Do you ever look around at the monkeys in your “office” and check to see whether they are really all yours?
This book (The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, by Ken Blanchard) was written in 1990, and is definitely a bit dated in places, but it shares some valuable insights that all of us who manage others could benefit from reflecting on now and again.
It’s a short book and very easy reading. I read the whole thing in one afternoon recently.
The reason I picked the book up again was a mentoring conversation I had with a HR professional. The conversation focused on her willingness to help and yet the time pressure she felt trying to get everything done. I asked her if she was running a monkey zoo, which of course made no sense to her, so I explained…
Some of us are compulsive monkey-picker-uppers. We are natural rescuers. We see something that needs doing, that we know we could do, and we want to get it done.
In this book, a monkey is defined as “the next move required to progress something”. It could be what needs doing next to resolve a problem or make the most of an opportunity.
If you’re a team manager, you’ll have your own personal monkeys, but your team will have their monkeys too. People will come to you and talk to you about their monkeys, that’s natural and part of your job. But are you the kind of person who finds yourself saying “leave it with me” or “I’ll think about it and get back to you” and then you let that person walk out of the room monkey free? That’s how your metaphorical office becomes a monkey zoo - caring for monkeys that aren’t yours.
If you want a team who feel capable and responsible then make sure they care for their own monkeys. Just keep the ones that ONLY YOU can handle. All the others should be shared out within your team.
If you’re a new manager, you may be tempted to keep hold of someone else’s monkey just so you feel needed, or because you feel more comfortable with their monkey than yours. Be brave and let go, but do it safely (see below for the tips the book offers).
I think a lot of this applies to HR professionals too. How often do we offer to do things FOR managers, rather than enabling managers to do things competently and confidently themselves? HR teams should not run monkey zoos. We should listen, ask questions and facilitate problem solving - but the person we’re talking to should normally walk away with their own monkey still in their arms (not on our back!), and with a plan for how to care for it well.
The rules of monkey management tell us that when we talk to someone about a problem or opportunity then before the conversation ends we should:
Identify the next moves (name the monkeys)
Confirm who will act (assign ownership of each monkey)
Agree how risk will be managed (insure the monkeys)
Agree how progress will be reported (plan in some monkey health checkups)
The author states that if you run out of time in the conversation then someone needs to babysit until you can conclude the discussion.
Monkey insurance is all about creating a situation where people make only affordable mistakes. A positive work culture is one where people can try things and see what works and what doesn’t, but with a safety net and no blame-game going on. As a manager, you need to understand what the risks are with the next moves someone is going to make. What’s their level of competence here? What’s their confidence like? What are the potential consequences if they make the wrong choice? Do you want them to “recommend then act” or “act then advise”?
A former manager of mine taught me a lot by never giving me a straight answer to a question about what to do next in tricky situations, but instead asking me what I thought I should do. Then asking me what I predicted would happen if I did that. She was asking me to recommend, then only act once I’d thought it all through. Later in my career, I found myself working with people who were comfortable with me acting and then advising them of what I’d done.
Company success depends on monkey health - getting the next moves right in each situation. So we need to build in monkey health checkups.
As managers, we need to have oversight. We need to be aware enough of what’s going on across our area of responsibility to notice if monkeys get sick. We also need monkey owners who know when to ask for help, before they reach the point of needing us to act as A&E!
Regular monkey checkups are critical, but remember you are checking on the monkey not the owner. If you manage the monkeys (the next step tasks that need doing) then this should mean that the monkey owners (your team members) manage their own performance. But, this doesn’t mean that you just focus on tasks in all the meetings you have with your people. Personally, I recommend that you separate your 1-1s into two types - one sort is task focused (managing the monkeys) and the other ones are people focused, checking in with team members on how they are personally. I think you need both types for a successful team.
An interesting point made in the book, which I found quite insightful, is the need to sometimes make people give a “lack of progress” report. Don’t postpone the check-in because they say they haven’t done anything. Have the meeting and talk about why. It’s not about judging them, it’s about being curious and exploring the way forward together.
The last parts of the book focus on how you can reach a point where you can delegate effectively to team members, you can manage upwards effectively and you can build effective working relationships with peers, customers and suppliers. All of these help you get more discretionary time as a manager, to look to the future and to plan and make improvements.
For new managers, part of what’s sometimes needed is to replace the psychological rewards of DOING good work, with the psychological rewards of managing others to achieve results. How do you reach a state where you thrive from seeing your team be successful, rather than from doing the work yourself.
I suggest that us HR professionals need to think more about what we choose to do. How can we move more towards an enabling approach, letting go of our need to do things FOR people or control what they do (as otherwise it won’t be done properly...)? Monkey zoos are not efficient places and it’s draining to look after everyone else’s monkeys as well as your own.
Instead, let’s train and coach managers to own and care for their own monkeys. Then we can have great discussions, where managers leave the conversation feeling able to make the next move themselves, and where we feel happy to see those managers need us less.
So, an old book but some really relevant advice for managers and all those in roles where we help others solve problems.