Ask a dozen people the animal in Africa that is the most efficient hunter. The most popular answer would likely be some member of the cat family. But, the stats on cats are flat—leopards only 10%, lions working alone 17%; and, as a pride or team, 30%. Even the cheetah, the fastest animal on the planet, only is successful half the time.
The most efficient hunters are a pack of scrawny, painted African wild dogs. Over eighty percent of all their hunts end in a meal. So, what’s the difference? And, more importantly, what can we learn that would be relevant for service providers? I recently watched a short documentary created by the High Performance Organization Center in the Netherlands that sparked my interest in learning more about the secrets of wild dogs success. Of particular interest was a BBC Documentary on YouTube.
Here are three takeaways and their implications for innovative service.
They Exude Collective Happiness and Passion
Watching a few YouTube videos on African wild dogs reveals a family of animals with a noticeably high morale. They encourage in obvious ways. They are committed to each other. “They are the most enthusiastic animals,” says Rosie Woodroffe of London’s Institute of Zoology. She has studied this animal for over twenty years. “Other predators may be bigger and fiercer, but I would argue that there is nothing so enthusiastic as a group of wild dogs,” she states. “They live the life domestic dogs wish they could live.”
My wife and I walked in the front door of an all-night diner and were welcomed by four people, each doing their specific job. There was no need for a greeter—everyone had proudly won that role. An upbeat waitress got our drink order as we studied the colorful menu. When my wife indicated to me she did not see the precise entre she was hoping for—a BLT on whole wheat with a yolk-less fried egg on top—the waitress at the next table remarked, “Mam, we can create whatever you can imagine!” After we placed our “let’s break all the rules” breakfast order, two different waitresses checked to make sure all was well. It was as if we were the responsibility of every employee in the restaurant.
Finishing our great breakfast I stepped to the cash register to pay and instantly heard, “I got it!” as a waitress completely unrelated to our table took time to ring up our order. There were clear role definitions in this “house of teamwork”, but it was clear that everyone was in charge of the customer’s experience! As we made our way to the front door to leave, four different employees including the short order cook on the grill thanked us for coming in.
Wild Dogs Are Generous, Not Greedy
Most wild animals fight among themselves over the spoils of the hunt. There is an obvious and savage “all about me” component to their association following a conquest. Larger or stronger animals get the choicest organs, leaving the smaller or weaker diners with only leftovers. African wild dogs share their spoils, gorging at the kill and then regurgitating food in the den for the young, old, and those too weak to participate in the quest. Puppies eat first; adults last.
I was making the rounds in the “back of the house” with the general manager of large hotel renowned for innovative service. Approaching a housekeeper emptying a trashcan, he proclaimed, “There is Mrs. Clean!” He turned to me and said, “You’ve heard of Mr. Clean; well we are lucky to have on our staff, Mrs. Clean!” The middle-aged woman laughed and smiled. He put his arm around her. Tears welled up in her eyes. It was obvious she was touched by the affirmation, especially in front of co-workers and a guest. It was also clear this was not the first time she had been publicly applauded by her boss’s boss’s boss.
Great service teams, like African wild dogs, take good care of those in the den and not just those on the hunt. The affirming role is not just the responsibility of leaders; it is a duty of all team members. It is the team on the ball field thanking the batboy or the performers on the stage expressing gratitude to the crew behind the curtain.
Wild Dogs Are Thoughtful in Their Collective Work
They work as a partnership of equals with a common mission and a plan that integrates unique skills. Lions are loners that only come together for a hunt. They rely on DNA and brute strength. Their actions are massed and not organized. African wild dog attacks are planned and closely coordinated using techniques they teach their young rather than relying solely on raw instinct. They communicate on the hunt via quiet calls and bird-mimicking twitters only heard by their large-eared pack mates.
“Hi, I’m Kelly. I’m on Elena’s team. I have all your information in front of me. How may I help you, Chip?” These words started my second conversation with Dell Computer after buying a laptop from Elena. But, I was actually expecting this precise occurrence.
Dell Computer’s Elena set up teamwork from the beginning. “Chip, I want you to have my direct extension. But, if I am tied up with another customer, you’ll always get one of my team members who will have your information in front of them. And, if you call in with the number you are using right now, we will be able to have your account information on the screen as soon as you begin the call. And, they’ll always let me know what they did to serve you.”
African wild dogs plan their hunts. They use great handoffs and synchronized back-ups. Their strategy is not grounded in strength or speed but in cunning and organization. It is the same with great service teams determined to deliver innovative service. They anticipate so they can be proactive; rehearse so they can be prepared.
Innovative service requires great teamwork. It entails an enthusiastic commitment to serve. It requires taking care of the support people who may not be “at the hunt.” It takes training and preparation. And, it involves celebrating as team, with an attitude of generosity.
It seems lately that in the name of effectiveness, businesses have tried to emulate the activities and processes of the natural world. “Gee, if a pack of wild dogs can demonstrate the power of teamwork so compellingly, why can’t we?” Of course, even after we watch the videos with awe and wonder, we go back to the office and realize that pulling off what animals and simpler organisms do naturally is really, really hard. I think we can get to the level of efficient, well-choreographed teamwork, but like you point out, it takes a fine blend of selflessness and commitment, along with the ability for everyone, especially those at the top of the organization, to check a lot of their ego at the door before they go in.
It occurs to me that Blaise Pascal said it best when talking about human beings. What did he say? He said: “Custom is our nature”. What did he mean by that? That there is no essence – as in fixed immutable essence to human beings. Therefore, the way human being show up depends on the customs of the tribe they find themselves brought up in and living amongst.
Given this, what really matters is how are folks brought up (their culture). And the culture (as in embodied practices) in which folks work. I am not the smartest of men. Yet I do know this: if you bring people up in an individualistic culture, where competition is norm, and one is someone if one is number 1, at the top. Then calling forth genuine spontaneous collaboration-teamwork is a hard ask. Further, if the rewards systems are set up so that it is the individual who gets rewarded on his individual contribution then the kind of behaviour you are talking about is impossible – or close to it.
Ever wondered why after all the talk, all the training courses, the tools, all the pop psychology, there is so little genuine collaboration-teamwork? And how little improvement there has been – if there has even been an improvement? The answer is that you cannot bring folks up to compete, put them in the arena where they are expected to compete with one another, and then expect them to cooperate!
Then again, who said folks are rational. Stupidity is the norm – the larger the organisation the greater the stupidity.
All the best
Thanks for your comment, Rubin. Leaders can find inspirational and instructive models to emulate everywhere–from Super Bowls to battlefields. But the test of a great leader is the zeal to grow, the willingness to change, and the drive to stay the course. As you suggest, it means placing the wellness and success of the enterprise over the stimulation of ego and the expansion of personal net worth. Herman Miller CEO Max DePree wrote in his book Leadership is an Art, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last job is to say ‘thank you.’ In between the two, the leader must become a servant…”