Monkeys and Management


A few years ago while visiting a weird store in Seattle, I stumbled across a box of drink monkeys labeled “Who’s Got the Monkey”.  Underneath that title was the question: “How can these monkeys simplify management and increase your employees’ productivity?”

I picked up the box and flipped it over to read the back.  I mean, the front did its job well – it got me interested enough that I picked up the box.

The back of the box contained a passage from a Harvard Business Review article from Nov-Dec 1974 called “Management time: Who’s go the monkey?” by William Oncken Jr and Donald L. Wass.

My initial reaction was this box of drink monkeys and the accompanied article were a joke.  I bought the box thinking it would make a good gag at work.  I mean, managing employees using drink monkeys?  Really?

What I discovered was the fact this was indeed a real article.  Also, it is considered one of the most popular Harvard Business Review articles.  In fact Stephen Covey built on this idea later on adding gorillas to the mix.

So what is this magical article?  To summarize, it is the earliest ideas behind empowerment.  As a manager, employees bring you problems, or monkeys.  It is the natural tendency of the employee to bring their problems to management and leave the problem with the manager to solve.  The article suggests that managers empower the employees to own their problems through solution.

Use the drink monkey to symbolize the problem, and make sure when the employee leaves, they take their damn monkey with them.  A manager can give ideas, provide guidance, listen to ideas; but they are not to take the problem unless it truly warrants it.  And they shouldn’t go looking for monkeys either.

When I read about this more in depth, I laughed as I was reminded of a teaching technique Garbanzo was once given.  If a child comes to you with a problem or even a question, you should always ask “what do you think you should do about it?” or “what do you think the answer is?”  The idea behind it is that the kids know the answer – they lack the confidence to go with it, thus look to an adult for validation and confirmation.  If you have kids, try it out – it’s amazing to see what happens.  It even works on such questions like “my sister is driving me crazy” or “I’m bored.”

With this project at work, I have spent the past several weeks making sure monkeys leave with the person bringing them to me.  At one point today, I pulled down the drink monkey box, took one out, and handed it to the person who, for the fifth time, tried to dump their problems on me.

I will have to say – like doing this with my kids, doing this to people who work for me or with me is just as entertaining.  Try it out.  Seriously.  Next time someone who pesters you, who you are always answering questions for, comes to you with a question – ask them “what they think should happen”.  If you do it right, you don’t come across as a jerk.  And, you can be entertained as you hear the gears start turning in their head and they start answering their own questions.  True success comes when they stop asking you the stupid stuff.

If that doesn’t work, you can always try my other phrase – “Trust me, you don’t want me to solve this for you because I doubt you will like the solution.”  That one works for kids too.

Who knew being a parent would make managing people easier?  That and a box of drink monkeys.

Oh, and read the article from 1974.  Here is a link to it .  It’s quite relevant for anyone who has time management issues at work. Oh, and I love the rules for the monkey.  I use a few of them quite frequently when problem solving.  Sometimes people forget to include “kill it” in the list of possible solutions.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Just me... says:

    I’ve stolen your phrase (“Trust me..”) and it worked like a charm!!!
    Thanks!! :):)

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