Consider yourself lucky if you ever get the opportunity to hear Eddie Obeng give a talk. My first introduction to him was a video of his TED talk on “Smart failure for a fast-changing world”. This week at JiveWorld, he gave the keynote speech. With passion and some unorthodox presentation techniques, he walked us a through a range of practical insights about human beings and ways to change behavior. Everyone loved it.
At the end, he closed with a story about five monkeys that captures the state of things in most organizations and that provides hope, indirectly, for how we can make things better.
The Five Monkeys Experiment
An experimenter puts 5 monkeys in a large cage. High up at the top of the cage, well beyond the reach of the monkeys, is a bunch of bananas. Underneath the bananas is a ladder.
The monkeys immediately spot the bananas and one begins to climb the ladder. As he does, however, the experimenter sprays him with a stream of cold water. Then, he proceeds to spray each of the other monkeys.
The monkey on the ladder scrambles off. And all 5 sit for a time on the floor, wet, cold, and bewildered. Soon, though, the temptation of the bananas is too great, and another monkey begins to climb the ladder. Again, the experimenter sprays the ambitious monkey with cold water and all the other monkeys as well. When a third monkey tries to climb the ladder, the other monkeys, wanting to avoid the cold spray, pull him off the ladder and beat him.
Now one monkey is removed and a new monkey is introduced to the cage. Spotting the bananas, he naively begins to climb the ladder. The other monkeys pull him off and beat him.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The experimenter removes a second one of the original monkeys from the cage and replaces him with a new monkey. Again, the new monkey begins to climb the ladder and, again, the other monkeys pull him off and beat him - including the monkey who had never been sprayed.
Monkeys at work
By the end of the experiment, none of the original monkeys were left and yet, despite none of them ever experiencing the cold, wet, spray, they had all learned never to try and go for the bananas.
The metaphor and the lessons that apply to work are clear. Despite the exhortations from management to be innovative and collaborative, cold water is poured on people and their ideas whenever someone tries something new. Or, perhaps worse, the other employees suppress innovation, and learned helplessness spreads throughout the firm.
Now what? A modern lesson
As Eddie Obeng finished the story, we all nodded knowingly. And yet two questions sprang to mind:
Did it ever happen?
If so, what can we do about it?
A quick search reveals it did happen though the details are quite different. In 1967. “Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys” by Stephenson et al. (EDIT: Added the qualifier and updated the link to point directly to the original research paper. See the note below.) I found, like many good stories, the 5 monkeys story has been told elsewhere, though Eddie Obeng’s story-telling brings it to life.
The original lesson seemed to be: “if you’re trapped with a malevolent experimenter, don’t go for the bananas”. Today, though, we can do something that wasn’t possible for those monkeys in 1967: we can change the experiment. That is, instead of just accepting the work environment we happen to be placed in, we can take more control now than ever before.
By working out loud - making our work visible and discoverable - we can create purposeful networks and come in contact with wildly different experiments going on in your own firm and in organizations around the world. Different objectives, different incentives, different management styles, different support systems.
You don’t have to take it any more. If you feel trapped, you can reach through the bars of your current environment and come into contact with possibilities you’d have never known about otherwise by working in a more open, more connected way. Today, whatever experiment you find yourself in, you can make your work and life better.
Note: In the original post I said "It did happen" and that motivated a few people who pointed me to a thorough analysis of the paper I cited and how the lessons in the original research varied from this post. What I meant and should have written was that there was a study that was indeed the basis of the story, not that the research provided proof. After all, It was a small study with a few monkeys. Nevertheless, just as we teach our kids about the Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed so they won't bump their heads, the story above serves as a cautionary tale that can help people be more mindful of what they're doing and why.
Update: If you don't want to be like a monkey in a cage, read Working Out Loud, now available on Amazon.