This is the age of a Culture of Innovation. As Peter Drucker famously observed “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and it has now absorbed innovation into its clutches as well. There are many great books on the topic of Innovation Culture and the ones in this list are certainly worthy of a read; they contain some amazing approaches, tools and techniques you may choose to explore and adopt as you look to build your own culture of innovation. I wanted to share a slightly different perspective on this, and it is something that was inspired by a totally unrelated story about trophic cascades and the wolves of Yellowstone National Park in the US.

I do not specifically recall how I came to be watching a YouTube clip on the wolves of Yellowstone park entitled ‘How wolves change rivers’. The story it tells is fascinating, but what really struck me is the story is a great metaphor for the struggles and challenges organisations face as they strive to build or adapt their innovation culture.

The wolves of Yellowstone park: A metaphor for innovation culture?

The wolves of Yellowstone are a great example of a trophic cascade (bear with me on the link to innovation culture!). A trophic cascade is an ecological process that starts at the top of the food chain and tumbles all the way down to the bottom. They occur when predators in a food web suppress the abundance or alter the behaviour of their prey, thereby releasing the next lower trophic level from predation.

To cut to the end of the story (spoiler alert!), the reintroduction of a small number of wolves into Yellowstone National Park changed not only the ecosystem but also its physical geography and, most notably, the behaviour of the rivers. In this metaphor the rivers represent organisational culture, and so begins my fable (poetic license is at play, but the basic facts are present as I understand them!).

In the mid-1990’s the established order in Yellowstone National Park was not working. The powers that be (let’s call them the board) wanted to change the park and ensure the park’s ecosystem, stakeholders (the resident animals), infrastructure and office space (the landscape of the park), suppliers (other enabler animals), and the wider culture (the rivers) were all part of this change. They embarked on a process of transformation, hoping to change the park for the better.  This began in 1995 with the re-introduction of a small number of wolves into the park. It seemed like a good idea, but in reality the board had no real idea quite how significant a change their actions would bring.

Until they were purposefully reintroduced there had been no wolves in Yellowstone park for 70 years. The loss of this predator of the top of the food chain had had a significant impact on the ecosystem and the land within Yellowstone: the resident deer population thrived, they grazed away the vegetation and left much of the land bare.

As organisations, when we embark on a change programme we look to bring in some form of change manager. In the case of Yellowstone, the change manager was the wolves. Change is best enacted from the top and re-inserting a predator at the top of the food chain was a sure fire way of delivering meaningful change.

As organisations when we seek to change culture, we often bring in outside people, a consultant or contractor, who is given the almost impossible task of planning and then implementing change. Their task is made all the more challenging when these individuals or teams have very little understanding of the organisation or true power to enact change. Additionally, we typically do not think about change being driven top down (quite the opposite in many cases) and yet there is stark evidence that leadership behaviour significantly influences the impact and effectiveness of culture change programmes.

By injecting change managers who were focused on their task at the top of the food chain, the board truly set the wheels of change in motion. Within a short timeframe, the impact began to be felt on the overall organisational culture (the rivers) of Yellowstone as the trophic cascade initiated by the reintroduction of wolves at the top of the food chain led, demonstrably, to a radical change in the physical behaviour of the rivers inside the park. They began to meander less, erosion reduced and in some cases even reversed, channels narrowed, pools formed, the flow of the rivers were radically impacted by the wolves.  The organisational culture that we had no idea how to change, had been dramatically impacted by a change at the top of the food chain.

Of course the story isn’t that simple, and that isn’t the entirety of the metaphor. Having jumped to the conclusion, let’s go back to the beginning and follow it chronologically through to the outcome. In our organisation we have brought in new leadership (the wolves) who think differently and are not afraid to let others know it. They are new to the organisation, but it is not an unfamiliar land to them and they have set about things as they are trained to do.

Their first actions were instinctive, focusing on the managers within the business, the resident deer population. The wolves had to exert control over the deer population and earn their respect; some fell prey to the change, others had to manage their behaviour to manage through the change. As a result, the deer started to change the places they went and grazed. As management started to adapt their behaviours this effected the whole environment, causing some of the flora and fauna to regenerate, trees to grow back, birds to return and the environment to change significantly.

At this stage core culture isn’t being changed, but the early foundations for trickle down change are being put into place. Innovators are starting to emerge and this invites in other ecosystem engineers. At Yellowstone, these ecosystem engineers were the beavers that came back in to the food chain. These are critical players in the culture change process, they create niches for other archetypes (species) to operate in. For example, the beavers built dams that provided habitats for other mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish and therefore these species also began to return to the park.

The wolves not only caused a change in the behaviours outlined above, they also had to drive a more ruthless change in some of the more resistant parts of the business. But the wolves knew only one approach and they soon took care of the tricky coyotes. With these blockers tamed and in some cases removed, the wider ecosystem continued to change apace, more ecosystem enablers, such as rabbits. came to the park, which in turn led to more hawks, foxes and badgers. Ravens and bald eagles came to feed on the carrion that the wolves had left, as did bears for this and the berries on the new trees. The whole park was changing beyond recognition from where it had begun. And so, in time culture also changed significantly.

The rivers changed in response to the wolves.  As the regenerating forests stabilised the banks, they collapsed less often, meaning the rivers became more fixed in their course. Similarly, by driving the deer from certain areas they reduced the erosion of the banks from their feeding and drinking habits. The park now felt in balance, with the right mix of different stakeholders, doing more of the ‘right’ things, and with a greater level of control, process and hierarchy, but also freedom, openness and vibrancy to support ongoing change and adaptability.

This is not a seamless metaphor, and it is not intended to be. I watched the video with keen interest and took the messages as I watched to translate it to the narrative here. The story of the wolves of Yellowstone is a true story, and it really does hold many parallels with the struggles around organisational change and culture I see every day.