The case of the fictional monkey experiment

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I had heard a story of an experiment performed on a community of monkeys.  Don’t worry, it’s not true.  Well, not true as an experiment – it never happened.  But I still love the story.  It’s a variant of this one.  Of course the whole thing comprises a moralizing sermon of sorts, maybe even a mediocre one in the scheme of things.  But when such describes life it’s useful for me.

In my telling, 20 or so monkeys were put into a large area with a greased pole at its center.   At the top of the greased pole was a cluster of delicious bananas.  But naturally as any simian in the group would attempt to scale the pole, s/he would fall and get nowhere.  The bananas might as well not have existed.

Then 2 things were changed – 5 new monkeys were brought in replacing 5 who removed, and the pole was de-greased.  So a monkey could legitimately climb the pole to get the bananas.

But it was soon found that only the new monkeys would even attempt such a thing.  And when they did, they were pulled down by large number of other monkeys who knew that it was impossible.  So even then, the bananas went uneaten.  And even the new monkeys learned one could not ascend the pole.

It is of interest that it doesn’t matter if stories like this ever happened in a scientific experiment.  Because they happen in corporate life so universally.  And it’s tragic. Wasteful.

Innovation is stifled.  Businesses fail.  The new monkeys quit or assimilate into cynical dysfunction.

Let me not paint too grim a picture though.  Because thankfully and triumphantly poles do get de-greased and get climbed all the time as well.  Or some diligent monkey climbs them grease and all.

However, and probably the main point, the intentionality in climbing that pole is substantial; there are no old-timer monkeys to encourage or give hope.  In fact, they will call the bananas imaginary, mock you for trying and even discredit your achievement as rotten bananas even as you eat them and share them with your friends (well you have certainly heard of sour grapes).

There is no particular effort or project to which I wish to apply this parable except to assign it to all of them.  I have been both an old and new monkey.  And if I’d say “Don’t let this environment happen to you!” it would be pointless because it probably already has somewhere in some way.

But I will tell you every time – Climb the pole!  Those bananas are real and they taste wonderful.  And stop discouraging others; let them get greasy and learn the way they will.

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