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Other Peoples Monkeys – Stop Making Someone Else’s Problems Yours

I have been working with a couple of people of late who are just struggling to get things done, they have so much on their plates that there is just more to do than there are hours in their working week. The result of that is that they are stealing time from their personal lives to try and get things done in their work lives and feeling guilty about that while also feeling guilty about not keeping up with things at work and being the bottleneck. This is not something that is unusual, people's working week seem to get longer and longer, in fact I used to have someone who worked in one of my teams who wore his 60hr week as a badge of honour! When I looked at what all of these people were doing there is a common theme among them, they were all taking other people's problems or issues and trying to fix them on their behalf, they were taking their monkeys.  

What is a Monkey? 

Ken Blanchard wrote a great series of books called the One Minute Manager which are really quick reads on range of topics, one of my favourites is the One Minute Manager meets the Money and I give it to all those people who have this issue, especially new managers. So, what is a Monkey? Obviously, it's not a real monkey it's a metaphor, in this case the monkey is a problem or more specifically the next step to be taken in the problem, it could be your problem or it could be someone else's problem, they key is understanding who owns the problem (or Monkey) and ensuring that they keep hold of it and not pass it to you!

The Problem with Monkeys 

The challenge that many people have when they have too much to do is that they not only have their monkeys but a large number that belong to others that they have taken on either intentionally or by accident. Here is an example, one of your supervisors comes to you and says that one of their team is continually late could you talk with them as they do not feel they can. You, being the caring boss say sure you will talk to them, or in another scenario there is an issue with quality from another department, again a supervisor comes to you and says hey we are still getting their problem from the other department can you talk with them, again you say sure. Now you have two new problems or monkeys that are not yours. In the case of the people I mentioned earlier when we looked at what they were doing, trying to solve problems for others we found that on average 60% of the things on their to do list, the monkeys, weren't theirs, they belonged to someone else but they had accepted them in, now they had an awful lot of monkeys in one office all making a heck of a lot of noise! (and as one of my clients put it creating a equally bad smell with the amount of poop they were in!). So the problem with monkeys is they multiply, they make noise and distract you from what you need to be doing and yes, they can create a powerful smell if they aren't dealt with.

Something else happens however, when you take the monkey from your staff you reverse the roles as well because I guarantee you they are going to come past you and ask, hey how are you getting on fixing problem X or Y ? Now they are checking up on your progress…. They have become the manager and you the worker!

Simple Solutions to Monkey Madness  

When we point this out typically there is a little denial to start with, no I am just happy to help, they are busy as well. It will be quicker if I do it anyway, all of which are excuses and not a valid argument for not fixing the problem. Thankfully, there is a simple solution to the whole thing and thankfully Ken wrote it down in his book but they come from a gent by the name of William Oncken Jr (they collaborated on the book) there are only 4 rules but they are really good ones:

  1. Descriptions - Every Monkey or next move needs a Description – everyone needs to be clear on what happens next.
  2. Owners – Every monkey needs an owner – so you need to assign it to a (note singular!) person, assigning it to more than 1 person means that there is wiggle room and each person thinks the other is doing it so it doesn't get done (or gets done twice but that's incredibly rare)
  3. Insurance Policies – You need to understand the risk linked with the monkey and put things in place to manage that (we will talk about that soon)
  4. Monkey Feeding & Check Up Appointments – you need to agree (I say agree but ultimately it's the managers decision) when you are going to have a catch up on the problem and what you expect at that catch up i.e. the person with the monkey brings the update and you listen.

The aim then is essentially a framework that lets you ensure that the right person is doing the work and that you help coach people to let them make their own decisions, to help them develop, that frees up your time to work on your stuff. I know you are thinking that is risky, and it is, it's not going to calm your internal control freak but that's why we have insurance policies.

Monkey Insurance

Like any insurance policy it is put in place to off set the risk of something bad happening. Part of your thinking and the thinking of the person with the problem needs to be how bad is bad and how well can this person handle the situation should it occur. The insurance comes in only 2 levels

  1. Level 1 - Recommend, then Act. This situation is used where the concern is that if the person was left to make the decision on their own the consequences of it being wrong would be to great, for example they could open up the company to legal issues, blow up the server room or anything in between. Think of it as the tight monitoring approach. Here still however you are not the one coming up with solutions, that's still the employee and they should bring them to you for discussion along with the pros & cons of their solution. Once you are happy that everything has been thought through you can approve it for them to act, if not sent them back to think again, agreeing a date for the next discussion.
  2. Level 2 – Act, Then Advice – this is where you do have confidence that the person can go and make the right decisions on a certain issue and they only need to advise you after the fact (but not too long after the fact). That gives your employee a lot of room to work in and more and more responsibility as they gain in confidence and your trust levels go up. It also frees up your time.

The important point here however is that you as the leader select the insurance policy, not the employee and just because they have Level 2 on one topic does not mean it is across the board. While you need to grow and develop your people, as a leader that is your job after all, you do also need to protect the company or there may well be no point in growing your people since the organisation no longer there due to some catastrophic decision someone makes in error.

The Point of managing Monkeys

The aim is to increase the level of delegation you can make to your team, to ensure that people are doing the things that they should be doing and that you are not doing everything. It is about coaching them and empowering them to make the decisions and also helping them push decisions down the organisation to the lowest level that can correctly make them rather than creating a bottleneck at the top. By managing the monkeys, you create time for everyone to better manage what they really have to do, becoming a more effective leader and organisation and most importantly getting home on time and not stealing personal time to use for doing other peoples work.


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You can also call John on 0211649739 to set up a meeting 

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Wednesday, 30 September 2020

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