The most request article published by the Harvard Business Review is on Monkey Management.  All Directors become familiar with managing monkeys, even if they don’t know that they are doing it.

Below is an excerpt covering Monkey Management from our  book:

Management Time:  Who’s Got the Monkey?

By William Oncken, Jr., (former CEO, The William Oncken Company of Texas, Inc. and Donald L. Wass (former President, The William Oncken Company of Texas, inc.) (Adapted from an article in the Harvard Business Review as an analogy that underscores the value of assigning, delegating and controlling.)

In any organization the Director’s bosses, peers, clients and staff – in return for their active support – impose some requirements; just as the director imposes some requirements upon them where they draw on his support. These demands constitute so much of the director’s time that successful leadership hinges on an ability to control this “monkey-on-the-back” input effectively.

Why is it that directors are typically running out of time while their staff is typically running out of work?  In this article, we shall explore the meaning of management time as it relates to the interaction between directors, their bosses, their own peers, and their staff. Specifically, we shall deal with three different kinds of management time:

Boss-imposed timeto accomplish those activities which the boss requires and which the director cannot disregard without direct and swift penalty.

System-imposed time– to accommodate those requests to the director for active support from his peers. This assistance must also be provided lest there be penalties, though not always direct or swift.

Self-imposed time– to do those things which the director originates or agrees to do. A certain portion of this kind of time; however, will be taken by staff and is called, “staff-imposed time.” 

The remaining portion will be your own and is called “discretionary time.” Self-imposed time is not subject to penalty since neither the boss nor the system can discipline the director for not doing what they did not know the director had intended to do in the first place.

The management of time necessitates that directors get control over the timing and content of what they do. Since what their bosses and the system impose on them are subject to penalty, directors cannot tamper with those requirements. Thus their self-imposed time becomes their major area of concern.

Directors should try to increase the discretionary component of their self-imposed time by minimizing or doing away with the ‘staff’ component.  They will then use the added period of time to get better control over their boss-imposed and system-imposed activities. Most directors spend much more staff-imposed time than they even faintly realize.  Hence we shall use the analogy of a monkey-on-the-back to examine how staff-imposed time comes into being and what the superior can do about it.

Where is the Monkey?

Let us imagine that a director is walking down the hall and the he notices one of his teachers, Jones, coming up the hallway. When they are abreast of one another, Jones greets the director with, “Good morning.  By the way, we’ve got a problem.  You see…”

As Jones continues, the director recognizes in this problem the same two characteristics common to all the problems his staff gratuitously brings to his attention.  Namely, the manger knows (a) enough to get involved, but (b) not enough to make the on-the-spot decision expected of him. Eventually, the director says, “So glad you brought this up. I’m in a rush right now.  Meanwhile, let me think about it and I’ll let you know.” Then he and Jones part company.

Let us analyze what has just happened. Before the two of them met, on whose back was it?  The teacher. Now whose back is it on? The director. Staff-imposed time begins the moment a monkey successfully executes a leap from the back of a staff member, to the back of his superior and does not end until the monkey is returned to its proper owner for care and feeding.

In accepting the monkey, the director has voluntarily assumed a position subordinate to his staff. That is, he has allowed Jones to make him the subordinate by doing two things a subordinate is generally expected to do for a boss: the director has accepted a responsibility from his staff, and the director has promised a progress report.

The staff – to make sure the director does not miss this point – will later stick their head in the director’s office and cheerily query, “How’s it coming?” This is called, “supervision.”

Or let us imagine again, in concluding a working conference with another staff, Johnson, the director’s parting words are, “Fine. Send me a memo on that.”

Let us analyze this one. The monkey is now on the staff’s back because the next move is his, but it is poised for a leap. Watch that monkey. 

Johnson dutifully writes the requested memo and drops it in his out-basket. Shortly thereafter, the director plucks it from his in-basket and reads it.  Whose move is it now? The director. If he does not make that move soon, he will get a follow up memo from the staff. This is another form of supervision. 

The longer the director delays, the more frustrated the staff will become (he’ll be “spinning his wheels”), and the guiltier the director will feel (his backlog of staff imposed time will be mounting).

Or suppose once again that a meeting with a third staff member, Smith, the director agrees to provide all the necessary backing for a fundraising campaign he has just asked Smith to develop.  The director’s parting words to her are, “Just let me know how I can help.”

Now let us analyze this. Here the monkey is initially on the staff’s back, but for how long? 

Smith realizes that she cannot let the director ‘know’ until her proposal has the director’s approval.  And from experience, she also realizes that her proposal will likely be sitting in the director’s briefcase for weeks waiting for him to eventually get to it.

Whose really got the monkey?  Who will be checking up on whom? Wheel spinning and bottlenecking are on there way again.

A fourth teacher, Reed, has just been transferred from another classroom in order to launch and eventually manage a newly created after school program. Thedirector has said that they should get together soon to hammer out a set of objectives for the new job, and that “I will draw up an initial draft for discussion with you.”

Let us analyze this one, too.  The staff has the new job (by formal assignment) and the full responsibility (by formal delegation), but the director has the next move.  Until he makes it, he will have the monkey and the staff will be immobilized.

Why does it all happen? Because in each instance the director and the staff assume at the outset, wittingly or unwittingly, that the matter under consideration is a joint problem.  The monkey in each case begins its career astride both their backs. All it has to do now is move the wrong leg, and presto the staff deftly disappears.

The director is thus left with another acquisition to his menagerie. Of course, monkeys can be trained not to move the wrong leg. But it is easier to prevent them from straddling backs in the first place.”

This is just the beginning.  Now that you have seem some monkey scenarios, you need to learn the 5 rules to managing monkeys.  This is one of our favorite manager trainings to do.  Identifying, quarantining and managing monkeys is one of your most important jobs, if you want to get any work done.

     For your Monkey Management Training call Carrie at (512) 748-4788     

     For your Monkey Management Training call Carrie at (512) 748-4788