Don’t feed the monkeys, and managing expectations..


I had to remind my wife the other evening that she was falling into her usual trap of taking on other people’s monkeys for them.   She is one of those people who is highly conscientious’, loyal and hardworking. She is proud of the fact that she has never missed a deadline, and she normally meets the extremely high expectations she sets herself.

The cost? She works harder and longer to meet those high standards!!

I imagine that many of us are aware of the classic Covey time management principles of urgency and importance, and that one of the keys to effective productivity and personal effectiveness is to work on the tasks and projects that add value to our work and goals, and to say “no” to those people who steal our time. That sounds easy and it was Elton John that sang “sorry seems to be the hardest word”, but for my wife “No” is probably the hardest. From my experience of coaching individuals or delivering time management training, people have a real issue with saying no!

So where do monkeys come in? I came across this metaphor a few years ago from a classic HBR article (Harvard Business Review), with the metaphor being that a manager meets his subordinate in a corridor, and when confronted with an issue says “leave it with me”. The metaphor being that the issue, the subordinates monkey jumps onto the back of the Manager, and therefore the Manager now has the monkey, and the article goes on to talk about how to manage and “feed” the monkeys. Its a useful and memorable framework when talking about delegation, coaching and managing roles and responsibility. Its also been powerful to remind Kathryn when she starts to slide into her “dark side”.

But my wife is not a manager of others, in fact she is an internal service provider, and her issue is not about delegation but having clear and “explicit” expectations with her internal customer. The result being that when that customer is not clear about what they want, and what they actually want to provide for their external customer, the lack of clarity is passed down the internal “supply chain” for my wife to sort out.

So my comment, “you are taking on their Monkeys”, is because she is being asked to meet a deadline, however she is not given all the information and intentions behind the service that is being proposed. The lack of clarity meaning she has to work really hard to fill those gaps. She has tried to correct this through a more formalised process with clear requests for information in a template format, but this is not always supplied or of the standards required by Kathryn for her to meet what is required by the Company.

So my reminder to her was that in the short term she had to say “No”. There was no way she could meet the deadlines set out by the internal customer unless she was provided with the quantity and quality of information and data that she needs to provide her service. So the “No” would be pointing out that the deadline would not be met unless her customer met their commitments as part of their internal contract.

I am reminded of one of my memorable experiences when I was a member of a factory management team. As the Engineering Director I was responsible for keeping the production plant running and the factory fabric in good order and compliant with the regulatory requirements of a pharmaceutical facility. We had a facilitator run a team event for us as we were not working effectively together and one of the exercises he got us to do was:

“what I and my team will deliver”

“what I and my team have no intention of delivering”

The statement left a real impression on me, and actually got me a 30% increase in my team size. Up until that day, there were all sorts of requests made on me and my team ranging from new signs on the “bog doors” to fundamentally changing the way the air conditioning was configured. In my opinion, Engineering became the easy place to dump issues that other Managers in other departments were not prepared to manage. That simple, but challenging exercise, enabled me to clarify what services and work we could provide with our resources and budget, but most importantly it enabled me to push back on a whole shopping “wish list”. I was able to start saying if you want “x” then I can’t do “y”. Of course if you want “y” and I agree that its the right thing to do, then I will need more money, time or resources, and I will need your help in getting them.

I think its easy to get carried away with the notion that a supplier has to bend over backwards to meet the needs of their customer, but actually as a result of that workshop my team and I improved our service, hit our KPI’s and people started talking about us as “adding value”.

So saying “no” does not have to be negative. The positive is to talk about expectations, whats required, what you can offer, and how best and how fast you can do that. It also needs the courage as the supplier to be clear about what you expect from customers, internal and external, in order to meet their demands.

That requires dialogue. Dialogue is about listening, advocating a point of view, and collaborating together to ensure that both parties are able to meet their objectives and standards. Maybe, not having to work long hours too!!

Maybe thats an issue for you, your teams, or your organisation. If you would like some help with those conversations I would be happy to help if I can.


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