Managing Monkeys

Much of a manager’s time is taken up by problems subordinates bring to them. This subject was brilliantly addressed in 1974 in the second most popular article ever published in the Harvard Business Review – “Management Time – Who’s Got the Monkey”? In this context, monkeys are a metaphor for problems.

This is my summary, adaptation, and homage to this brilliant article, with apologies to the original authors. It is aimed at people who manage others: those whose ability suggests they have mastered monkey handling and have been given a bigger task – managing gorillas.

Managing a Monkey is Easy

A subordinate brings you a problem and using your experience you give them a solution. You feel great and the person has the solution or decision they need. Problem solved?

The next time that person has a problem, they do the same. Why bother thinking for themselves and taking a risk when the boss will do it for them? And anyway, the boss needs to know about all these problems – she insists on being involved in everything and loves problem solving. She likes monkeys!

But Managing Lots of Monkeys Creates Fallout

When lots of people bring you their monkeys, dealing with them becomes a major problem for you. The fallout is massive. Part of the problem is some people like to think that taking on monkeys is heroic: look at how many monkeys I can manage. Bring them on! This is not heroic: it’s stupid.

You don’t have time to do what you should really be doing: colleagues don’t develop their problem solving skills and the team, department or company slows down to the pace with you can deal with all these monkeys. Even worse, people now have a reason for failing: the boss didn’t solve my problem or make a decision quickly enough. Accountability goes out of the window.

But Managing Lots of Monkeys Creates Fallout

You have to change. No one else – just you!

You need to work out what your role really is. What are the big issues – the gorillas that you need to deal with. Be careful you don’t confuse big monkeys with gorillas. They may be big but they are still monkeys.

Now you know what you should be doing. The next time someone brings you their monkey; ask yourself “Is this a
monkey or a gorilla?” If it is a monkey, tell them to go and sort it and whatever they decide you will support. If it’s a gorilla; schedule a time to deal with it but don’t seek to give an instant answer. Gorillas need considered handling and react badly to knee jerk responses.

This is scary for people brought up as monkey handlers but don’t forget, you have been promoted to deal with the kings of the jungle.

Keeping the Jungle in Order

By getting out of the business of monkey handling, you will find the jungle becomes a better place. Monkey handlers become more confident and come up with great ideas. The whole team become more productive and creative. There is a positive buzz about the place. Even better, they recognise how good you are at helping them manage the monkeys and, now that you have the time, what a whizz you are at managing gorillas .

You are now focused on managing gorillas effectively but from time-to-time you know it is important to keep an eye on the monkeys. If people try to pass the same monkeys, why is that? Do the monkey handlers need training? Is there something wrong with how you have designed the process, organization or metrics?

Everything in the jungle is rosy!

David Jackson has been involved in building customer focused companies since 1989 as consultant, author and practitioner. He is currently CEO of TheCustomer.Co and Director of Customer Success at Lead Forensics. He was a founder and CEO of Clicktools, a supplier of SaaS survey and feedback products, which he sold in 2014.

David Jackson

Director of Customer Success, Lead Forensics

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