The Zebra trick

It started when I, as a fed up project manager, once again filed my status report to the steering committee. It was green as always but red inside, just like a watermelon. Sometimes it went yellow but still no sign of support. I tested once with red and nothing happened. So I started to put yellow always as my way of saying I don’t trust the system but then I also added the zebra. The zebra was a sentence in the status report. Often in the risk section telling that we had no problems except for the zebra was loose again. Nowadays I don’t create these reports, instead I ask my managers to come and see instead of trusting status reports. But I have kept the zebra habit in my sessions and workshops to see if people are awake or dare to doubt me. In between two slides I flash my zebra for 0,5 seconds and then move to the next. Having done this zebra stunt now for at least 200 times I have just been challenged once* about what this zebra is all about.

Zebras not managed are signs of Psychological UNsafety and waste

/Ove Holmberg

When I do my team training sessions, Psychological safety always comes out in the beginning of my series of 10 to create great teams. Often Psychological safety is session four and at that point the team has seen the zebra four times without questioning it. As the last slide on the Psychological safety session I talk about the importance of speaking up and doubting what you hear and see and show the zebra and the reason for it. For the future sessions I still use the zebra but now people understand why.

The other dimension of the Zebra is waste. Most things are better today in the IT business but one thing has become worse and that is the cognitive load for where I can find information. In the 90’s we only had email and a file share and we knew exactly on what drive and folder or in what email the information was to be found. Today our information is spread over many tools like Jira, Confluence, Sharepoint, Teams, Jammer, email without any structure. The time to find information deep down in this cemetery of information is longer than for the actual work it’s related to and that is what we call cognitive load, slowing us down. When you don’t find the information you are looking for, you create it yourself and redo the work done and when people with great skills in building this structure capital leave the company, no handover is done, piling up the tombstones and creating waste.

Visit my Zebra hall of fame to see all other doubters that have joined the movement.


*) Updates to the hall of fame for observant people or/and doubters

  • Stellan Andersson
  • Christoffer Valgren
  • Musaddiq Khan

Ove Holmberg

Doubter, gaffer, author