I want to get really good at being a fast zebra. The metaphor comes from Leading Outside the Lines, Jon R. Katzenbach and Zia Khan’s book on working with the informal organizational structure. According to Mark Wallace (former US ambassador to the United Nations), fast zebras are people who can absorb information and adapt to challenges quickly. The authors explain, “On the African savannah, it is the fast zebra that survives a visit to the watering hole, drinking quickly and moving on, while the slower herd members fall prey to predators lurking in the shadows. The fast zebra is, in essence, a person who knows how to draw on both the formal and informal organizations with equal facility.”
It seems like a business cliche – who wouldn’t want to absorb information and adapt to challenges quickly? – but Katzenbach and Khan go into more detail. “They help the formal organization get unstuck when surprises come its way, or when it’s time to head in a new direction. They have the ability to understand how the organization works, and the street smarts to figure out how to get around stubborn obstacles. They draw on values and personal relationships to help people make choices that align with overall strategy and get around misguided policy. They draw on networks to form teams that collaborate on problems not owned by any formal structure. They tap into different sources of pride to motivate the behaviors ignored by formal reward systems.”
Like the loneliness facing early adopters, fast zebras can feel isolated. Identifying and connecting fast zebras can help them move faster and make more of a difference.
I can think of many fast zebras in IBM. People like Robi Brunner, John Handy Bosma, and Jean-Francois Chenier work across organizational lines to make things happen. Lotus Connections and other collaboration tools make a big difference in our ability to connect and self-organize around things that need to be done. They also provide informal channels for motivation, which is important because this kind of boundary-spanning work often doesn’t result in formal recognition (at least in the beginning).
The book describes characteristics of organizations that successfully integrate formal and informal structures, and it has practical advice for people at all levels. It also has plenty of stories from organizational role models. My takeaway? Harnessing the informal organization and helping people discover intrinsic motivation for their work can make significant differences in an organization’s ability to react, so it’s worth learning more about that. Recommended reading.
Leading Outside the Lines
Jon R. Katzenbach and Zia Khan
Published by John Wiley and Sons, 2010