Building best practice: the five monkey analogy

This post is based on a story I chanced upon in a mail trail recently. I found it both telling and instructive. Not sure who the original author was and you may have seen it before. If that’s the case – on to the next one :). For the rest of us, here goes…

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result. All the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted. Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm!

Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey. After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been done around here. 

And that interesting story folks, is how you build best practice! Voila!

Moving on. I think it’s important to question, and not to take offense when a newbie asks “why?” And by newbie, I mean anyone who is new to the system, not yet locked into our way of thinking – they can bring surprising insight and upend models. That disruption is  a much touted way of introducing innovation into stagnating/archaic systems – but I’m not about to launch into that here.

For now though, and this is important, can we all just promise to stop saying “that’s how we do it?”



“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
– Albert Einstein


4 thoughts on “Building best practice: the five monkey analogy

  1. Read this story sometime back. Coming to think of it, its amazing how many things we do simply because we found our formers doing exactly the same. Let alone at work places, cultural practices are even worse. Good to remind us to question things twice..

  2. Pingback: An Introvert’s Guide to Better Presentations | SoshiTech

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