I’ve been unable to track down the origin of the phrase “a job so simple a monkey can do it”, so I’ll make do here with a few other monkey aphorisms. All to set up for a useful post, I promise.
Some years (or eons) ago, it was posited that if you gave a million monkeys each a typewriter, eventually one would hack out some Shakespeare. Actually, it’s called the infinite monkey theorem, and it says (per Wikipedia) that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. In truth, the monkeys did not type anything useful at all, and destroyed the typewriters in the process.
A monkey wrench is a wrench that is make-do, can be arranged to work in a given situation. It turns out to have a nautical origin in name, and a horsedrawn carriage origin in function. It is actually not a pipe wrench, being that the jaws are perpendicular to the handle instead of angled as in a pipe wrench. They are also often flat instead of toothed. But they can be monkeyed around with until they work, for sure.
Throwing the monkey wrench into something is another name for sabotage.
CareerBuilder.com’s monkey advertisements reinforced the idea the monkeys are not anyone’s choice of top recruits for jobs that might provide a decent paycheck.
Monkeys are a metaphor for small, unreliable operations and operators that can go wrongly, often with spectacularly bad (ok, hilarious) results.
Let’s head back to the monkeys on the job.
During work on a large, game-changing software installation that I recently participated it, a healthy debate set up between some of the stakeholders, one group of which wanted a process that “a monkey could operate”, and one group who wanted an expert process. Middle ground was, as usual, scarce. The process in question was a stage and gate process and one of the complexities was the processing of gates – should it be automated or should it require intervention from humans skilled in the art?
This posed two rather fundamental process governance questions – how complex should the process be, and how much knowledge should be required to operate it?
The governance issue was the subject of much debate within the chartering organization, and both sides made compelling arguments. The monkey side wanted a process that could not be perverted for individual gain and that would not place additional burden on the already thin staff. The expert side wanted to know that the right decisions were being made regardless of a number, that no opportunities were being missed, and that common sense would always prevail. Both agreed that the governance of the process was critical to its success and turned back to the team for an answer.
Out of this challenge, my team, the team in charge of implementation, threw up our hands in frustration and exclaimed “if the process is so simple that it only requires monkeys to operate, then why do we need (to pay) senior managers?” We christened this “the monkey rule”.
We created a paradox in the process: the only people who could specify a monkey-enabled process were the senior managers, who then would become irrelevant in doing so. At the same time, the managers demanding as expert process were committing to the work required, because it could not be delegated to monkeys by virtue of its expert content.
Both arguments hold water – some processes are suitable for “monkey-enabling” and others will never make it out of the C-suite. The middle ground is where application of the monkey rule is required. For example, simple invoice checking for completeness is a relatively straightforward process – are all of the pieces of information there? Ok, move it on to the next step. Choosing a vendor is much more complex and not all of the useful information has a numeric value or can be converted to one. How do you rate the sole proprietor’s chances of a heart attack in the next ten months? Well, it probably starts with a phone call and might proceed to a face-to-face meeting over lunch. Things that are often handled by managers of some level with some amount of gut expertise. An expert, if you will.
In the end, the team and the chartering organization went the route of the expert process requiring the senior managers to actively participate. It’s mostly working, and it’s generating accountability that was previously unheard of in the organization. It’s also revealing some opportunities for improvement and a non-trivial number of missing experts.
Most importantly, the monkey rule served its purpose – to differentiate between the truly monkey-level tasks and those that do require a well-funded paycheck. Our managers are still being paid.
Where are you going to deploy the monkey rule?