Who's Got the Monkey?
Classic advice on time management.
A colleague of mine (thanks Stu!) recently recommended me a classic article Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? It is classic indeed — published in 1974 . Some of the wording is in need of modernizing (e.g. the boss-subordinate hierarchy changed into much more flat organizations), but I think it aged quite well. I’ve enjoyed it and I recommend it to you, my reader :)
Here are my notes if you want to skim the article quickly.
Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?
- On of 2 best selling reprints of HBR articles.
- Nov/Dec 1974 Harvard Business Review.
- The article is from the 70s;
- It puts a lot of emphasis on boss–subordinate relationship.
- IMHO the core concept aged well:
- just replace subordinates with colleagues (area lead, mentor, etc.)
- in the flat organizations we all manage ourselves
- in the distributed-, remote-orgs, slack, email, meetings — lots of interruptions
What are the components of your time?
- Boss-imposed time
- System-imposed time
- Subordinate-imposed time (or colleague-imposed if you read it after y2k).
- Discretionary time
- Maximize 3 while minimizing 4.
- This can be then used to get a better handle of 1 and 2.
- 3 tends to take more time than people imagine.
- Scene #1
- A colleague says “Hi, BTW we’ve got a problem. You see …”
- You recognize that
- you know enough to get involved
- but not enough to make the decision on the spot
- So you helpfully say “I’m in a rush right now, I’ll get back to you”
- Scene #2
- A video-conference
- You ask your colleague to drop you an email on something
- Scene #3
- A meeting with your subordinate
- You agree with his or her solution and part with “I’d like to be in the loop, just let me know how I can help”
- Scene #4
- You are a mentor of a new joinee
- You say “we need to catch up soon to discuss your first tasks”
Now the ball is in your court, you’re blocking your colleague plus you have more work to do. (3) grows.
What’s the deal with the monkey then?
Monkey is the problem:
- It starts on the back of your colleague, but then it jump into your back.
- You’ve took it and it is yours until you return it to the owner for care and feeding.
- Scene #2 is a bit more complex, as the monkey is on your colleague’s. back. But as soon as the email is sent the monkey jumps on your back.
- Scene #3 IMHO is an issue only in case of your subordinate, as it suggests they need have your explicit approval before delivering their work.
- And they are frustrated, because they know they’ll wait on you for days
- Scene #4 blocks the joinee from starting with his responsibilities and puts the monkey on your back.
- In all of the cases you and your colleague assumed you have a joint–problem.
Who’s the boss?
- Is the person with the problem your colleague or your subordinate? Of course not, you’ve voluntarily become their subordinate.
- They’ll supervise you (“How’s it coming?”),
- They’ll hold you accountable for the result.
- The longer you keep the monkey on your back, the more frustration you generate:
- Your backlog grows,
- Your colleagues can’t proceed and actively wait on you (and need to send you a follow-up emails etc.),
- You’re the bottleneck for the entire team,
- And since you’ve got a plenty of boss- and system-imposed tasks, you have a little time for the monkeys,
- And even if you catch up (weekends, overtime), you’ll get more monkeys.
- Get rid of colleague impose time, you’ll get equal amount of discretionary time.
- Use some of this discretionary time to work with your colleagues:
- Pass the initiative,
- Don’t let the monkey jump on your back,
- Let them deal with the monkey,
- It make take time, but the reward is being in control of your time.
Get rid of a monkey
- Put the monkey on the desk between you and your colleague
- Both of you should figure out how the next move may be your colleagues
- If hard, let the monkey go back to your colleague and set some time tomorrow to go back to it
- Difference is that now it is not your responsibility, you’ll give a hand next day during a preset time-slot
The real goal here is to transfer the initiative to your colleagues.
Five degrees of initiative:
- Wait until told.
- Ask what to do.
- Recommend, then take the resulting action.
- Act, and report at once.
- Act on your own, and routinely report.
Rules of engagement:
- Monkey needs be fed or shoot => decide immediately if we want to do something with the problem (even if at a later date) or not.
- Keep the monkey population below the breaking point => kanban style, put a limit on WIP items.
- Your colleague’s problem can’t become your problem:
- Work on a monkey during an assigned time slot,
- After the meeting it is still your colleague’s problem,
- If there is an action item on you, you folks collectively decide it during the meeting.
- Each monkey should have an assigned next feeding time. Otherwise it will starve or wind up on your back.
- Get rid of colleague-imposed time.
- Use part of the saved time to see if your colleagues have the initiative and apply it.
- Use the other part of the save time to up your boss- and system- imposed game.
- Note that empowerment maybe more time consuming than simply solving the problem on your own, but it will pay dividends in the long term.