Managing the Monkey! – Growth and Profit

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Managing the Monkey!

Managing the Monkey!

By Andrew Cooke | May 15, 2018

How to free time, reduce your to-do list, and move back to managing from being managed!!!
Many managers often find themselves with long to-do lists which get longer, with more seeming to have been added then taken off at the end of each day.  The fault for this most often lies with the manager himself or herself, especially if they are caring managers who want to help others.  Why is this?
First, let’s understand what we mean by a “monkey”.
What is a “monkey”?
A “monkey” is simply a task or project.  The important factor here is that every task requires ownership and supervision. The monkey metaphor is a nice way to describe how tasks get pushed toward managers when they really need to be kept away to improve efficiency. For example, if a staff member comes to me and says “I can’t find this” or “how should I do that”, what do you think is happening? They are passing their “monkey” to me:

  1. They identify a problem and immediately pass it to me
  2. I take the problem and offer a solution

In doing this the “monkey” is climbing off from your report’s back and onto your back.  This happens a couple of times a day, day-in and day out, and for every week.  Suddenly you wake up to find yourself overloaded with work while your reports twiddle their thumbs while they wait for you to come back to them with a solution.  They then hope that the work has been done and they have escaped the need of having to do it.
The irony here is that your reports come to you and ask for a status update on what they have, effectively, delegated to you!  The managers are being managed! And so you get managers who are running out of time while their reports are running out of work.  It is not a pretty picture, but it is one we all recognize, of managers feeling overwhelmed and becoming a bottleneck.
How You Should Manage the “Monkey”
There are two simple steps that ideally should occur, and which you need to have in place to ensure you are not managed – and in the process made a monkey!
What should happen is:

  1. Staff member identifies a problem and offers a solution
  2. You approve solution or recommend alternative

By following some very simple processes you can easily optimize my time, give staff more responsibility and motivation, and focus on the important things (which tend to get buried under the morass of other’s work.
By getting rid of the monkeys that others have given you, you free up time which you can spend with your people!  
Four Golden Rules for Monkey Management
When a report comes to you with a “monkey” (or two), here are a few guidelines on how to ensure the monkeys (the tasks they have to do) stay with them and not with you, and yet still progress the completion of these tasks.
RULE #1 – Describe the monkey
The dialogue between you and your staff member must not end until appropriate next moves have been identified and clearly specified as regards what has to be done with the task or issue.
Example from the staff member:

  • “I will schedule the project and inform the client when it will be completed and notify you if there are any problems”

Examples from the Manager:

  • “Prepare a one-page brief outlining the problems and possible solutions to this problem”


  1. Everyone knows that the dialogue will not end until “next moves” have been specified.
  2. People get better prepared when they know that their next moves need to be specified.
  3. The rule assumes action by staff.
  4. The more clearly we understand what needs to be done the greater the energy and motivation that exists for doing it.

RULE #2 – Assign the monkey
All monkeys shall be owned and handled at the lowest organization level consistent with their welfare.

  • “Mr. Avery is now John’s client so his satisfaction with our service is John’s responsibility”


  1. Staff has more collective time, energy and, in some cases, knowledge.
  2. Staff is closer to the work and so are better equipped to handle it.
  3. Creates more time for business management.
  4. Management should only handle tasks that only they can do.

Sometimes when you insist on the very best in your people’s work, you may encounter resistance because doing their very best often requires hard work. On the other hand, if you permit your people to be less than their best, they sometimes don’t actively resist. So it sometimes seems that they would rather do less than their best. The leaders we remember most in our lives are the ones that push us.
RULE #3 – Ensure the monkey
Every monkey leaving you on the back of one of your people must be covered by one of two insurance policies:

  1. recommend, then act, or
  2. act, then advise.

When people have freedom, they will make mistakes. That’s why monkeys need to be insured. At times staff may want to take more risk but the safety and needs of the business need to take precedence.
Monkey insurance policies

  1. Recommend, and then act. If there is a high risk then the team member should be told to recommend, then get approval from the manager and then act.
  2. Act, and then advise. If there is little risk, then the team member can act and then advise the manager of the results. As team members get more proficient in their tasks this will happen more, but the responsibility has to be delegated from the manager to ensure safety.

RULE #4 – Check on the monkey:
Proper follow-ups mean healthier monkeys. Every monkey should have a check-up appointment. You must specify the time and place for follow-up. Monkeys sometimes develop unexpected problems and the process of discovering and correcting problems in meetings tends to:

  1. Lower the boss’s anxieties
  2. Develop people’s competence through coaching – which increases the boss’s confidence in their competence and further decreases his or her anxieties
  3. The coaching increases the odds that the boss will eventually be able to delegate to that person

Finally, some notes on when to delegate work and, in doing so, reduce the need to manage the monkeys. Managers should only delegate when they are confident that:

  1. The project is on the right track and staff know what has to be done
  2. Their people can successfully handle the project on their own
  3. That costs, timing, quantity and quality are acceptable
  4. That there is commitment from staff

Note: if you delegate without following these guidelines you will quickly find yourself the proud parent to a family (or troop) of monkeys.
By delegating effectively you give people responsibility, and this is the best way to develop responsibility in others.  It allows you to practice hands-off management as much as possible and hands-on management as much as necessary.
Next Steps
What are you going to do to manage your monkey?  For a free “Manage the Monkey” template to prioritize, re-assign and manage your monkeys please email [email protected].
This overview is based on an article in HBR “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” (1974).

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Click here to find out more about Andrew Cooke and Growth & Profit Solutions.

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