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Whose Monkey Is It? A Lesson in Leadership for Franchise Managers

Published on July 07, 2022

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Originally published in the November–December 1974 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), this is my favorite article on business leadership, and one of the HBRs two best-selling reprints ever.[i] Its message applies to anyone responsible for managing people including franchisors and franchisees. This blog includes key excerpts from the original article and was reviewed by Stephen R. Covey in 1999.

Management Time

Management time is used in several ways and includes boss-imposed time, which is time compelled by a manager’s superior and self-imposed time, which is imposed by subordinates on their manager. Self-imposed time can be the least productive use of a manager’s time. The term monkey on-the -back is used to describe how a manager receives subordinate-imposed time in the form of a problem or question. For example, one of the manager’s subordinates greets him and says: “We’ve got a problem.” The manager knows enough about this type of situation to get involved, but not enough to decide on the spot. As a result, a typical manager’s response, which I have been guilty of, is “let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.”  We use the term monkey to describe a problem, in the above example the monkey went from the subordinate to the manager. The manager has accepted the monkey and became subordinate to his subordinate. At some point the subordinate will ask the manager “How’s it coming?” (Also called supervision.)

If the manager does not decide to respond, he or she will get a follow-up memo from the subordinate, another form of supervision. The more the manager delays, the more frustrated the subordinate will become and the more guilty the manager will feel, and the subordinate-imposed time will be increasing. Each time the process is repeated the manager and subordinate will assume that the issue under consideration is a mutual problem. The monkey begins its new career astride both their backs and the manager add another monkey to his collection.

As his or her other subordinates follow the same routine, the manager’s time is being taken up by meeting his own boss-imposed and system-imposed requirements. To fully perform his job, he needs some discretionary time but that has been denied him since he is preoccupied with all the monkeys. Later as he drives home, he intends to return to the office on the weekend to get caught up. He returns to his office the next day and sees a foursome consisting of his subordinates on the golf course across from his office window. He now realizes who is working for whom. He knows that if he accomplishes what he came to do, his subordinates’ morale will go up so much they will each raise the limit on the number of monkeys they will let jump from their backs to his and the more he gets caught up, the more he will fall behind.

He realizes that he must get rid of his subordinate-imposed time. This will allow him to get additional time, which he can spend with his subordinates to teach them about the care and feeding of monkeys. The manager will then have time for getting control of the timing and the content of his boss-imposed time. Eventually the manager will be able to manage his own time.

Getting Rid of the Monkeys

The manager returns to the office Monday morning to see his subordinates outside his office waiting to see him about their monkeys. He calls them in one by one to take a monkey, place it on the desk between them, and figure out together how the next move should be. The subordinate’s next move may be so vague that the manager decides to let the monkey sleep on the subordinate’s back overnight and have him or her return with it at an appointed time the next morning to continue the discussion.

As each subordinate leaves the office, the manager is rewarded by the sight of a monkey leaving his office. For the next 24 hours, the subordinate will not be waiting for the manager; instead, the manager will be waiting for the subordinate. Later, the manager strolls by the subordinate’s office and asks, “How’s it coming?” The next time the subordinate and his monkey meet with the manager, the manager explains the ground rules: At no time while I am helping you with this or any other problem will your problem become my problem. The instant your problem becomes mine, you no longer have a problem. I cannot help a person who does not have a problem.

Transferring the Initiative

Managers can transfer the initiative back to their subordinates and keep it there but before developing initiative in subordinates, the subordinate’s manager must have the initiative. If the manager takes it back, he will no longer have that his discretionary time since it reverts to subordinate-imposed time.

The degrees of initiative a subordinate can exercise in relation to their boss and to the system:

  1. Recommend, then take resulting action.
  2. Act but advise at once.
  3. Act on their own, then routinely report (highest initiative).

The manager who encourages initiatives 1,2 and 3 has control over the timing and content. These initiatives leave the manager in control of both, with the greatest amount of control being exercised at level 3. In relation to subordinates, the manager’s needs to have the subordinate learn to reach initiative three, where they tell the manager that there was a problem and how they resolved it. I would tell my subordinates that I did not like surprises so if they had a problem (monkey) define it and tell me how they think it can be solved. Having my subordinates take initiatives 2 then 3 was my goal.

The Care and Feeding of Monkeys

To further describe the concept of the monkey on the back and the processes of assigning responsibility, we refer briefly to the “Care and Feeding of Monkeys.” (Violation of these rules will cost a manager time.)

Rule 1. Monkeys should be fed, or they will starve to death, and the manager will waste valuable time. In other words, do not ignore problems.

Rule 2. The number of monkeys should be kept below the maximum number the manager has time to feed. Subordinates will find time to work as many monkeys as he or she finds time to feed, but no more.

Rule 3. Monkeys should be fed by appointment only. The manager should not have to hunt down starving monkeys and feed them on a catch-as-catch-can basis.

Rule 4. Monkeys should be fed face-to-face or by telephone, but never by mail. (Remember—with mail, the next move will be the managers.) Documentation may add to the feeding process, but it cannot take the place of feeding.

Rule 5. Every monkey should have an assigned next feeding time and degree of initiative. These may be revised at any time by mutual consent but never allowed to become vague or indefinite. Otherwise, the monkey will either starve to death or wind up on the manager’s back.

I worked in a company where executives and managers were presented the monkey course. Soon it became common for us to follow the lessons learned. It would not be unusual for a manager to remind a subordinate to take their monkey with them after a meeting.


[i] Covey, S.R., Oncken, W., Bass, D. 1999, Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? Harvard Business Review

About the Author: Ed Teixeira
Ed Teixeira is a recognized franchise expert with over 40 years’ experience in the franchise industry. He has served as a corporate executive for franchise firms in the retail, manufacturing, healthcare and technology industries and was a franchisee of a multi-million-dollar home healthcare franchise. Ed and Richard Chan are the authors of a new textbook, Franchising Strategies: The Entrepreneurs Guide to Success, to be published on July 1st by Routledge on July 1st. He has participated in the CEO Magazine Roundtable Meetings with business leaders from around the country and has spoken at a number of venues including the International Franchise Expo and Chinese Franchise Association in Shanghai, China. Over the course of his career, Ed has been involved with over 1,000 franchise locations and launched franchise concepts from existing business models. Ed can be contacted at [email protected].

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