The Parable of the Monkeys

BananasI 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…

The experiment

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!

Monkey business

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.

Monkey on a computer

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.

Roof collapsed under snow

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.

Group of business people with smartphones

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.

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16 Comments on “The Parable of the Monkeys”

  1. Susan Says:

    Interesting parable.

  2. Susan Says:

    I’m wondering why the monkeys didn’t try and shift the ladder and get out of the way of most of the water. Or, not try and throw the ladder at the bananas to drop them. And since monkeys swim then why were they so freaked at the water? Not hungry enough? All these questions and more…. is there a union of monkeys? Was PETA involved? I know you made a point about the monkeys but I’m stuck in the room and can’t get there yet :))

  3. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Yes, the union of monkeys was involved. Its primary concern was that its members were being paid peanuts.

  4. Hi Ryan, it sounds as if it could be true like Pavlov’s dogs:)Great story and way to show how and why we get stuck in our ways and why we need to resist that at all costs:)

  5. Tom Crouser Says:

    Great article, Ryan! The monkey parable is a great representation of how groups sometimes get stuck in a certain way of doing things and fail to break routines to become a high performing team. My takeaway: stay out of the monkey business and get an elephant (they appreciate peanuts).

  6. Ryan Tracey Says:

    LOL! Cheers Tom.

  7. Barry Ong Says:

    Hi Ryan,
    Your parable on the Monkeys represented one of the biggest issue in most organization. Many a times when I asked the question “why are you doing this”, I’m certain to get the most frustrating reply “ because we have been doing this way all along”. I guess this got to do with laissez-faire attitude from poor management concept “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”.
    With regard to the m-learning, I do agreed it about time we take a serious look in this arena. New mobile devices are rolling out like hot cakes after the Iphone and Ipad phenomenon. Users are now familiar with the mobile networking skills, creating a mature market for m-learning. However, the concern point, are learners willing to change their learning habit. Will they become the monkeys in your parable?


  8. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Thanks Barry. Yes, we need to match our activities as L&D professionals to the needs of our target audience. For example, everyone’s talking about using iPads for learning, but that doesn’t mean our audience wants to use their iPads for learning!

    Of course we should encourage and support our colleagues to explore new tools and approaches in the digital age, but that must be balanced with their desire to do so.

    Everyone will have their favourite ways of learning, whether it’s cutting edge or old fashioned. For those who want to pursue m-learning, let’s help them. For those who aren’t interested, no worries – let’s work out what else we can do for them.

  9. pgharvey Says:

    Some comment on the research here:

    The article explains there was an experiment similar to the parable but the results are questionable.

    That doesn’t necessarily invalidate thinking about the behaviours described, I’ve seen plenty of organisations and individuals behave in this way.

  10. Ryan Tracey Says:

    That’s a good article pg, thanks for sharing it.

  11. Melissa Flavius Says:

    I am one who truly believes in following the traits and footsteps of those that have come before me. The way I see it, the monkeys have the same mindset and have reacted in the same way as we humans would react in that situation.

  12. Melissa Flavius Says:

    But we are leaving in a modern world today and therefore we should make decisions on our own and not let people control our minds

  13. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Thanks for your comments, Melissa. Indeed, I suggest the idea of stories such as these is to draw parallels to our own worlds.

    Having said that, I agree we should make decisions on our own. Our worlds are so different contextually, what works for you might not work for me!

  14. Anonymous Says:

    Very interesting story. Something we can all learn from.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    very interesting story something you can learn a lesson

  16. Anonymous Says:

    very interesting something we all can learn

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