Productivity Thomson Reuters

Other People’s Monkeys

October 7, 2015

I spend a lot of time thinking about monkeys at work.

One of my favorite time management concepts is “Who’s got the Monkey?” by William Oncken, Jr. This time management classic is targeted at managers, but I think this time management skill works great for non-managerial employees too.

The author uses the “monkey on your back” metaphor to describe how we assign tasks to each other. The “monkey” belongs to whoever has the next move.

You typically have a monkey on your back when someone has a task that you agree to take on, or a problem that you agree to look into. You get the monkey because the burden is on you to act.

The monkey doesn’t jump back to the other person until you complete your task and the next move is theirs.

Other people’s monkeys can quickly pile up and prohibit you from focusing on your own priorities.

Monkeys from bosses and customers are inevitable, (and part of your job to deal with), but monkeys from peers and subordinates can sabotage your performance.Monkey2

The Rules of Taking Care of Monkeys

  1. Monkeys should be fed or shot. Otherwise the monkey will starve to death (a project dying) and you’re going to waste your energy on postmortems, guilt, and failed resurrections.
  2. Each monkey should have an assigned feeding time and an assigned degree of initiative. Failure to do this will cause the monkey to starve to death or end up back on your back.
  3. A properly kept monkey shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes to feed.
  4. Keep the monkey population well below the maximum number that you have time to feed.
  5. Feed monkeys by appointment only – don’t waste your time chasing down other people to follow-up on their problems.

The Levels of Initiative in the Workplace

Here are 5 levels of initiative you can take in the workplace (1 being the lowest) – understanding these levels of initiative is key to the proper management of monkeys.

The levels are:

  1. Wait until you’re told what to do.
  2. Ask what you should do.
  3. Recommend an action, and then take it.
  4. Take the action, then give an immediate notification of the action.
  5. Take the action, but report on it later.

People who decide to act at level 1 (waiting for tasks) have no control over the timing or the content of the tasks that they receive from their boss or the system. They also have no right to complain over what they are told to do or when.

If you decide to operate at level 2 (asking for tasks) then you have control over the timing of tasks, but not the content, which is also not ideal.

Operating at levels 3-5 gives you the most control over timing and substance of your work, which is ideal for maximizing the amount of time you have to work on your own projects.

Encouraging your peers and subordinates to operate at levels 3-5 also reduces the amount of monkeys that you receive.

Don’t have others wait on direction from you for tasks that they should handle on their own. This quickly breeds dependency in coworkers and zaps you of your time.

The Types of Work Time

The goal of the “managing monkeys” strategy is to shape the content and quality of the different types of work time you have. William Oncken, Jr. outlines three different types of time categories:

  1. Boss-imposed time: things that your manager requires that you do, which cannot be neglected without getting into trouble.
  2. System-imposed time: things that your peers ask you for. You’ll also get penalized for ignoring these requests for active support, just not as swiftly or directly as with boss-imposed time.
  3. Self-imposed time: all the things that you originate or agree to take on. Neglecting self-imposed duties doesn’t result in a penalty by the system or your boss, (mostly because they don’t know what you intended to do.)

Self-imposed time is divided into two subsections:

  1. Subordinate-imposed time: things people who report to you ask for.
  2. Discretionary time: everything else. Truly your own set of tasks/goals.

Boss-imposed and system-imposed time are relatively fixed (and subject to penalty!) so the only thing you really have control over is self-imposed time.

The key to managing your day and career is to get rid of much subordinate-imposed time as possible so you can maximize your discretionary time.

This means managing time and peers appropriately so you can focus on tending to your own tasks instead of other people’s monkeys.


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