How to Sustain Innovative Change by Enrolling Others

When you involve staff members from all departments in new experiments, it’s easier to shift your organizational culture.

Flamingos at the Lincoln Park Zoo.
A group of flamingos at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

This is the sixth and final installment in the Chicago Chronicles, which share reflections from the Lincoln Park Zoo team’s experience in the EmcArts New Pathways program. 

When Lincoln Park Zoo was chosen to participate in the New Pathways for the Arts program, my colleagues and I were energized and intrigued – but also filled with some trepidation. We didn’t know what to expect or what “real” work would come from this undertaking.

What have we gotten ourselves into?

Now that we have completed all six workshops, I’m pleased to note that our team – now down to three zoo staff members – has bonded and grown as we strive to share our learnings with others. Our on-site coaching sessions gained incredible traction and elicited vows from our team members to find ways to use the concepts and approaches that we learned in the New Pathways workshops.

A key focus of this last session was examining organizational culture, which is the biggest factor in the ability to be innovative and to embrace risks associated with change. The goals of our final workshop were to:

  • Explore the relationship between organizational culture and strategy;
  • Identify aspects of current and desired culture; and
  • Consider actions to accelerate change and enroll others.
Bradford Veley courtesy of Cartoonstock.
Bradford Veley courtesy of Cartoonstock.

Change is good – but also a little scary

Heading into this workshop, we were fresh from our fourth on-site coaching session with our facilitator Melissa Dibble, which we spent talking about culture among our team at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Being a 145-year-old institution, we have a hierarchical structure and formal processes and procedures. We respect our traditions and value ethical behavior and excellence. But we are eager to poke at some closely held assumptions and shift our culture to fully embrace an exceptional guest experience.

As part of our on-site coaching sessions, we created three teams to experiment with how to enhance the guest experience. The first group polled staff members to determine if their employee orientation reinforced that excellent guest service is part of everyone’s role at the zoo, regardless of whether you are an accountant, an animal keeper or a gift shop attendant. They also reviewed job descriptions to see if this was explicitly stated as a duty (and discovered that, in many cases, there was no mention of the guests except for descriptions of an educator or Guest Services employee).

Learning, evolving and growing

The second group tested guests’ desire to peek behind-the-scenes at the zoo by hosting a lunch event with an animal keeper. When that didn’t draw any guests, we tweaked our experiment and put keepers inside barriers of animals’ spaces and had them take questions from guests. We further enhanced the experiment on the third day by placing an educator with the keeper to interpret the activity and answer inquiries. Guest response was incredibly positive and confirmed that people in uniform doing something – anything! – draws curious guests and provides a chance to talk about our care of animals and conservation initiatives.

The third group built upon recent research that shows our audience is shifting, and that nearly 40% of our guests are visiting for the first time. We used signage by the zoo map and QR codes to give more guidance to these newbies, and guests responded by scanning codes and learning more about how to enjoy the zoo experience.

You CAN teach an old dog new tricks!

In just four short coaching sessions, we started to shift the zoo culture. Our 20 colleagues from across all disciplines worked together to conduct experiments, test closely held assumptions, and tweak what we offered the zoo visitors. Success! We were energized to delve more deeply into our organizational culture to see how we can continue to shift from a stable, controlled organization to one that is more of an “adhocracy” that allows us to be flexible and nimble.

The three of us individually completed the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument and (without looking at each other’s work!) plotted nearly identical maps of how we perceived our organization’s culture. We’re on the lower end of the scale when it comes to market-like or competitive tendencies, but we scored higher towards a clan or collaborative culture. (You can learn more about this scale in the ArtsFwd Tipster on 4 types of organizational culture.) People who work at the Lincoln Park Zoo tend to share a common bond with a living collection that draws us together and creates deep loyalty and longevity. But we do have lots of rules and procedures – often to ensure safety for animals, workers and visitors – and we value smooth operations as we serve 3.5 million guests each year.

Looking towards an adaptive future

The three zoo innovation team members in the New Pathways program modeled a new future that maintains our organization’s clan-like culture while pushing towards an “ad-hoc,” creative culture that rewards bold innovation. Right now, we are wary of taking too many risks – especially given that we offer free admission and have to maintain specific cash flow from guests, members and donors. But as we approach the future, we are eager to grow and change the way that our animal facilities do. Our flock is ready to spread its wings and soar.

Although our formal work through the New Pathways program has concluded, the zoo’s leadership team and others throughout the organization are committed to growing and building our adaptive muscles. We have demonstrated that in a short amount of time – and with a small cohort of staff – we can make meaningful changes that enhance our guest experience. Through this process, we have learned how to identify adaptive challenges and how to use them to make us more responsive and more nimble.

Christine Zrinsky is Lincoln Park Zoo's Vice President for Development.