3 min read

A Cage Full of Monkeys

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One of the many things I’ve enjoyed when training a new member on our Volunteer Impact software is the way some of them look at a new system implementation as an opportunity to revisit some of their long-established policies and processes.

Something that can prevent an organization from reaching a higher level of success is the anchor of old policies or processes. While it might feel like they are giving stability to the organization, in many cases they are simply holding it back from moving forward. A specific process or policy may very well have been established for valid reasons, but, if over time, these reasons dissipate; it’s time for a change.

What’s this got to do with cage full of monkeys?

Researchers placed five monkeys in a cage where there was a set of stairs that had a banana hanging at the top. Whenever one of the monkeys began to climb the stairs to get to the banana, the researcher sprayed water on the other four monkeys. Before long, when one of the monkeys went to get a banana, the other monkeys engaged in violent opposition.

The researchers then removed one monkey and replaced it with a monkey that had never been associated with the previous events in the cage. When the new monkey went for the banana, the other monkeys prevented it. After a few attempts the new monkey stopped trying.

The researchers then replaced another of the original monkeys with a new one and as one would expect, the new monkey went to climb the stairs to get the banana. It was prevented from doing so by the other monkeys, including the one that had never been sprayed with water. One by one the original monkeys were replaced by monkeys that had never know about the water spraying.  When a new monkey was introduced at this stage and went for the banana, the other monkeys prevented it, even though the reason that "we-are-not-allowed-to-get-the-banana” policy had long gone away.  As far as they knew, that’s just the way we do things around here.

Unfortunately, the metaphor here applies to many work environments. Although management may think they promote innovative thinking, they unknowingly pour cold water on anyone who tries something new. When other employees learn that behavior, they too may suppress innovation and the organization can become gridlocked from reaching its potential.

If you want to weed out some of this behavior in your organization, here is one approach.

  1. Audit the organization – Take a note of any actions that you take or don’t take due to a policy or practice in your organization, along with the applicable policy or policies. Include informal or unwritten ones as well as the formal policies. Although not intended to be any sort of exhaustive list, be sure to include things such as what information gets collected when volunteers apply or donors give, what volunteers are and are not allowed to do as volunteers and what reporting you do related to volunteer or donor engagement.
  2. Review - Once the lists have been compiled; go through them one by one with others in the organization. Challenge the basic premises on why things are as they are.
  • If possible, involve others not directly involved with volunteer engagement as some policies and processes might have initially come at the request of other areas.
  • Involve some volunteers. They see things from a different perspective and in their unique view they might not be as tied to old ways as you. Or you might find them be tied to the past more than you and that presents a whole other challenge.
  • Involve your supervisor if you can. “Because my boss said it gets done this way” is not necessarily a good reason. Some of her requests of you might very well be rooted in old habits of a predecessor and the exercise could benefit her as well.
  1. Retain or evolve - Where there is still relevance, maintain the status quo: where there is no longer any relevance, make the appropriate change.

Like the monkeys in the cage, you might very well run into opposition in the process.  But if you can break through and show everyone it’s okay to eat the banana, you’ll bring the whole organization up to a higher level.

If you’ve got some examples of policies or procedures that you have shed, and the good things that came of it, please share them here to help others do the same.