May 29, 2019

“Yes and…” ECHO 2019 is a Wrap

The Zoo Advisors team is fresh off an invigorating four-day swing through beautiful Palm Desert, CA where we were proud to sponsor our fourth consecutive ECHO Conference. In the words of GLMV Architects (a long-time Zoo Advisors partner):

ECHO exists because zoos and aquariums are the world’s greatest mechanism to fascinate future conservationists. We strive to create an environment where participants can be immersed in curiosity and wonder toward the beauty of the natural world. By crafting collisions between a variety of ideas and creative people willing to take risks, then intentionally discussing and asking questions, we are able to enhance this tremendous vision.

28 conference participants from dozens of zoological facilities all over North America convened to hear from several industry outsiders:

Dr. Wendi Dykes and Dr. Jillian Gilbert facilitated discussions on two important topics: Maximizing the Cross-Generational Workforce and Building Creative Confidence through Design Thinking.

In the first of these seminars, the group heard from our facilitators about an important issue that hits close to home with any senior leader from a large organization: how to coalesce a multi-generational team around common goals. At this very moment, there are five discreet age-groups in the workforce, each with their own motivations, work styles, priorities, and communication styles.

In our second seminar with Doctors Dykes and Gilbert, we had a crash course in design thinking, a fresh approach to problem-solving that requires flexibility and challenges us to simultaneously unlearn and relearn; and to effectively improve processes with two magic words: “YES, AND.” Participants learned how a collaborative approach to idea-building starts with acceptance of our colleagues’ perspectives (YES), and building on them with our own (AND). For example:

“We could improve our meetings by moving them outside…”


“We should have a new meeting facilitator every week.”

Nina Simon (Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History; Founder of OF/BY/FOR ALL) shared her revolutionary vision on community building and engagement; and also delighted conference attendees with her firebrand perspective on how to pick (and win) the right fights.

In her first session, within the context of her experience and wild success at reinvigorating a once flagging arts organization, Ms. Simon gave us an approachable strategy for creating an organization that is accessible to our communities: OF/BY/FOR ALL. At its core, this grassroots approach to organization-building incorporates the full spectrum of a community by ensuring that constituents of all stripes are represented and empowered from the start: community members should be represented in a real way on our staffs and boards, and partnerships with local organizations should be deeply ingrained into the creation of our programming.

In taking this approach, Ms. Simon increased attendance to her organization by an order of magnitude, but she also made a few powerful enemies. In her second session, by aligning allies and saying goodbye to nay-sayers, she taught us how to pick and win the fights that really matter. One of the groups’ favorite takeaways from this session was the concept of “bless and release.” Instead of spending time and resources trying to change the minds of people who aren’t on board with a bold new direction, give yourself permission to cut ties and accept that you can’t win them all.

Ms. Simon also introduced the concept that great leaders need to be great “space makers;” in order for their organizations to succeed, they need to create space for their teams to take big risks and fail, and to explore big ideas.

One attendee made the astute observation that the ECHO conference itself acted as a space maker for AZA executives: if only for a few days it freed them from their daily operational obligations in order to take a step back and really think about some fresh, new approaches. By the end of the conference, attendees made real, concrete plans to transfer their learnings back to their organizations to take some risks and create change.

The Zoo Advisors team is grateful for the opportunity to spend a few days in the desert with some of the profession’s brightest minds, and we hope to see YOU there next year! Huge thanks to the whole team from The Living Desert, who were gracious and generous hosts to the event.

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