Using What You Learn at a Conference to Drive Continuous Improvement

For zookeepers, innovation is not just a buzzword—it’s crucial to ensuring the welfare and well-being of the animals in our care. Yet, despite the constant pursuit of new ideas and advancements, fostering a culture that embraces change can often prove to be a challenging endeavor. 

Keepers also tend to get stuck in a routine, and breaking those habits can be a big challenge for them and their leadership. Routines are called routines and, therefore, not conducive to innovative and dynamic animal care. 

Imagine returning from a conference brimming with excitement, armed with insights from discussions on innovative husbandry techniques. You’re eager to implement these newfound strategies to enhance the lives of the animals under your care, and you’re ready to break your routine. However, what happens when your enthusiasm is met with resistance and skepticism?

This scenario is all too familiar for many zookeepers, myself included. I vividly recall the frustration and disappointment of having a new idea shut down by my manager, who dismissed it as impractical and unfeasible. It was a stark reminder of the obstacles we face in advocating for change within established systems.

In this blog, we’ll delve into the complexities of fostering a culture open to continuous improvement, particularly within zookeeping. Drawing from personal experiences, insights from industry conferences, and valuable lessons, we’ll explore strategies for zookeepers and leaders to navigate these challenges effectively.

From sharing tips for effectively communicating ideas to offering guidance on creating an environment conducive to innovation, this blog aims to empower zookeepers and leaders alike to drive positive change within their organizations. By breaking down barriers, challenging assumptions, and embracing a collaborative mindset, we can pave the way for a future where continuous improvement occurs and animal welfare remains paramount.

My story

After a conference round table discussion focused on innovative husbandry techniques, I returned to my zoo with a mind full of possibilities. One particular revelation stood out—a zoo had successfully reduced pacing in their animals by allowing access to holding areas throughout the day. It seemed like the perfect solution for our pacing tigers. Bursting with enthusiasm, I approached my curator, eager to implement this newfound knowledge.

However, my excitement was met with a disheartening response. “That won’t work here,” my curator flatly stated. He expressed concerns about visitor complaints and the importance of our tigers as a draw for the public. At that moment, frustration and anger clouded my judgment. I accused him of prioritizing profit over animal welfare, and to bolster my argument, I exaggerated the extent of our tigers’ pacing behavior.

Regrettably, my embellishments eroded trust and credibility. Sensing the escalating conflict, my curator proposed a different approach—conducting a thorough study. He challenged me to explore alternative variables to address the issue of pacing, suggesting that giving access to holding might only be one piece of the puzzle. 

Reluctantly, I embarked on a year-long research project, ultimately discovering that each tiger responded differently to various stimuli. None of them responded most favorably to access to the reserve. You can watch more about the study and the impacts here

Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda

Reflecting on this experience, I realized the importance of managing my reactions and assumptions. I had the opportunity to affect continuous improvement culture but instead assumed an adversarial stance. 

Had I utilized the “respond vs. react” worksheet from my “Be a Better Keeper” course, I might have approached the situation more constructively. By challenging the story, I told myself—that my curator didn’t care about the animals—I could have recognized his genuine concern and willingness to explore alternatives.

Moreover, a collaborative approach could have fostered a more productive dialogue. If my curator had engaged in active questioning rather than immediate dismissal, we could have worked together to address his concerns while still exploring innovative solutions. 

Using the “1-3-1” method to identify the core issue—tigers pacing—we could have brainstormed multiple solutions and selected the most viable option, potentially expediting the process and avoiding a year-long study.

Ultimately, this experience taught me the value of communication, collaboration, and self-awareness in fostering a culture open to new ideas and change. By shifting from a mindset of “us vs. each other” to “us vs. the issue,” we can leverage our collective expertise to drive meaningful progress in zoo-keeping practices.

Driving Change as Zookeepers

If you want to make the most impact on your facility the next time you attend a conference. Here are some best practice tips to help drive change in your organizations. 

Before the Conference:

  1. Preparation is Key: Before attending the conference, schedule a meeting with your curator to discuss your goals and objectives for the event. Review the conference schedule and attendee list to identify sessions and speakers aligned with your interests and the zoo’s goals.
  2. Align Goals: Understand your curator’s goals for the conference as well. This ensures that your attendance benefits personal growth and contributes to the zoo’s overall objectives. If driving change is a goal for you, be honest about this with your curator. 
  3. Set the Stage: As you prepare for the conference, consider how you can set the stage for sharing your ideas upon your return. Research topics relevant to your interests and the zoo’s needs, and come prepared to engage in meaningful discussions with colleagues and industry experts.

After the Conference:

  1. Debrief with Your Curator: Schedule a post-conference meeting with your curator to debrief on what you learned and share your excitement about the insights gained. Invite their feedback and perspective on how the learnings can be applied within the context of the zoo.
  2. Share Key Takeaways: When sharing your ideas with your curator, focus on the key takeaways most relevant to the zoo’s goals and challenges. Provide concrete examples and case studies from the conference sessions to frame your ideas in a relatable context.
  3. Emphasize Benefits: Highlight the potential benefits and impact of implementing these ideas within the zoo. Communicate how the proposed changes align with the zoo’s mission, values, and commitment to animal welfare.
  4. Seek Collaboration: Approach the conversation as a collaborative opportunity rather than a one-sided proposal. Invite your curator to share their insights and concerns and work together to refine and adapt the ideas to fit the zoo’s unique context.
  5. Set goals. Identify some goals to help you and your curator drive organizational change. 

By following these tips, zookeepers can effectively share their ideas to increase the chances of adoption and foster a culture of innovation within the zookeeping community. Clear communication, collaborative engagement, and a focus on shared goals are essential for driving positive change and improving animal welfare.

Making Big Change: Breaking It Down

Remember that you can’t eat an elephant all at once. You have to do it in small bites. Here’s an excellent framework for making your big goals for driving change manageable. 

  1. Identify Excitement and Open-Mindedness:
    • As mentioned before, set a time to meet with your leadership. Reflect on what sparked the most excitement for you at the conference and why. Remain open-minded if your ideas aren’t immediately received well. Instead, embrace curiosity to understand your leader’s perspective. What insights or considerations might they possess that you haven’t considered?
  2. Setting One-Year Goals:
    • Based on the conversations and insights gained from the conference and in your meeting with your leadership, establish a few one-year goals. Ensure these goals are SMART—Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Remember, realistic goals are the key to success!
  3. Breaking Down into 90-Day Goals:
    • Take your list of one-year goals and ask yourself, “What milestones or progress must be achieved within the next 90 days to move closer to those one-year goals?” Set 2-3 SMART goals for the next 90 days aligning with your objectives.
  4. Scheduled Touch Bases:
    • Put regular touch-base meetings on the calendar, occurring every 90 days, between your leadership and yourself. During these meetings, address the following questions:
      • Did we accomplish our 90-day goals?
      • What valuable lessons did we learn along the way?
      • Are our one-year goals still SMART and aligned with our vision?
      • What actions must be taken in the next 90 days to progress toward our one-year goals?
  5. Iterative Process:
    • Rinse and repeat this process every 90 days to ensure continuous progress and alignment with your long-term goals. Regularly revisiting and refining your objectives creates a cycle of constant improvement and adaptation.

By breaking down significant changes into manageable, actionable steps and maintaining a commitment to regular reflection and adjustment, you can drive meaningful progress and innovation within your zookeeping organization. Embrace the journey of growth and discovery until you’re inspired again at the next conference.

Making Big Change in Elephant Welfare

Let’s use a real-life example from the 2024 ABMA conference to illustrate how big ideas can be broken down into bite-sized goals. 

  1. Identify Excitement and Open-Mindedness: Reflecting on Gerry Creighton’s presentation on elephant welfare, the concept of space as the next frontier for elephant habitats stood out. He emphasized the importance of habitats, which allow the matriarch to lead the herd and make decisions about daily activities. 

His insights into four-dimensional feeding strategies and the goal of minimizing keeper intervention were particularly intriguing. His ultimate message was to build elephant exhibits with these things in mind. While your average keeper has little control over when and how exhibits are built, they can still utilize some of the concepts to improve welfare. 

  1. Setting One-Year Goals:

One-year goal 1: Enhance Natural Behavior – Ensure that elephants exhibit more natural behavior due to their enriched environment.

One-year goal 2: Implement Four-Dimensional Feeding – Incorporate more opportunities for four-dimensional feeding into the elephants’ daily routines.

  1. Breaking Down into 90-Day Goals:

Goal 1: Enhance Natural Behavior—Make a list of specific natural behaviors exhibited by elephants in the wild (e.g., foraging, social interactions, exploration). Assess the current exhibit environment to determine areas for improvement in facilitating these behaviors. Start conducting observations to establish a baseline for the frequency with which these behaviors are witnessed. 

Goal 2: Implement Four-Dimensional Feeding – Research and develop various four-dimensional feeding strategies (e.g., scatter feeding, puzzle feeders, browse feeding). 

  1. Follow-up in 90 days: 

After your first 90 days, meet with your curator to review your list of

natural behaviors and new feeding strategies. Set the next set of 90-day goals. 

Zookeepers can begin implementing meaningful changes in elephant welfare by breaking down these one-year goals into actionable steps for the first 90 days. Embracing a collaborative and iterative approach, they can work towards creating environments that promote natural behaviors and minimize keeper intervention, ultimately enhancing the well-being of the elephants under their care.

How Leaders Can Foster Innovation

If you’re a leader in your organization, you help to foster innovation and encourage continuous improvement by being open-minded to new ideas. My philosophy is often “Let them.” Even if we’ve tried it before or I’m skeptical that it might not work, I encourage my team to test and to try and embrace the “let them” philosophy. 

Before the Conference:

  1. Set Expectations: Initiate a conversation with your team members before the conference to outline your expectations and what you hope they will learn and bring back. Discuss specific topics or areas of interest that align with the zoo’s objectives.
  2. Encourage Networking: Encourage your team members to network and make connections at the conference. Review the attendee list and suggest individuals they should connect with to enhance their learning experience and potentially forge valuable partnerships.
  3. Touch Base: Initiate a touch base with each team member after the conference to discuss their experience, insights, and key takeaways. Show genuine interest in their learning and encourage them to share their excitement and ideas.

After the Conference:

  1. Active Listening: Practice listening when your team members share their conference experiences and ideas. Demonstrate empathy and genuine curiosity by asking probing questions and seeking to understand their perspectives fully.
  2. Provide Constructive Feedback: Offer constructive feedback and guidance on how their ideas can be integrated into the zoo’s operations. Acknowledge the value of their contributions and offer suggestions for refinement or implementation. Take time to reflect on their ideas so you avoid shutting them down in the moment. 
  3. Create a Safe Space: Foster a culture of psychological safety where team members feel comfortable sharing their ideas and concerns openly. Create opportunities for two-way communication, such as implementing “two-way cards” where employees can write down their thoughts and questions for consideration.
  4. Follow-up: Remember that your role as a manager is to solve problems quickly and to support and empower your team members. Follow up with them regularly to check on their progress, offer support, and help them set goals for implementing their ideas.

By actively listening, providing constructive feedback, and fostering a culture of psychological safety, leaders can create an environment where new ideas are welcomed and encouraged. Embracing a collaborative approach and valuing the contributions of every team member are essential for driving innovation and continuous improvement within the organization.

For more insights on how managers can demonstrate practical listening skills, check out this resource: Listening Tips for Managers.

Harness Teamwork for Continuous Improvement

Fostering a culture that embraces continuous improvement is a necessity in zookeeping. Throughout this blog, we’ve explored the challenges and opportunities inherent in driving change within the zookeeping community, from effectively sharing ideas to creating an environment where new concepts are welcomed and encouraged.

Key points have been emphasized, highlighting the importance of clear communication, active listening, and collaboration between zookeepers and leaders. By preparing for conferences, engaging in meaningful discussions, and debriefing effectively afterward, zookeepers can maximize the impact of their learnings and ideas. Likewise, leaders are critical in creating a supportive environment where team members feel empowered to foster innovation and contribute their insights.

As we’ve discussed, initiatives such as implementing two-way communication channels and initiating touch-base post-conference can foster a culture of psychological safety and encourage exchanging ideas. By embracing these strategies, zookeepers and leaders can cultivate an environment where innovation thrives, and animal welfare remains paramount.

Readers are encouraged to explore additional resources, such as Collaborative Problem-Solving, to Further Enhance Their Collaborative Problem-Solving Skills and Drive Innovation. By applying the tips and strategies this blog discusses to their contexts, readers can drive positive change and innovation within their organizations.

Want to know more about our leadership coaching program so you can be a leader that promotes continuous improvement? Email us at lynnlee@animalsamplified.com

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