Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Business Fables - The Monkeys and the Bananas

I was talking with Ed Ryan the other day, an ex-colleague from Novell (in fact he was my first Product Management boss at Novell, and easily the best I have ever had), and we were discussing company culture and why it can be so difficult to change or evolve, even when it's clear things need to change.

Ed related the parable of the monkeys and the bananas:

Put ten monkeys in a cage, and then dangle a bunch of bananas through a hole in the roof.  As the monkey's charge the yummy bananas, hit them with a fire-hose. Keep doing this until finally, you lower the bananas and the monkeys stay well away because they don't want to be given a good soaking.  

The monkeys are smart and they have learnt their lesson, so know that banana=soaking.

Now take one of the monkey's out of the cage and replace it with a new one who has never been soaked.  As you lower the bananas down the new monkey will make a beeline towards the bananas.  The other monkey's however will shriek in horror and hold the new one back, as they don't want to get soaked.

Keep replacing monkeys one at a time, and the same thing happens.  Pretty soon you have ten monkeys who have never been hosed down, who won't touch the bananas.  None of them really understand why, but the behavior has been reinforced - don't touch the bananas.

This is a good analogy of company culture, and why it's so hard to change - once a culture is established, new employees don't understand the reasons why, but help to perpetuate and indoctrinate new employees who come in with new ideas and viewpoints.

This is also why a "hero" CEO cannot save a company by themselves - one person, even the CEO, will find the management team acting like the monkeys in cage, and resist the change.

The solution here is for the CEO to bring enough of a replacement management team - imagine if instead of putting one new monkey in the cage we add four or five - these will be able to band together and hold back the monkeys from stopping them getting the bananas.  I have spoken to a number of CEOs of public and private companies who wish they had followed this in the past, and swear that they will bring their own management team next time.

This parable is also why starting innovative new products inside an existing product group is so hard - the monkeys keep focusing on the existing rules and culture, that may not apply to the new thing.

The solution here is start the innovative new product outside of HQ, and let it build its own fast moving culture.  This could also be achieved by acquiring a smaller company as the seed of the new organization, and keeping the management team in place to grow the new business - this is a model that Citrix uses effectively with companies like Net6 (Access Gateway), NetScaler, and XenSource (XenServer).  In monkey terms we are getting a second cage and putting the new monkeys in that.  Perhaps over time we'll move the old monkeys into the new cage, and they will have to adapt to the new culture.

Thanks Ed for relating this parable, and I always keep this in mind when confronting change.


  1. Interesting.

    I'm about to start down the path of OCM in my MBA and i've always been curious as to why new senior management clears the house when they start.

    A big hello from sydney.


  2. Thanks Phil, fits a situation I've been in perfectly. g

  3. That is so true. I have also experienced a situations where a new GM didn't bring his people and unfortunately it didn't work out with the company's management...

  4. I have heard this parable often in the past. This is the first time that I hear of a solution to it, and how companies are successfully avoiding this trap. Made for an uplifting reading!