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Don’t Spring The Apes

| Posted in Leadership | | 465 views

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Don't be an ape!How many times have you done something without questioning it? how many times have you obliged to an unjustifiable policy or ineffective process just because this is how it has been designed, the number of ridiculous activities we do on daily basis has become devastating and unless we stop and try to understand why we need to follow a certain policy, our energy will always go in the wrong place.

There is a very interesting story – you may have read before – that beautifully models how absurd polices unearth, the source of this story is unknown, if you know the source, please leave a comment below.

Start with a cage containing five apes. In the cage, hang a banana on a string and put stairs under it. Before long an ape will go up the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as the ape touches the banana, spray all apes with cold water. After a while, another ape makes an attempt with the same result – all the apes are sprayed with cold water. Then turn off the cold water.

“Now if another ape tries to climb the stairs for the banana the other apes will try to prevent it even though no water sprays them. Now remove one of the five apes from the cage and replace with a new one. The new ape sees the banana and tries to climb the stairs. To his horror, all of the apes attack him. After another attempt he is again attacked. He knows now that if he attempts to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.

“Next, remove another of the original five apes and replace with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm. Again, replace a third of the original five apes with a new one. The new one makes it to the stairs and is attacked as well. Two of the four apes that beat him up have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs, or why they are participating in the beating of the newest ape. After replacing the fourth and fifth of the original apes there are no longer any apes that have been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no ape ever again approaches the banana. Why not ?? “Because that’s the way it’s always been around here.” That is how policy begins!!!

Interesting, huh? I have been such an ape many times and I am sure you have been too! You may be positive enough to change your environment, but there are many challenges associated with trying to break the rules, such as:

  • Lack of Influence: though you may be very interested in changing ineffective policies, you may not have an influence to change them.
  • Opposing Change: It is very difficult for people who have followed a certain policy for a long time to change it easily. Change can be be associated with risk, inconsistency, unfamiliarity, more cost, or adding more work.
  • Seen as a rebel: If you try to change the system, you may be classified as a rebel who refuses to comply with formal policies and processes.

NoticeThe examples of ineffective policies are many, for instance, an approval workflow that lacks intelligence, for instance, small budget approval workflow can be automatically approved without going through the same 6 figure budget approval process, other examples could be Internet usage policy, dress code, unnecessary documentation that nobody ever reads, etc.

Look at the notice board in the image, this is just another example of apes management!

I have also written before about similar policies that constraint people’s capabilities and hinder creativity at If you put fences around people you get sheep.

Feel free to share your experience with being an ape and how you could handle it.

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Comments (3)

A clever and useful insight into the nature of Change. I think I am going to use it to explain the resistance to change next time this topic comes up, probably tomorrow!!

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Apparently the experiment described above was parabled from the actual experiment referenced below:

Stephenson, G. R. (1967). Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. In: Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart: Fischer, pp. 279-288.

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Stephenson, G. R. (1967). Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. In: Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart: Fischer, pp. 279-288.

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