Why do things carry on as they are in business? Why do we block innovation? And what can we do about it?
I collect facetious trainer stories — the ones a cheerful slightly overweight trainer will tell with great relish as sources of insight…
Take ten monkeys.
Put them in a cage with a shiny metal slope. At the top of the slope is a bunch of bananas. But if a monkey moves towards the slope, a powerful hose is turned on, the monkey slides down without reaching the bananas, and all the monkeys are miserable and wet.
Soon, if a brave monkey tries to make it up the slope, the others administer a light beating — they don’t want to be soaked.
Now, take out a monkey, and replace it with a fresh one. This fella looks around, sees the bananas, sees the unimaginative cowed monkey society, set out confidently up the slope…
…and is promptly hauled back and admonished by the other monkeys.
One by one, take out a jaded monkey, add a fresh monkey.
One by one, they experience the same.
You now have ten monkeys who have *never* experienced The Hose.
Yet if any monkey dared reach for the bananas… bad time for them.
‘This’, says the trainer with a chuckle, ‘is how company culture is formed’.
I saw the same in financial processing. Twenty years ago, their big open workspace was overseen by The Bosses from a mezzanine.
Transactions were taken for checking up to the mezzanine, and errors were brought back down with a Red Sheet on top.
‘Oh, you don’t wanna get a red sheet!’
I was trying to help them introduce some ‘lean’ processes, with faster signoff. The group were united — no way! Too much risk.
‘What was it like when you saw those red sheets coming down the stairs?’
…none of them had *actually* worked there at the time.
But the organisation remembered.
Same thing for ‘why do we cut off the fish’s tail before baking it?’
The baka of the mother remembers… ‘da, before the war I had a very small baking tray — you had to trim the fish to fit’…
And the brewery van, with max 28-mile journey each day, with a rest day every fourth day. Why? ‘So the horses don’t get tired’.
It’s not just a question of history or ‘how things are done around here’.
It shows how much time, energy, and learning goes into maintaining the status quo. There was once The Hose — so there might be again.
Like elephants taking to the hills before a tsunami, there’s a lot of embedded wisdom in ‘resistance to change’.
Learning that there is energy and effort in maintaining a status quo, respecting that there’s a real reason behind it, exploring what might be the implications in people’s lives of changes to this — all of these can give us real power in organisational change. And they might lead us to find ways to safely test the implications of reaching for the banana.
Oh, by the way, the other facetious trainer monkey story brings hope. One day in a troop of monkeys, one monkey was observed washing a sweet potato to get off the sand before eating it. The monkey taught its baby, the baby taught others. And they say a strange thing happened when the hundredth monkey learned the skill… monkeys all over the world were suddenly washing their food…
What does this say to you about organisational change?