Monkeys Climbing a Pole

This week, John Maxwell posted this fascinating study on his blog:

Business professors Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad wrote about an experiment conducted with a group of monkeys. Four monkeys were placed in a room that had a tall pole in the center. Suspended from the top of that pole was a bunch of bananas.

One of the hungry monkeys started climbing the pole to get something to eat, but just as he reached out to grab a banana, he was doused with a torrent of cold water. Squealing, he scampered down the pole and abandoned his attempt to feed himself. Each monkey made a similar attempt, and each one was drenched with cold water. After making several attempts, they finally gave up.

Then researchers removed one of the monkeys from the room and replaced him with a new monkey. As the newcomer began to climb the pole, the other three grabbed him and pulled him down to the ground. After trying to climb the pole several times and being dragged down by the others, he finally gave up and never attempted to climb the pole again.

The researchers replaced the original monkeys, one by one, with new ones, and each time a new monkey was brought in, he would be dragged down by the others before he could reach the bananas. In time, only monkeys who had never received a cold shower were in the room, but none of them would climb the pole. They prevented one another from climbing, but none of them knew why.

He uses it in the context of chasing your dreams. However, I see far reaching implications in business. Any company has the established veterans that have been around for a while. If the company is smart, they will also bring in new talent, interns, new college grads, basically young unmolded people who are given the space to shake things up at your company.

Steve Blank blogged about it last year:

One of the traps of age is growing to accept the common wisdom of what’s possible and not. Accumulated experience can at times become an obstacle in thinking creatively. Knowing that “it can’t be done” because you can recount each of the failed attempts in the last 20 years to solve the problem can be a boat anchor on insight and imagination. This not only effects individuals, but happens to companies as they age.

When you’re young anything seems possible.

And at times it is.

A healthy company, in my opinion has a culture that balances youth and wisdom. You want managers who can effectively evaluate new ideas and give people the space to chase them. You don’t want to be stagnant and only hire industry vets.

The first solution to this problem is to bring in the “right people” (who know the right questions to ask) from completely different industries. One of my college professors told the story about how after working at Ford in their emerging leaders program, he went to Citibank (the old awesome Walter Wriston Citi back in the 70s). He was put to run check processing, something he knew absolutely nothing about. Why? Because his manager wanted someone who could ask the right questions, learn how to do it, and change things. I can’t remember the end of the story, but he was pretty successful and it worked well.

The second solution is to develop a culture of pursuing side projects outside of people’s day jobs. Google is famous for it, but even at my company, we have a whole volunteer organization whose job it is to foster innovation. We have 24hr HackDays, our interns compete every year in a business case competition, and we’ll bring in guest speakers. We even had a panel last year of folks who had attended SXSW Interactive to share what they learned. There have been some major projects that have stemmed from these initiatives.

Ideas rarely fail because they’re bad. They fail in execution.

Companies have a half life of 50 to 75 years, and they need to actively work to make sure new (and even rehashed) ideas have the chance to bubble up to the top. Don’t be the company that’s left with a bunch of Monkeys standing around a pole not knowing why no one wants to climb up to get the banana. It’s a fine balance to have a disciplined pursuit of more.

January 4, 2011