Who’s got the monkey? (a revisit to an earlier post)

Henry Ford once said, “Don’t find fault, find a remedy; anybody can complain.” It reminded me of an article I read about twenty years ago called “Who’s got the monkey?” penned by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald Wass.

In essence, the article is designed to help managers budget their time.* The authors called the delegation of an assignment – the monkey. The manager has passed along the oversight of this task to a member of his or her team. Yet, what often happens the team member will get stumped and bring the problem back and place the monkey on the manager’s shoulders.

The only result of this process is the manager becomes a bottleneck and nothing gets done, as the manager lacks the time. The manager also gets frustrated and stressed. The key theme of this article is for the manager to not accept the monkey back, unless one condition has been met. The monkey comes back with a couple of ideas to solve the impasse. Rather than bringing an unsolved problem back, the subordinate brings a solvable problem that just needs an OK.

So, if a team member just hands the problem back, the manager should not accept the monkey and ask that he or she work through a couple of paths forward. So, Henry Ford quote is very relevant, in my view. The article can be linked to below.

*Note: Management is hard work and often it does not get done as well as it should due to busy schedules or unfamiliarity with what is needed. One of the best pieces of advice came from a staff member of a very busy manager. She helped the manager manage her by making the best use of his time. She asked if she could set-up a fifteen briefing with him a couple of times a week to ask him questions and tell him where she is on various projects. The manager loved the focused time. It was her way of managing up.


13 thoughts on “Who’s got the monkey? (a revisit to an earlier post)

  1. Note to Readers: I first became aware of this piece when a client felt overburdened by her staff’s inability to complete the tasks assigned. She was taking the work back adding the redelegated burden to her own. This piece was helpful to her as she started asking others to do more. They also learned more, when challenged to do so. The other lesson which needs to be heeded is managers need to take the time to summarize what is needed from the staff, so they will be in a better position to do the work.

  2. That is exactly what we are trying to achieve. We are a small team of three. We had problems finding a third member that is taking responsibility and is solution-oriented. We also had people who only threw the problem back when they did not know what to do instead of digging into it and finding solutions. Otherwise, two of us are doing the job of three.

    • Erika, you hit upon a key point. People who do not dig and do their part make themselves expendable. By the way, I like you new picture. Have a great rest of your weekend. Keith

      • True, that is the consequence of that behavior. It may have worked a few decades ago but these times, everybody needs to take action and pull on the same string.
        Thank you, Keith. After more than two years it was time for an update… lol! I cannot remain 49 forever 😂

      • Erika, I liked mine so much, I am celebrating the 13th anniversary of my 49th birthday! I am keeping my younger picture of about eight years ago, as my hair was more present in the conversation at that time and I still had some pepper to counterbalance the salt. Keith

  3. Lower and middle management is a very lonely place, you get rocks thrown at you from all sides.
    This was a place where I used to bear in mind advice given to me by a very imperious but wise senior manager.
    He gestured to the small library of instruction books behind him:
    ‘See these books Mr Jacob. These are for the guidance of the wise and the adherence of the fool,’
    It didn’t solve all problems but it certainly smoothed a few.

    • Roger, well said. One of the worst managers I have witnessed read every management book out there, so it seemed. In the business of consulting and sales, the better sales people and consultants tend to be the worst manager. This guy did not disprove this thesis. Keith

      • It is the case Keith. I can agree.
        When I worked in Her Majesty’s Inspector of Taxes, the lowest grade of seniors were divided into:
        Group Leaders (looked after teams….me)
        Common Service Officers (Made sure the building was habitable, bills were paid, stationary supplied etc…worth their weight in gold)
        Caseworkers: These dealt with the more complex Income Tax cases… Irrespective of their knowledge of taxes this breed had a high number of opinionated folk or ones who had never quit the maturity level of adolescence: the thought of managing staff filled them with horror bordering on disgust; unless they had martinet stamped all over them. During one projected re-organisation I strongly advised a senior manager that no group of hard working staff deserved such treatment as having one of these specimens foisted on them. He grinned and said ‘I take your meaning Roger,’…he knew his staff.

      • Roger, good example. To me, those who focus on excellence in a craft does not necessarily make them a good manager. In sports, there are many examples of the star player not being a good manager of a team later on, but the player who worked harder to be at that level was a good manager. Keith

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