Operational Management: It’s a zoo out there

By Mandy Dube
Sep 19 2018

Mandy Dube: BroadReach, Program Director of Integrated Decisions and Analytics Support (IDeAS)

Mandy Dube is the Program Director of the Integrated Decisions and Analytics Support (IDeAS) program based at BroadReach’s Lusaka, Zambia office. Mandy is a public health professional, and is part of a growing group of women leading major technology transformations. She is breaking down barriers and fostering team communication with the help of three unlikely animals – a moose, an elephant and a whole flock of ducks. She shares how she introduced them to her team to foster a new sense of teamwork and collective purpose.

I joined BroadReach in June of this year. When I started, I considered that the team I was inheriting would be used to doing things in a certain way – and that I might need to work with them to do things differently to increase our effectiveness as an organization. So, I tried to think of how I could make changes to ways of working without pushing people away – and without making them feel that I was discrediting current practices.

I asked myself questions like: how could we create an atmosphere of collaboration to support change? and, how could I inject a sense of fun and ensure a safe space during times of change?  I decided to get creative introducing three props as mascots for the changes we needed to model. We have been using their essence to create a stronger, more unified team culture.

Making a moose of it

When thinking about how to broach difficult situations, I recalled a previous colleague who had told me about a novel communications approach. He told me that if someone needed to have a difficult conversation with a co-worker they would put a moose on their desk.  Why a moose? Well because when a moose sees headlights, it freezes.  So, if someone needs to have a hard conversation with you, you need to stop, listen and understand before you respond.  ‘I have a moose with you,’ became a team saying: meaning that a tough conversation was needed.  This device removes some of the uneasiness that both parties may feel in giving and receiving constructive criticism.  It fosters respect while adding a lightness to an otherwise difficult conversation.

The elephant in the room

I thought I would try this with my team and went out and bought a toy moose.  While at the toy shop, I also saw a toy elephant and an idea started to percolate!  We needed to find a way to facilitate awkward group conversations where a topic has been ignored for some time. So, I bought the elephant as well and have used it in meetings when everyone is skirting around a central issue.  By taking out the elephant, my team now have an easy way to show that they are taking the initiative and being brave – addressing the elephant in the room.

Mighty ducks

I still needed one more prop up my sleeve, to speak to our technical development environment.  When coders run into a problem, it can help to talk it through, rather than trying to solve it in their head. I reasoned that developers could do with a prop of their own to speak to – rather than having to wait for someone to act as a sounding board.  So, I decided to give each developer a rubber duck. They can read their code line by line to the duck, and by talking through the problem, they often find that the solution becomes apparent. It teaches them that they have it in themselves to solve problems on the job, even if they end up asking for support, it helps to have walked through the process and to be able to discuss what they’ve tried. The duck helps them be less afraid of solving problems for themselves and it looks really cute sitting on their desk.

The props may seem trivial, but they are working as a tangible connection to our culture. The system has really caught on. Colleagues will pop into my office to say, “I’ve spoken with the duck and I’m not sure whether I have a moose or an elephant!” It is facilitating more constructive conversations across the organization. The moose, elephant and the ducks allow us all to externalize fears and concerns and ease potential workplace tensions, facilitating open and productive communication.