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why your monkeys don’t eat bananas

July 22, 2013

How on earth did we end up doing it that way? It makes no sense.” she said. “Anytime I make suggestions about how we might change things, to improve them, I just get shut down. Why can’t they see there is a better way?

My response to that question is to ask if I can tell a story about monkeys that don’t eat bananas. It is one of my favourite stories about resistance to organisational change.

In the story a group of monkeys are being kept in an enclosure by researchers. In the middle of the enclosure is a ladder and at the top of the ladder is a huge bunch of ripe bananas.  Not a single monkey gives the bananas even a sideways glance as they go about their day. At meal times they eat bland monkey pellets while the bananas go untouched.

a monkey's faceA new monkey is introduced to the group (let’s call him Bob) and after he has been introduced around Bob starts to explore the enclosure. Bob (see photo) has been around for a while and has been in enclosures like this before. Seeing the bananas at the top of the ladder he makes his way over and starts to climb. Before Bob can get a foot on the second rung the entire group rushes towards him, drags him off the ladder, throwing him to the ground amidst much screeching and vocalizing.

Confused and sore, perhaps thinking the bananas are the property of a more senior monkey, Bob leaves them alone for a while but soon notices that nobody else seems to be able to even see that the bananas are there. So he tries again to climb the ladder with the result that the attack from the rest of the group is even more fierce than the first time. Alert to his desire to get to the bananas the rest of the group start issuing warnings if Bob should even start to glance towards the bananas at the top of the ladder.

In time Bob learns to go about his day without even giving a sideways glance to the bananas at the top of the ladder. No explanation is offered and it makes no sense to him but the message is clear – We don’t eat those bananas! A few months later when another new monkey is introduced, Bob finds himself being one of the first to drop his pellets, screech and drag her off the ladder.

It was a relatively easy process for the researchers to generate this sort of behaviour. In the beginning a group of monkeys, now long gone, were introduced into the enclosure. Things were good and they ate bananas to their hearts’ content.

Then something changed.

When any of the monkeys attempted to climb the ladder the researchers saturated the entire enclosure with ice-cold water. The monkeys tried everything they could think of but each time anyone touched the ladder the outcome was the same. They soon learned not to approach the ladder and life returned to a slightly blander form of normal.

Then one of the original monkeys was replaced. Like our guy Bob, she soon saw the bananas and approached the ladder resulting in a frigid drenching for the entire group. The next time she tried the group took action to prevent her from climbing towards the bananas because they understood what the consequences would be. It took a few reprimands from the group but she soon got the message.

Then another monkey was replaced. This time no water was needed. The group made sure he didn’t climb the ladder.

After a time another monkey was replaced, then another and another until years later none of the original group remained.  None of the monkeys in the enclosure had ever experienced the icy soaking but there was no way they were even going to look at that ladder for fear of how the rest of the group would respond. That is why your monkeys don’t eat bananas.

And that is where Bob entered our story.

And until recently that is where I would have ended it. The parallels with the experiences of many who find themselves in corporate enclosures are obvious and rarely need further explanation.

It is a tale told of how things came to be. How things are. It says nothing directly about what might come to be and it doesn’t offer any hope to Bob or those who might enter the enclosure after him.

It is time for that to change. It is time to give the story a new ending.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment below and tell me your answer to the question “How do you teach your monkeys to eat bananas again?”

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2013 7:27 am

    Great post. This explains why companies often seek out consultants. Desperate for a new order of doing business, they reach out and ask for a new perspective. As a company grows, its growth often inflects (as opposed to increasing exponentially where x>1, x now becomes less than 1). It’s vital for a corporation to re-asses it’s original vision, to determine where to play in M&A and R&D in order to create a true powerhouse. Feel free to check out my site also; strongly interested in subjects like these.

  2. Ratnadeep permalink
    July 23, 2013 11:39 am

    Great Post Paul. I think this is not limited to corporate life, in our private life as well we follow our learnt behavior patterns. We do things the way our parents, friends, peers or the wider society taught us to do.
    Things we call ‘cultural’ are many times just learnt behavior patterns. Those who dare challenge will be quickly punished or reprimanded by parents, peers or the society. So in reality every one acts like a monkey prohibiting other monkeys from doing things differently in different situations.

    • July 23, 2013 9:18 pm

      Thanks Ratnadeep. I agree completely that it goes well beyond what we might call corporate life. The question remains though, how do you teach the monkeys to eat bananas again?

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