How do you manage your monkeys? I ask that question often—of myself, my peers, my clients, my volunteer colleagues and even my 23-year-old niece.
“Manage your monkeys” is my most frequently offered piece of advice, and it has been my mantra for almost 20 years. The seed was planted in my brain when I taught a course for new supervising accountants at KPMG. We read The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey by Kenneth Blanchard, William Oncken and Hal Burrows, which provides practical tips on avoiding the trap of doing everything yourself—and becoming overworked and losing sight of the big picture in the process. Who would have thought that a pop culture book on how to be a more effective manager would register so deeply for me?
What is monkey management? When someone comes to you looking for an answer, you can do one of two things: tell them you’ll get back to them, do some work, and provide an answer; or tell them where they can find the answer and let them do the work themselves. The person with the problem carries a monkey on their back. The monkey represents the next move. When the person asks for your help, their monkey places one foot on your shoulder. If you accept their problem, the monkey climbs onto your back. If you guide them to a solution but don’t assume ownership, the monkey moves back to their back.
Monkey management is about controlling which monkeys you accept and which you delegate, and guides you in choosing the appropriate action. I’m a bit Type A, so I have a tendency to want to make everyone happy and strive for perfection. Monkey management helps guide me every day to not take on too much, to manage expectations and to maintain balance. There are a few simple steps to follow. This is how I manage my monkeys (it’s been a long time, so I’m no longer going by the book):
- Define the monkey. Give it a name. Identify what it’s about. Understand the situation.
- Identify who owns the monkey. (This is not an excuse to drop the ball. You own the monkeys that fall within your role.) If it’s not clear, assign ownership—that’s called delegation.
- Own up to your monkeys. For a manager, this means providing support and direction to your team so they can effectively manage their monkeys. For a team member, this means carrying your monkey and doing your part to resolve the problem or situation.
- Follow up on monkeys. Make sure that assigned or delegated monkeys are effectively controlled by their owners. Just because someone else owns the monkey doesn’t mean that you can let go of your oversight monkey. It is the manager’s role to ensure the overall success of their team.
The most effective monkey managers don’t simply assign responsibility; they provide the tools for monkey owners to be successful. This includes direction, training and coaching. Think of the managers you most admire. I bet they’re great monkey managers.
For almost 20 years, I’ve kept a tiny plastic monkey on my desk as a visual reminder to manage my monkeys. It never steers me wrong.