The Parable of the Monkeys
I was pondering the notions of innovation and adaptability the other day – nerd alert! – when I remembered the Parable of the Monkeys.
I’m not sure who invented this parable. I don’t think it’s a true story; at least I hope not (poor monkeys). Perhaps it’s a corruption of an ancient fable? If you can shed any light on it, please let me know.
Anyway, here’s the ryanised version…
In a room there were 5 monkeys.
A bunch of bananas hung from the ceiling, and a ladder stood nearby.
Inquisitive and hungry, one of the monkeys climbed the ladder and reached for a banana. As soon as he did so, a scientist opened a port hole and drenched all the monkeys with a high-pressure hose.
After a few minutes, angry and dripping wet, but no less inquisitive and hungry, another monkey decided to give it a go. He climbed the ladder and reached for a banana. As soon as he did so, the scientist opened the port hole again and drenched all the monkeys with the hose.
After a few more minutes, another monkey decided to give it a go. This time his mates were having none of it. As soon as he touched the ladder, they rallied around and beat him up.
None of the monkeys dared go near the ladder any more.
The next day, the scientist removed one of the monkeys and replaced him with a new one. Since this monkey was not aware of the consequences, he headed straight for the ladder. The other monkeys headed him off and beat him up.
The next day, the scientist removed another monkey and replaced him with a new one. Since this monkey was not aware of the consequences, he headed straight for the ladder. Again the other monkeys headed him off and beat him up.
This continued for few more days. Each time, like clockwork, the new monkey would head for the ladder and the other monkeys would beat him up.
Then on Day 6, a strange thing happened. Yes, the new monkey headed for the ladder and the other monkeys beat him up. However none of those monkeys was an original from Day 1. They all dutifully beat up the new guy, but they had no idea why!
I’m sure we’ve all had times when we’ve felt like one of those monkeys.
We do something a particular way because that’s the way we’ve always done it.
That line of thinking is oft-derided, but you know what? Sometimes it makes perfect sense.
For example, if you live in northern Europe, it’s a good idea to build your roof with a steep incline, just like everyone else has done for centuries. You might not know why that’s the way it’s always been done, but if you deviate you will be sorry.
Having said that, high performers like to challenge the status quo.
Suppose the scientist running the monkey experiment dies and is replaced by a gentle soul who would never harm a monkey. Or the laws change and mistreating monkeys is prohibited. If the monkeys continue to do what they’ve always done, they’ll never enjoy the bananas that are now freely available to them!
If I draw a parallel to the workplace, m-learning springs to mind. I admit I haven’t done much in this space over the years, but that’s because hardly any of my colleagues have owned a smartphone. My previous analysis warned me that any work done in this space would be a waste of time because there was no demand.
But times change. Now every man and his dog owns an iPhone or a Blackberry or an Android or an iPad. Phone plans are a lot cheaper, and download speeds are smoking. Returning my attention to m-learning this year is probably a wise idea.
The moral of the story
For me, the moral of the story is to take a proactive but cautious approach to innovation.
Respect the fact that prior generations have done things a particular way for, in all likelihood, good reasons.
To be adaptable, however, you need to remain cognisant of the fact that the world changes and, hey, most things can be done better.
So give your ideas a go – but do your homework first; and protect yourself so that if you fail, you fail quick and you fail small.