Monkeys – a reflection on how we do things

Keith August 7th, 2008

Start with a cage containing five monkeys.

Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it.  Also, set up a system of cold water sprinklers over the whole cage.

Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs to climb towards the banana.  As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the monkeys with cold water. The monkey will leave the banana alone and try to get away from the water.  Turn off the spray.

After a while, another monkey will make an attempt with the same result. Pretty soon the monkeys will get sick of getting wet, and will stop any of the monkeys from attempting to climb the stairs, even though no water sprays them.

Keep this up for several days.

Now, remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one.

The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. Even the previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm. Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth.

Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked.

Some (and eventually all) of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the monkeys in the cage have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana.

Why is this?

Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been done around here…

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This story appears in a few places on the web – one is on the Wow Zone site.

The thing that I would really like to know is whether or not this was ever performed as a real experiment, or if it has only ever been a thought experiment.  Either way, though, it seems to be a powerful illustration of the pitfalls in standardised work practices and bureaucracy.  This is another topic that Shugg wrote about recently, too.

When will we learn to keep a constant eye on the things we do to ourselves in most organisations?

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