How to Become an Effective Delegator Using ‘Monkey Management’

The business world is full of metaphors and analogies but to me, none are as amusing and as “bang on the money” as the concept of monkey management. This isn’t a quick guide for zookeepers in case you were wondering but actually goes to the heart of what it is to be an effective manager in the frenetic world of a modern growing business.

In this short guide, I want to take you through the concept of monkey management, and managers at every level of an organization’s hierarchy can benefit from it. But first of all, what do we mean by a monkey?

Cheeky Monkeys

You may have guessed by now that the monkey in our title is actually a metaphor. In monkey management, a monkey refers to the next move in a given problem or task. Monkeys are inherently cheeky as we all know so they have a tendency to jump from the staff member’s back to the manager’s.

These monkey transferrals will often start out as an innocent discussion between a member of staff in which they bring a problem to their manager. The manager, keen to help, says he’ll look into it. Without realizing they have taken on responsibility for the problem and the monkey has a new home. Whilst the manager’s intentions may be good, this will inevitably impinge upon his or her workload and in worst-case scenarios end up creating a culture of buck-passing. The key is learning to delegate.

Management Time

There are many techniques for managing time and, on the whole, they involve the practice of dividing your time up into distinct areas or segments. For managers, work time can be effectively separated into one of three work types.

    • Boss-imposed Time
      This is the time a manager needs to accomplish the tasks his or her direct superior has set.
    • System-imposed Time
      This is time imposed on the manager by people other than their staff and boss. This largely involves business processes and systems, red tape, admin, box-ticking as well as answering calls and responding to emails.
    • Self-imposed Time
      This time is split between pro-active tasks and initiatives (discretionary) and tasks and problems that you have picked up from your staff (staff-imposed time).

Good monkey management involves increasing discretionary time by reducing staff-imposed time. This is done through the development of initiative and independent working in staff. Managers have very little control over the first two segments but by tipping the balance towards discretionary time and away from the staff-imposed time they are able to get a handle on their core work duties.

Monkey Management’s Rules of Engagement

The key to effective monkey management is laying out the ground rules from the outset. The overarching principle can be expressed thusly:

“At no time while I am helping you with this or any other problem will your problem become my problem. The instant your problem becomes mine, you will no longer have a problem. I cannot help a person who hasn’t got a problem.”

Although the difference between agreeing to help someone and agreeing to help them manage their own problem may seem subtle, it is crucial when it comes to the manager keeping a hold on their own time. In this sense, monkey management means learning to delegate responsibility.

For some managers and business leaders handing over autonomy to lower-level ​staff can feel like a recipe for losing control, but this is where the ‘management’ comes into monkey management. Let’s look in closer detail at the four pre-conditions that allow monkeys to be managed effectively.

    1. Define the Monkey
      It’s important to remember that the monkey only represents the next move in a problem or task that could involve several next moves. Specifying from the outset what the current move is, as well as subsequent moves and responsibilities is crucial.
    1. Assign Ownership
      Monkeys should be assigned an owner and a supervisor and both of these should be agreed upon from the outset, with all relevant parties agreeing. As a rule, monkeys should be handled at the lowest organizational level consistent with their welfare. In other words, the more junior the responsibilities involved, the more junior the staff member who should have it on their back.
    1. Insure the Monkey
      All monkeys have a degree of risk associated with them, especially those associated with big projects that find themselves on the shoulders of junior or inexperienced staff. For this reason, managers must decide upon one of five insurance policies where the premium represents time invested. The less time, the lower the premium but the higher the risk. The policies are as follows (with 1 being the lowest risk):
  • wait until told;
  • ask what to do;
  • recommend then act;
  • act but advise immediately;
  • act then routinely report.
    1. Feed the Monkey
      Any managed monkeys must be fed or shot. As brutal as this sounds (remember these aren’t real monkeys), it’s an effective way for managers to control the monkey population and keep on top of their own workloads. Feeding a monkey involves the manager scheduling a checkup with the monkey owner in which progress will be discussed. One manager can only feed a given number of monkeys without it impacting on his or her workload so the monkey population should always be limited by this factor.

A final note on the nature of monkeys is that if they aren’t fed they will starve and more time will be needed attempting to resuscitate them or carry out a post mortem to work out what went wrong.

As amusing as some of the metaphorical imagery in this management and delegation system is, the core concepts behind monkey management are powerful tools for managers at all levels of the organization. By allowing your staff to develop and grow into autonomous employees that are able to take the initiative, the swamped manager can begin to claw back a sense of control over their own workload by realizing the potential of their staff as an asset and not a burden.

Click on the link to read the original 1974 Harvard Business Review piece on Monkey Management from its creators William Oncken and Jr.Donald L. Wass.

About the authorKim Jones

Kim Jones is Director of Bristol-based business consultancy, High Growth Knowledge Company. She has many years of experience working with established companies and organizations in a number of industry sectors, from healthcare to retail and higher education, helping directors and business leaders overcome the challenges of managing sustainable growth. You can connect with HGKC on Twitter and LinkedIn.