Back in 1974, Oncken and Wass wrote a Harvard Business Review article called, “Who’s Got the Monkey?” It used monkeys as metaphors for tasks or projects. It was well-received nearly 50 years ago, and the article remains a popular reprint today. The piece makes the point that all managers/leaders need to be crystal clear about who owns the next step and all aspects of work.

While we may not be as comfortable today with equating monkeys with work, this is a useful metaphor that creates a visual that many people find helpful.

Peter Quintana wrote a great article on this idea on LinkedIn in 2020. He says: “Although it is completely normal to help people with problems, there can be instances where managers become bogged down by other people’s monkeys, affecting their ability to perform their own duties. In addition, it can become a self-reinforcing management style which leads to more people thinking it is alright to offload their monkeys on to you.”

What monkeys have you collected over time? Are some of these self-imposed? It can be so easy to inadvertently assume other people’s monkeys, just by using common phrases like “let me take a look” or “I’ll find out.” If you need to take on some of the responsibility, fine. AND make sure you do this with clarity, intent and mutual understanding with all involved. Be sure that the monkey is handled by the right person at the lowest organizational level possible.

Here is the kicker. It turns out that if you take on other people’s monkeys you probably won’t take proper care of your legitimate monkeys. If you don’t take care of your monkeys you will often create more monkeys for others. More monkeys for them, more monkeys for you, more and more monkeys, until we are all drowning in monkeys. Stop the madness.

Ensuring a complete delegation tames the madness and creates clarity, intent and mutual understanding. Delegation framework provides a “cage” for monkeys, or at least a firm understanding of who does (and does not) own the monkey. (For the record we love real monkeys and want to live in a world where no monkeys are in cages.)

Proper monkey management doesn’t mean you can’t help out. Collaborate and support does not necessarily mean you must take on more monkeys,  and it’s important to be crystal clear about who owns all aspects of the work.

Wonder if you’re taking on monkeys that should belong to others? Or have an excellent tip for monkey management? Comment below or send us a message.

Photo by Polina Podlesnaya on Unsplash