Saturday, 4 December 2010

What we can learn from monkeys (part 1)

There are, I'm sure, many things we can learn from monkeys and in many senses. I'm not going to go anywhere near things like dietary content, the benefits of an outdoor lifestyle and biochemical realities; I'm more interested in what we can learn in terms of behaviour, individual and group and the degree to which they are interdependent, and what monkeys can teach us about real world and maths. In other words, what information leaders can learn, CIOs, IS Directors and the like, about organisations. So welcome to part one: monkeys, policies and traditions...

A friend of mine from university dropped by yesterday and we got to talking about common practices vs best practices, and how faced with many choices and a degree of uncertainty (e.g. choosing from competing and rapidly developing technologies and approaches) people tend to stick as close as possible to the way it is now, or choose a new way based on the "what most other people done" method, rather than comparing options in a rational manner and in light of long term as well as immediate consequences. This approach of choosing what you have or do, or what lots of other people have or do regardless of whether it is the best or right thing to do or choose, is so common around technology. This topic of conversation gave me the chance to air one of my favourite sayings:

"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it the superficial appearance of being right" Thomas Paine.

My friend countered by reminding me of the parallel between monkeys and many organisational policies, practices and behaviours; programmed as opposed to reasoned behaviour, all about the "thou shalt not" and more or less nothing on the "why". The parable of the cage full of monkeys and the forbidden bananas...

Take a large cage full of monkeys. Lower into the cage a large and particularly attractive bunch of bananas. The instant any monkey touches a banana let loose thunder and lightning, fire hoses of ice cold water over all the monkeys in the cage, etc.. Pretty soon, the monkeys in the cage will stop trying to reach the bunch of bananas and content themselves with other sources of nutrition provided. Now substitute a new monkey into the cage. If this monkey tries to reach for the bunch of bananas the other monkeys, not wanting all the bangs, flashes and cold water, will forcibly prevent the new monkey from reaching the bananas until the new monkey learns not to try. Then substitute another new monkey into the cage and the same thing will happen, with even the predecessor new monkey helping to prevent banana grabbing. Then substitute another. And another.

Eventually you will have substituted all of the monkeys in the cage. None of them will try to get the bananas and any new monkeys will be violently prevented from getting the bananas. And none of them will know why... Remind you of anything?

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