5 Steps around the 5 monkeys in your team

Or: How to understand and make changes in a team’s culture

I can’t seem to find a definitive reference the original experimentation but I heard this in my management studies at university. I think of it every now and again and can see the impact of the 5 monkeys everywhere I go.

The Experiment

bananasThe experiment involved placing 5 monkeys in a large cage. A few bananas were hung from the ceiling well out of reach of the monkeys, but some boxes (or a ladder in some stories) were placed below the bananas allowing the monkeys to climb up to retrieve the bananas.
As the first monkey headed up the boxes and got within a grab of the bananas he was sprayed with a high pressure hose with cold water. As the monkey scrambled to get out of the road of the hose and cold water, the other monkeys (who had done nothing), were also sprayed.

The monkeys huddled in confusion for a while until eventually another monkey climbed the boxes after those wonderful bananas. Once more the water was sprayed on the climbing monkey and also on all the others.

The monkeys now looked warily at the bananas, but eventually, one very brave monkey went again for those very tempting bananas. This time though, fearing the cold water spray, all the other monkeys started screaming and attacked the one monkey that was going for the bananas, to push him away so as not to be sprayed.

The bananas sat there in a room full of monkeys and, fearing the cold water spray, not a single one would go near them. The cold water spray was no longer needed to keep the monkeys from those bananas.

The experiment then removed one of the monkeys and replaced it with another new monkey. This monkey, knowing nothing about the cold water spray, immediately went for the delicious bananas hanging temptingly from the ceiling. The other monkeys again screamed and attacked this new monkey pulling him away from the climb. After a few days, another monkey was replaced with a new one and again, this new monkey innocently went for the hanging bananas, again being pulled from the climb and beaten by all the other monkeys. Importantly here, the new monkey who knew nothing about the cold water was one of the ones that joined in puling down the new monkey.

This happened time and time again until eventually the original 5 monkeys were totally replaced by new monkeys who had never experienced the cold water spray, yet would never climb for the hanging bananas and more importantly would beat up any newcomers who approached that climb for the hanging bananas.

Your Team

It’s a great story but how does this affect you as a team leader and how does it affect the team? Listen to the team and to the general chatter within the organisation. How do people respond to new ideas?

“We don’t do it like that here”
“We tried that before”
“That will never work”
“Bill\Mary\George tried to get that across a while back and got shot down for their efforts”
“Management will never approve that”
“There’s just no market for this”

How many times have you heard words like those where you are? Does every suggestion of change end in someone putting it down?

Often the office culture is one where changes are not welcomed and new suggestions are met with the “We’ve tried that…” approach. The “we’ve done that before and it doesn’t work” syndrome is a hugely deflating and depressing situation and you have to find out why.

As Team Leader, you have a very difficult time trying to change that situation. It’s up to you to try to convince others that, if no one has been blasted with cold water for years, has the world moved on and the hose is no longer there? Perhaps they got blasted for using that single method and another method would be rewarded. That was then, this is now.

Cultural Change

Make no mistake; this is a culture change scenario.

In my experience, I’ve found two main reasons why this situation occurs: Fear of failure; and change resistance.

Fear of failure comes from past experience of being knocked down severely on more than one occasion so that they now feel that they can try nothing new. Perhaps this was a previous manager who commanded through bluster, anger, and derision, leaving the team with the inability to act. I have had success in the past by instilling a celebration of failure. I have been known to tell my team in no uncertain words that if they were not failing, then they were not learning and therefore not stretching themselves.

There is a difference between failing new theories, and failing through stupidity. The latter can be amusing at times for everyone, how many times have you slapped yourself on the forehead about something obvious and stupid that you missed? But you will recognise the difference between obvious designed “fault”; true failure through genuine attempts to do something different; and the repeated faults that might need your intervention.

There is also a fear when there has been a history of blame. You yourself can contribute to overcoming this with a simple process in your team meetings. Explain to your team to think of visually throwing a glowing ball idea up into the air and talking to that idea. Then it’s not “Bill’s idea” or “Jane’s fault”, the discussion is on the idea and that can change and grow as the discussion continues without anyone getting upset. Remember to thank the originator of the idea for putting something forward for discussion.

Change resistance is a little more difficult as it’s usually a sign that the team has been set in its ways for many years, no new blood (except perhaps yourself), and no-one wants to get out of their comfort zone. This will take time and persuasion. I have at times; even resorted to “because I said so” in order to try to break through this resistance with some small success (depends on the situation).

There are no clear-cut answers to changing a culture but in my research I spoke to the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of the organisation I currently work. Mary-Anne Macleod is the CEO of the Bay of Plenty Regional Council and has been credited with changing a culture within the organisation. If you ever get a chance to work here, grab that chance with open arms, the organisation does great environmental things, the people are fantastic to work with, and the culture in the organisation is to be admired.

Mary-Anne helped me to put together the following 5 steps which shows a rather simplistic approach, but which can help to guide you through the fear of, or the reluctance to, change.

Step 1: Identify what is negative

Identify what is the actual issue that is negatively affecting the team and what are the triggers. By this I mean looking at the issue from a distance. If the team has a culture of breaking for a get together at 4pm on Fridays, is that a negative issue? We know the trigger, it’s Friday afternoon, but unless there is a very good reason for breaking this culture (e.g. safety – air tower operators still on the job), then I might suggest that this might be a good culture that your team has built up for stress relief after a full week.

If it is a negative effect (reluctance to use a new project monitoring tool or timesheet system) then look to the trigger for this (more work, being “monitored” etc).

This can be very difficult and often hard to get to the nub of. It is amazing how often the negativity is something that has happened a long time ago and is now embedded in the thinking of a few individual or teams. It is incredibly difficult to debunk and also very difficult to find ways for people to let go of their baggage – which is often a key source of negativity.

Step 2: Encouragement

Once identified, put into place a relative positive and encouraging response to the triggers. For example if the issue is one of reluctance to work in new technology, and the underlying reason is that they have been severely punished for making mistakes in the past resulting in a fear of making mistakes and a need to hang onto the skills that they know, then you may have to make new technology open and fun.

I remember one place I worked at where the team was well known as experts in their field, which was a language that was no longer supported and couldn’t go into the current world. I created what I termed as “Tech Cafe”. Each week I’d take the entire team down the road to a local cafe and we’d talk about new technology in the news. Eventually I gave the “new technology” subject to each of the members in turn to come up with and research the subject ahead of time that they can “present” to the team. This turned into a fun event where despite themselves, the team became very up to date and accepting of learning new languages and technology. This team is now a leading Ruby-on-Rails development shop with very forward thinking practices.

This can be very powerful in many cases. In some however the negativity is such that the positives will not make the difference. There is a philosophy that I think applies here called the 1% principle. If you improve everything you do by just 1% every time you do it you are in an organisation that is improving. It is easy to make small changes and very difficult often to make big ones. It does not take a lot of 1% changes to add up to a significant difference.

Step 3: Focus on the Suggestion, not the person

This will depend entirely on your perception of the discussion and the nature of both the person who made the suggestion and of the team. In some cases it may pay to move the focus from the person who makes the suggestion to the actual change or suggestion itself – i.e. it’s not “Bill’s suggestion”, it’s the “new pencils” suggestion. This resolves the situation where some team members may be reluctant to offer suggestions for fear their workmates will automatically rubbish the idea because it came from them. They may dislike the limelight, and possibly it may help to allow others to make suggestions without fear of ridicule.

One trick, as mentioned previously, is to imagine throwing the suggestion or issue in the air like a glowing ball, explaining that it’s the suggestion that you are all going to talk about. Then talk to the ball suspended in the air in the middle of the group. Look to Step 5 to ensure that you do give credit where due once appropriate.

Step 4: Allow ideas to grow and change with the team input.

It’s the team’s suggestion, even if you were the originator. Allow the team to change and mould it to suit their environment. Remember, the wisdom is on the ground and with the teams and the ownership needs to be with them also.

Step 5: Give Credit

Credit and praise the originator when the idea becomes reality, no matter what the memeing process (if that’s a word) has made it into as a final implementation. This is important as it’s here that the person who originally came up with the idea can feel a sense of pride. It’s this positive achievement that will allow your team to move away from the influence of the 5 monkeys.

Upfront, as a Team Leader, president, or CEO you also have to think about what is important to you in terms of your personal values, what is the organisation trying to achieve and what is its reason for being, and also how do they all align. You have to decide when you are leading and when you are in fact serving. Be very clear when you are the decision maker, when you are consulting and when you are collaborating.

The situation with the 5 remaining monkeys who resisted the lure of the hanging bananas through a fear of something that they never experienced has been parodied in teams and organisations everywhere.