They say if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. Well, believe it or not, we can learn something about how organisations succeed from monkeys.
A few weeks back, I sat for about half an hour observing an extended family of vervet monkeys at a lodge where I was holidaying.
The smallest monkey was distressed at having been isolated on a lower roof while the elders, and other slightly larger youngsters, were frolicking on the top level. They appeared oblivious to junior’s plight. The distressed creature darted from side to side, unable to see them due to the roof overhang, but anxious to join them. It tried repeatedly to jump up, only to fall back and wobble precariously. It tried to climb up a drain pipe only to keep slipping back down.
With my wide angle view, I was immediately aware that if the monkey moved to the tree to the extreme right, it could easily access the top level. But the monkey’s vision was fixed on the upper roof (and the rising panic perhaps did not help with problem solving.)
I thought about parallels with many organisations. A narrow field of vision can lead to wasted time and effort and cause much unnecessary angst. Observing the apparent lack of concern at the top level about the youngster’s plight, I pondered the disconnect between levels and “divisions” (interesting word) within organisations.
In my intrigue, I moved closer and almost simultaneously the mother (I presume) jumped into action. Quick as a flash, she leapt to the lower level, grabbed the monkey and leapt back up again. It would appear she was aware of what was happening below, despite evidence to the contrary.
Here’s where the monkey “system” and human organisations differ:
° Nature’s longer term purpose for leaving the baby alone to figure things out prevailed, until the imminent cost outweighed the benefit. Then, the elder solved the problem
° The elders had a ‘finger on the pulse’ at the lower level and took necessary action
° Junior never gave up its aspiration to that higher level
° Human beings, despite being able to make a phone call or call a quick ‘brainstorming timeout’ for problem solving, often prefer to complain about the problem and blame those at the top for their plight
° Those at the top don’t always see it as their role to stay in tune with others who don’t share their wide angle view. (Given that the latter vastly outnumber the former, collectively cost the organisation far more and generally determine how the organisation performs each day, begs the question “Why?”.)
If organisations functioned more like a family of monkeys, capability would expand through experience, leaders would be tuned in to what matters, risk would be averted, challenges would be regarded as “business as usual” and an outside threat would unite those within the organisation family.
All too often, staff are uninspired and don’t want to stretch. Often the law of diminishing returns applies to the payroll. Leaders are disconnected; their actions destroy value and alienate people. External threats lead to internal conflict and chaos.
Perhaps a step in the right direction would be to behave more like monkeys.