Ask Why: The story of the 5 monkeys

In my last post ‘Remembering the past’, I talked about reflecting on the past to remember why we do certain things or why we do them a certain way. But what if there is no past to refer to? What if you are new to a company/team/role and don’t have any history to refer to? What then? Like in the case of the new monkey in the very popular story of the 5 monkeys.

There is much debate on the internet regarding the source of this story. Some people claim it was first published in C.K. Prahlad’s classic ‘Competing for the future’, while others connect it to an experiment conducted in 1967 by G.R. Stephenson. Experiment or story, it is interesting and relevant, so I am going to share it here.

An experiment was conducted where 5 monkeys were put in a large cage which had a ladder and a bunch of bananas on top of the ladder. As soon as the monkeys spot the bananas, one of them starts to climb the ladder, and that is when the experimenter sprays cold water on that monkey and also the others. The mission to get to the bananas is abolished, at least for the time being.

After a while a second monkey, giving in to the temptation, attempts to climb the ladder, and yet again cold water is sprayed on that monkey and the others. Mission abolished again.

Then something interesting happens. When the third monkey heads towards the ladder, the other monkeys stop him and beat him. They were obviously worried about the imminent cold water spray that would happen once the monkey started climbing the ladder.

The 5 monkeys, all wet and stunned, do not make any other attempts to get to the bananas.

The experimenter now removes one of the monkeys and gets a new one in the cage. The new monkey does the obvious thing – attempts to get to the ladder to get to the bunch of bananas. The other monkeys also do what seems obvious to them now (conditioning), they stop the new monkey and even beat him.

The experiment continues and another monkey is taken away and a new monkey introduced. This time when the newest monkey is getting beaten up for trying to get to the ladder, the other monkey, who has never been sprayed with the cold water, also joins in. He clearly has no idea why he is beating the new monkey, but does it anyway, because the others are doing it, and so it seems like the right thing to do.

While there are many lessons that we can learn from this experiment/story, the primary lesson is to ‘Ask why’.

How often do we do things not because we see value in them, but because someone told us it needs to be done or done a certain way?  How many of us work on a report and share it with our stakeholders, not knowing and understanding the purpose it serves? How many us attend meetings simply because someone put them on our calendar? And worse, how many of us as Managers/Supervisors are asking people to do things without really understanding why?

If only we asked ‘Why’, to ourselves/other stakeholders, will we know why we do what we do. There is a good chance that the environment/circumstances/laws/policies/culture have changed.  That there is no ‘Cold water spray’ anymore. Are we still refraining ourselves from getting to the bananas?

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