Jingling keys at ostriches

Posted: 20th February 2017

When I was about 16 years old, long before I was interested in behaviour change and digital technology, I wanted to be a vet. In my quest for every kind of animal-related work experience I could find, I landed myself a summer job at the Welsh Mountain Zoo in Colwyn Bay.

The zoo had two ostriches that lived in a large enclosure with a hut and I went with one of the keepers one day to help him while he put some food down for them, and gave their hut a quick clean out.

As we walked, he told me that ostriches are huge flightless birds, that they have powerful legs, sharp claws and can be very aggressive and dangerous. They would attack a human, so they needed to be kept physically separated from visitors to the zoo with a high fence and a barrier. He also told me that they are utterly stupid. Look at the picture of the ostrich below. In comparison with the rest of the bird’s huge body, its head is very small. And its eyes take up most of the physical space in its head, leaving only enough space for a chicken’s egg-sized brain. As I said, stupid.


When we arrived near the enclosure he gave me a large, heavy set of keys and directed me to stand on the spot jingling them for the next few minutes. And not to stop.

As I jingled the keys the two ostriches first looked my way and then slowly walked to my corner where they could watch me through the fence. They were mesmerised by the jingling keys.

The keeper, with a bucket of feed in one hand, scaled the high fence, climbed down the other side, cleaned out the pen, distributed the food, and rescaled his way back over the fence. I reckon it took him about 6-7 minutes in total. The whole time, the ostriches were too busy being fascinated by the keys to notice any of the keeper's activity.

It’s an experience which has amused me ever since. It’s even influenced my work vocabulary. I call pieces of work “a set of keys” if I think they have been designed to dazzle, appease or distract a customer, stakeholder or senior executive, but where it doesn’t really offer anything more substantial or meaningful. I've seen this situation often, particularly in digital transformation, when the really good work is being done behind the scenes, in a slow meaningful and proper way, but at the front, in the spotlight, frills and tassels are being patched together fast in an effort to demonstrate progress. Bouncing glittery balls. Sets of keys.

Where am I going with this? My story of the jingling keys and the ostriches is just a funny story, and an example of where dazzling someone with something meaningless worked really well. But I’m betting your customers have brains bigger than the size of a chicken’s egg, and jingling keys can get tiring.


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