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Oncken, William and Wass, Donald. “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?”
Harvard Business Review . November-December 1999: 179-186

  • Boss-imposed time - to accomplish those activities which the boss requires and which the manager cannot disregard without direct and swift penalty.
  • System-imposed time - to accommodate those requests to the manager for active support from his peers. This assistance must also be provided lest there are penalties, though not always direct or swift.
  • Self-imposed time - to do those things which the manager originates or agrees to do himself. Self-imposed time is not subject to penalty since neither the boss nor the system can discipline the manager for not doing what they did not know he had intended to do in the first place.
    • A certain portion of this kind of time, however, will be taken by his subordinates and is called "subordinate-imposed time".
    • The remaining portion will be his own and is called "discretionary time". This last component is not subject to penalties, as it is time used to do things that he or she, the manager, originates or agrees to do. 

For many managers, much of the self-imposed time is spent on solving his or her subordinate’s problems and issues. The article above is titled, “Who’s Got the Monkey.” The “monkey” is analogous to the problems or issues subordinates have. This “monkey” is far too often passed on to the manager to solve. Once the manager begins working on subordinate problems, the manager begins working for his or her subordinates. When in fact the subordinates should be working for him or her.

With all this time wasted on solving subordinate problems, discretionary time becomes obsolete. The article above discusses ways managers can get his or her subordinates to take care of their own “monkeys” and to never let a subordinate problem become the manager’s problem. The subordinate-imposed time should therefore be eliminated in order for the manager to gain better control over his or her subordinates, better control over his or her time, and to reduce unnecessary stress.

Oncken and Wass offer a well defined basic law for managing monkeys. It is:

At no time while I am helping you will your problem become my problem.
The instant your problem becomes mine, you will no longer have a problem.
I cannot help someone who hasn't got a problem.
You may ask my help at any appointed time, and we will make a joint determination of what the next move will be and who will make it.

In addition to the law of monkey management, the authors list five rules of managing monkeys that are instructive to managers. These include:

  1. Monkeys should be fed or shot. No one likes the consequences of a starving monkey. They tend to be very disagreeable and squeal and raise a ruckus. Monkeys must be fed periodically; in this analogy, the problem must be dealt with between the manager and the employee with the problem on a regular basis. If the monkey can be shot (the problem solved quickly), then feeding times are not necessary.
  2. The monkey population should be kept below the maximum number that the manager has time to feed. The authors suggest that it should take 15 minutes to feed a monkey, and that managers should keep the list of problems that are in various stages of solution at a manageable number.
  3. Monkeys should fed by appointment only. Allowing employees to bring problems to you on their timetable increases the chances that the monkey will move from the employee to the manager. By setting specific times for addressing the problem, managers empower employees to make interim decisions about the problem, and still report back.
  4. Monkeys shall be fed face to face or by telephone, but not in writing. Holding feeding sessions via e-mail or memo transfers the monkey to the manager. An employee can pass the monkey to the manager by simply requesting a response. Feedings that take place in person or on the phone require the monkey to remain with the employee unless the supervisor takes an affirmative step to take it.
  5. Every monkey should have an assigned next feeding time and a degree of initiative. After a feeding session, the manager should select an appropriate time for the next feeding and should have a number of action steps for the employee to take. "Can we meet next Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. to see how things are going and what we should do next?"

Violations of these rules will cost discretionary time!

Proper delegation skills, properly applied as suggested in this creative approach, can help managers better solve problems and develop their employees' problem solving skills. Visualizing each problem as a monkey that is impatient and noisy can help managers see problems as they really are and address them in the best possible way.

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