A Slightly Crazy Metaphor for Delegation that Will Revolutionize the Way You Manage

I was very skeptical the first time I encountered "Management Time: Who's got the monkey?" by William Oncken, Jr., and Donald L. Wass.  In fact, I initially thought it was the most bizarre business article I had ever read.  It probably still is.  The truth is, though, that the ideas in this article have stuck with me.  A colleague recently mentioned to me that this article was the single most helpful thing he read as a new manager, because it made him see exactly how he was becoming the bottleneck for his team and how to get out of the mess.  It's that good. 

You should probably read the whole thing - it takes about fifteen minutes, give or take a few minutes to pause and think, "what?!?" and it is well worth your while.  One caveat: The original version of this article was written in 1974, and it does not seem to acknowledge the presence of any non-male employees in the workplace.  The central message is still very relevant, but it's a little bit off-putting at first.  

Projects as monkeys

The authors describe projects and tasks as monkeys, and the monkeys ride the back of whoever is responsible for moving the project or task forward.  If an employee comes to a manager with a question about how to proceed on a project and the manager says, "I'll draft a proposal" or "I'll take a look" or "I'll think about it and get back to you," the monkey jumps from the employee's back to the manager's.  If the manager does that with every employee he or she speaks with, the end result is an office full of monkeys that need to be "fed" (moved forward).  

The key is to put the monkey on the desk between the employee and manager and together discuss how the employee can feed the monkey, with the manager providing input and guidance and perhaps even decisions The manager does not take the monkey from the employee except in rare and compelling circumstances.  The next step should almost always be the employee's to make, keeping the monkey where it belongs.

Sounds a little strange, right?  And yet... it is a vivid and helpful way to think about the flow of work.  The authors even define a set of rules for the "care and feeding of monkeys" to ensure that the manager's time is used as effectively as possible and that the monkeys don't starve.  

One of the things they address somewhat indirectly is the importance of not having too large a population of monkeys on the team, meaning that the manager needs to be selective about what the team is working on.  The vividness of the metaphor helps here, too: only so many monkeys can be well-cared-for at a time, and it makes sense that fewer monkeys means a higher quality of care for each of them.  Being selective protects both the manager's time and that of the employees.

A great deal of a manager's time is not under his or her control.

The authors identify several different types of time: boss-imposed time, which is created by your reporting chain, system-imposed time, which is created by your organizational context, and self-imposed time, which is created by you.  The self-imposed time includes subordinate-imposed time and discretionary time.  Where a lot of managers get into difficulty is in not controlling subordinate-imposed time more effectively to ensure that they are truly helping employees move forward.  Instead, a lot of managers take on the employees' work for them, leaving the manager with too much to do (most of it non-strategic, too) and the employees twiddling their thumbs. 

When a manager takes responsibility for moving an employee's work forward, he or she reverses their roles and prevents the employee from taking initiative.

One of the funnier aspects of the article is the depiction of employees cheerfully poking their heads into the manager's office to "see how it's coming."  It's not funny in real life, though.  There is a reason that you're the manager, and there is a greater opportunity cost to your time than your employees' time.  That's not because you're a superior human being; it's because your organization has valued your time more highly and is paying you more.  (If that is not the case, then it's worth thinking about what you handle and what your most highly-compensated employees handle, and also why you have more responsibility but lower pay.)  Another key point the articles makes is that an employee can't possibly take initiative on something that's sitting on your desk.

The manager needs to guide employees toward solving the problems themselves as much as possible.

The article outlines five levels of responsibility:

  1. Wait until told what to do
  2. Ask what to do
  3. Recommend possible action, then do
  4. Act, then immediately advise manager on action taken
  5. Act on own and routinely (but not necessarily immediately) update the manager


Managers inadvertently put employees in mode 1 when they say things like, "That's a good point.  Let me think about it and get back to you."  They put employees in mode 2 when they always have an answer for employees' questions.  

The best way to start moving employees into mode 3 and higher is to respond to their questions with, "What do you think is the best approach?" or "What do you see as the options?"  You may not have any employees that you feel comfortable putting in mode 5, and that's okay.  The key is to make sure you aren't becoming a bottleneck and that you're working on things that only you can do.

Putting the metaphor to work

First, look at your task list (or just the stuff in your inbox and your desk, if your task list doesn't reflect everything) and identify how many things are employees' projects that you have taken responsibility for.  

Write down and name all of those "monkeys" so that you have a concrete list of them.Meet with each of the employees who own those monkeys and discuss how the employee can take the next step.   

Under no circumstances should you take on responsibility for creating anything - the employee should be doing any drafting or writing that needs to be done, even if it involves an e-mail that will be sent from you to your boss.

When meeting with employees going forward, make sure that you are keeping them in modes 3-5 by always asking, "What are your next steps?" or "What do you see as the options?"

Brainstorm important projects you *should* be working on and can hopefully devote more time to with fewer monkeys in your office.  (These new projects will be your monkeys, and you will have responsibility for keeping them off your boss's back!)

By visualizing projects as monkeys and designating a clear "keeper" for each one, you will create clarity for your team and empower employees to take more initiative.  This will free up more of your time to work on the things that are most important and will improve the overall effectiveness of your team, making the workplace less of a zoo.  (Sorry - couldn't resist!)

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