated between the cultures are inconvenient at times and can create some tension, but these can be managed with competent leadership. However, if there are some animals that are expected in one culture and not tolerated in another (red zones), there is a lot of tension and if not managed well, ultimately leads to conflict and culture clashes.
The Zoo metaphor cards can be used to highlight such potential issues early in the formation of teams (such as acquisitions, mergers, new projects…). If such constructive dialogue is facilitated before tensions are allowed to escalate into issues, agreements on ways of interacting can be forged. However, if such conversations are not facilitated (or done badly), the underlying tensions build into an explosive crisis, after which resolution is extremely difficult. When this happens, trust and collaboration seldom develop causing derailment and destroying performance.
Often, it is not the conversations that DO happen that are most damaging. Its those that should have happened but didn’t (or did so too late and or with the wrong behaviours).