Monkey Business

Probably less than five times in my life I’ve read something that stunned me, which made me realise I’d uncovered an insight into a problem I’d wrestled with for years. One of those five times was with the delightfully titled book The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey.[1]

I believe there are now 18 books in the One Minute Manager series. I read the original, The One Minute Manager, soon after it first appeared in 1982. I was thrilled by its simplicity, insight, and practicality. So were many others. It has sold over 15 million copies, been translated into 47 languages, and described by Time magazine as one of the 25 Most Influential Business Management Books.

The One Minute Manager books typically involve dialogue between a storyteller and a perhaps fictitious leader that everyone called the ‘One Minute Manager’ because he got great results from his people with apparently little time and effort on his part. The books are littered with smart sayings or questions, such as this one early on in The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey: ‘Why is that some managers are typically running out of time while their staffs are typically running out of work?’ When I read that, it landed with a thud in my thinking. Yes, why is that true? It made me read on.

The book begins with a description of the storyteller’s frustration that even when he worked extra hours every weekday and all weekend, he could never get on top of all his work. It seemed he was doing more but accomplishing less. Getting desperate, he attended a time management seminar, which made him more efficient, but that increased efficiency merely made room for more work. His staff always seemed to need something from him before they could move on further with their work.

When the storyteller met with the One Minute Manager and poured out his troubles, he was soon made aware that he was the problem. Or, more specifically, his problem was MONKEYS! These are not monkeys who live in a jungle or zoo. Rather, the One Minute Manager’s definition of a ‘monkey’ was ‘The Next Move’. To explain what that means, the One Minute Manager gave the example of walking down a hall, and being stopped by one of his staff who wanted his input on a problem. He likes solving problems, but that discussion lasted for half an hour. Now the One Minute Manager is late for a meeting, so promises to think about his colleague’s problem and get back to him later. So, what happened there? Until the hall meeting, the monkey (next move) was on his staff member’s back. During the discussion the monkey was on both backs. By the time they parted, the monkey had moved from the subordinate’s back to the manager’s back. No longer was the next move the subordinate’s problem, it was his boss’s problem.

The One Minute Manager points out that two things can be assumed: 1) the matter being considered was part of the staff member’s job; 2) the staff member could and should have offered solutions to the problem. Thus, what the manager allowed during the hall conversation was for him to do two things his subordinate was expected to do: 1) accept responsibility for the problem; 2) promise to bring forward a progress report, in his case to his subordinate. In other words, they had switched roles: the manager took on the worker’s role, and the worker took on the supervisor’s role. Unsurprisingly, the worker now follows up on his boss to see if he’s made progress, and thus pressurises him to do more on what was actually his job.

The example of role-reversal triggered several examples from the storyteller of how he had acquired ‘monkeys’ from his staff – tasks he’d taken off their shoulders and put on his own. Some were straightforward, such as Maria who enlisted her boss’s help because he had a better understanding of certain problems. Maybe he did, but he was now doing her work. He also described ricochet monkeys, for example criticisms from staff about Maria’s work and style because these things caused problems for them. They complained to the storyteller who promised to follow up and report back to them.

Then there was Ben, who was very creative, always generating new ideas, but poor at turning them into finished products. So Ben would submit proposal after proposal, many of which had potential, which he, the boss, would then try to do the work of turning them into viable projects.

These – and many more – should have been handled by the staff themselves. But in each case the storyteller manager had allowed the monkey to climb onto his back. The biggest part of his work overload were those monkeys. Because he was doing large parts of his staff’s work as well as his own, he’d begun to steal time from his personal life: exercise, hobbies, family, church, etc.

Eventually he had run out of time completely, yet monkeys kept coming his way. All he could do was delay, promising he’d eventually get to every task. He was procrastinating; his staff were waiting. Which meant no-one was progressing the monkeys.

What surprised the storyteller was what the One Minute Manager said next – that he had once had the same problem of overwork, except much worse. But then – out of desperation – he attended a time-management seminar. And there, thankfully, he learned about monkey management.

The seminar leader was Bill Oncken, and he told a remarkable story that paralleled the One Minute Manager’s situation near exactly. And what follows is the story that astounded me.

Oncken described working long hours but never keeping up. Early one Saturday morning he got ready again to head for his office, telling his disappointed wife and children that he was sacrificing himself for their sakes. The office was gloriously quiet, no-one else there, and he poured into his work. Finally he paused. His office window looked across to the neighbouring golf course, and there he saw his staff getting ready to start their round. Oncken said: ‘They were teeing up, and I was teed off!’ He looked down at all the work on his desk, and gasped. These papers were not his work; it was their work he was about to do. With a jolt as if struck by lightning, it hit him: ‘They’re not working for me; I’m working for them!’ And with four of his staff producing work but passing it up to him, he’d never get caught up. The more he did, the more they would give him to do. He wasn’t behind with his work.  He was behind with their work.

Oncken finished his story by relating how, after realising whose work he was doing, he fled from his office, drove home and spent the rest of the weekend with his family. That Saturday night he slept so deeply that twice during the night his wife thought he was dead.

By now, you’ll have grasped the core theme of The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey. I’ll stop summarising now, though I’ve given you only the highlights of just over one quarter of the book. I encourage you to get a copy and read it all.[2] It’s full of thoughtful insights and much wise guidance.

This blog post is the follow-up to my previous one on delegation. (See So, in what remains, I’ll add further comments on that subject, including some arising from points raised above.

Bosses must resist the temptation to go back to doing the fun work    The best managers are often people who’ve worked their way up through the ranks. They understand the issues at ground level, the place where the company’s work interacts with the concerns and wants of its customers. When they did that work, they performed well, so they were promoted and began overseeing the next generation of ground level workers. That is exactly as it should be, but it often leads to two problems.

  1. The leaders loved the down-in-the-trenches challenges of aligning products or services with customers’ needs and problems. It was tough but stimulating, and when it all went well generated a wonderful sense of achievement. Then they moved up the company hierarchy, and they lost that satisfaction. They’re sent reports of successes, but reports don’t generate gratification like they felt when they handled those contracts themselves. Therefore, managers face a massive temptation to dive back into the detail work their staff member should be handling. Such leaders tell themselves they’re just lending a hand, but their motives are suspect, and hijacking their subordinates’ jobs keeps them from their own work and deprives their staff of the experience and satisfaction which rightly belongs to them.
  2. The leaders I’m describing won their promotion to management by being good – really good – at their work. Perhaps they were the best sales person, or highest achieving accountant, or best machinist on the factory floor. Now, as managers, they see the workmanship of their staff and think, ‘I know the best approach’ or ‘I could do this so much better myself’ and, next thing, they’ve taken over the work. Again the result is that they’re neglecting their management-level work, and robbing staff members of the experience that comes only from trial and error learning moments.

It’s very hard for leaders to concentrate only on their own work, but they must.

There’s a real danger that a leader becomes a rescuer    The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey book defines a rescuer as ‘someone who was doing for others what they could do for themselves’. That has all the dangers I’ve just mentioned above, but also delivers a negative psychological verdict on their staff member’s work. When I rescued my two-year-old daughter who was out of her depth in a swimming pool, I did that because otherwise she’d have drowned. I had to save her because she couldn’t have saved herself. That’s exactly right. But what’s not right is taking over work someone is capable of doing. As the storyteller in the book says, when we do that we send the message to them they are ‘not okay’, that they’re so unable to handle a problem you have to take care of it for them.

They may not yet be as capable as their boss, but they’ll never have equal ability if the boss does their work.

 What if the staff member can’t handle the task you set?    In the last blog post I said delegation can happen only when someone is available and suitable. Here the issue is about suitability – a subordinate having the skills and experience necessary to do a job. If they don’t, and you still delegate to them, several questions are raised:

  1. Why are you delegating the job to someone who can’t do it?  If the task is outside someone’s skill set, they don’t fail. You do. Requiring them to do what you knew they couldn’t do is bad management. You have one less job in your in-tray, but the botched work of an inexperienced colleague will make everything worse. The badly done job won’t please you, or your boss, or your client. In fact, the client may move their work elsewhere, and you may soon be working elsewhere too.
  2. Why didn’t you know what your staff member was capable of doing?  Let me be charitable that you didn’t intentionally cause your colleague to fail. I’ve seen that done in order to have a reason to fire that person. It was not only wrong but also cruel. But, let’s assume you simply didn’t know the person’s capabilities. Well, you should have. If there’s a good reason why you can’t know their skills – such as when someone has only just joined the company – then either don’t delegate to them yet, or delegate only light tasks and gradually make them more substantial as you discover what they can do.
  3. What if they are capable but simply didn’t do the task or turned in sloppy work?  A case like that needs care. What if there’s some crisis at home for that employee? Or they’ve just been diagnosed with a serious medical condition? Or this poor piece of work is a complete exception, and everything else they’ve done has been very good? We need to think about Issues like these before we react. But let’s assume you have every reason to believe your staff member didn’t care, or gave scant attention to the task, or pretends they didn’t understand what they were supposed to do. I’ve known employees like that, guilty of culpable ignorance or culpable inability. Given the position they held, they should have known what to do and be able to do it. So, when work is either not done or done badly, that’s not a time to pretend it doesn’t matter, nor should we avoid confrontation by taking the job back and doing it ourself. One of the other One Minute Manager books makes it clear that if it takes two people to do what should be done by one, then someone is unnecessary. With your incompetent employee, you may wish to give another chance; you may be required to issue an official warning; you may be allowed and deem it necessary to bring their employment to an end. Whatever is appropriate, do it. Avoiding the issue is the worst of outcomes.

So, to finish, three last quick statements about delegation:

Anyone who tells you that delegation is simple doesn’t know much about delegation.

Done well, delegation puts the right work in front of the right people, which is good for job satisfaction and excellent workmanship.

Never feel guilty at giving work away, but you are guilty if you take work away from the person who should be doing it. That’s not good for you, nor productive for your business.

I wish you well in delegating wisely and often.

[1] Blanchard K, Oncken Wm, Burrows H (1990), The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, London: Harper Collins Publishers.

[2] At the time of writing, it’s available in paperback for £6.99 in the UK, and used from $4.39 in the USA where the paperback version no longer appears to be for sale.