me and my monkey: harvard business review time management

June 22, 2021

written by
Barbara O Stephenson

When I was an up-and-coming middle manager, I devoured all sorts of material on how to manage people because being organized doesn’t translate to being a good manager.  Getting people to agree to a timeline, a common set of goals, and processes with a set of expectations is hard. Too often we hear the phrase “herding cats” and as a manager, it tells me that people are working on their own agendas rather than as a collective group. So how do we quickly bring people in line? Without a degree in organizational psychology to understand everything, it’s the Harvard Business Review to the rescue with a nearly 50-year-old article Who’s got the Monkey?

It’s very simple at its core. A workplace is full of monkeys. Monkeys are tasks. Calling a client for a meeting? That’s a monkey. Doing a design review with feedback? That’s a monkey. Building out a business plan? Monkey. Reservations for lunch with team? Monkey. You get the idea at this point that 300FeetOut is a gigantic barrel of monkeys, in fact averaging 180 – 250 monkeys a week.

Every time you give someone a task, you’re giving them a monkey. I give Pip the designer a monkey by saying the client needs this page updated. I have handed the monkey over to Pip. That monkey has jumped onto their back, and off mine. Done.

BUT what happens when someone says they can’t possibly take care of the monkey task themselves? Ranging from “Can you check this” or “I don’t know if I should say x or y” or any other one of a zillion possible questions. What happens then? You can either push the monkey back on them or take it back. HBR says that when you take the monkey back, the manager actually volunteers to become the subordinate. The manager is now responsible to the subordinate for the subordinate’s work. Which is how managers find themselves with no time to do anything and subordinates find themselves with too much time.

Bad managers take the monkey back. Good managers teach how to feed and take care of the monkey.

To teach the care and feeding of a monkey, always make sure the next step is the subordinate’s step. If someone says “we have a problem” then say “put time on my calendar and come prepared with your solution to the problem”. See? They have to schedule something on your calendar and then tell you how they would solve it. As they grow with experience, you give them more autonomy. The ideal scenario is for the team to take care and feed the monkeys without daily minute-by-minute management oversight, but only bringing to your attention when the monkey has mange or to give you a weekly update on the feeding schedule- aka emergencies or routine reporting.

A word of warning- Giving people the authority to handle their own jobs their way can bite you in the monkey-butt. You’re not allowed to micro-manage their solutions if they work to solve the problem and handle the monkey satisfactorily.  Knowing when to give feedback and when to TRUST that the job was done, even if it wasn’t done your way, is the hardest part of people/monkey management.

the care and feeding of 3FO monkeys.

  • Trust your team members to handle their own monkeys. If they need a consult, they’ll ask for one.
  • If any communication regarding care takes more than two back and forth responses, it’s a call.
  • If a monkey keeper finds a problem, they must suggest a solution before handing the monkey back to someone else.
  • Each monkey keeper has the ability to act on their own. If anyone doesn’t understand the care and feeding of a particular monkey, ie how to manage a client, they should be empowered to consult appropriately.
  • Newer employees get to formulate monkey recommendations and then bring them to you at an appointed time for review. That’s called training.


The HBR article is short and their Care and Feeding on Monkeys is much funnier than mine.


Your team can power-play with Monkeys if not careful. Whoever has the monkey on their back is the subordinate to the monkey giver.
Designer: I’ve completed this, please add a button.
Developer: I added a button.
Designer: no, it’s not right.
Developer: I don’t understand, you asked for a button. There’s a button right there!
Designer: I didn’t want a purple button with pink swirls on a black page. I wanted a white button.

In this case, the Developer should have said “I can add the button, please provide specifications” OR after the Designer said “no it’s not right” it should have been a phone call. Not a three-hour back and forth in the group chat so that everyone on the team gets to see how the monkey was handled. Or maybe the Designer should have been clear with instructions in the first place.


Clients can also play the monkey-power game. By saying “I’d like feedback” you’re holding the monkey until they get back to you. I’ve seen clients withhold feedback for 30+ days so now we put it in our contracts. It’s better to frame it as “Please provide feedback before going live with your website next Monday.”