The Art of Delegating – don’t take the monkey!

Rules 1 and 2

This story has to do with a friend of mine named Jack. At the time I knew him he was Executive Vice President of a company employing about 2500 people in Chicago. He was on a two-year contract to turn the company around. I met him in the middle of his two-year term and he retained me to do some consulting work.  

On one particular occasion I showed up and Jack was waiting for me in the vestibule. He whisked me off to his office, shut the door and in hushed tones confided in me a problem that he wanted my help on. He said, "In the year that I've been here, Bob hasn't done a single thing I've wanted him to do and this is a serious handicap to me, my term being half up. Now, that alone wouldn't be critical, but the other vice­-presidents are following his lead. Which means that I have what amounts to a strike at the top management level and we've got to bust this thing up."

Soon Bob and I were sitting opposite each other at lunch and I shared with him this problem that Jack had told me about. He said, "That's right. I haven't done anything that Jack wants me to do and I don't see I ever will." And I said, "That's a pretty brazen admission. What's up?" He said, "Well, Stancombe, Jack brings the whole thing on himself. He'll walk down the hall and see a fellow and say 'Joe, just looking at you reminds me of something.' Now Joe is sitting in his office adding up a column of figures, minding his own business, but that doesn't stop Jack. He says, 'Now I don't want you to stop anything you're doing. You know that. But down in Shop 3 there is a pillar that's smack dab in the way of the boys who are trying to wheel dollies back and forth between the head of the production line and the receiving dock. They're knocking into it, bruising their elbows and shins. It's a safety hazard. Now, don't stop anything else you're doing, you understand that, but when you get a chance, when you get a minute, when it's convenient, see if you can't come up with a layout that'll solve that problem.' And that poor fellow grabs for a piece of paper on which to write a note to him­self - Shop 3, pillar, safety hazard, new layout, don't stop anything else I'm doing. He says, “Jack, I'll get right on it".

Bob says, "Jack wouldn't believe it, but I take these things seriously. I pick up about seven of these assignments a week from Jack. Every Fri­day evening before I quit for the week, I take the seven I just got from him this week, add them to the head of this list and drop the bottom seven off to keep the list from getting over 28, because I think 28 is about all a man can handle. The following week I take the seven I got from him that week, add them to the top of the list, and again drop the bottom seven off to keep it from getting over 28. That means that this list turns over 100% every four weeks. Now, Stancombe, I did try to work on the top item on my list, but it scooted down the sheet and fell off the bottom before I could get my fingers on it. That's why I will do nothing for Jack and you can explain that to him". All amateurs are not monkey-picker-uppers. As this story so clearly suggests, some are prolific monkey-droppers, which is just about as bad. However, there is an answer to this problem, too. Here's what I told Jack.

"Now, what I recommend, Jack, is that you keep right on doing what you're doing. There are thousands of managers who will never learn how to drop monkeys. And somehow or other, you have that skill. So, hang on to it. However, I would recommend that you do something in addition to that. You see, your problem, Jack, is you don't realize that unless monkeys are put on feeding schedules they will starve to death. Keep on dropping your monkeys as you have been; but before you leave a man with his last words being, ‘I'll get right on it, Jack,’ reach into your inside coat pocket and pull out your portable appointment calendar, open it up, and say to him, “When can you be in my office and spend no more than five minutes answering a very simple question about this monkey? The question will be, how's it coming?” Look what this means, Jack, five minutes to feed a monkey, in an hour you can feed twelve, in a day you can feed ninety-six monkeys, and none of them will die."
This brings us to the first two rules for the care and feeding of monkeys.  

Rule Number 1 goes this way:

Feed them or shoot them but don't let them starve to death.

And here's Rule Number 2:

Your subordinates will find time to work as many monkeys as you can find time to feed, but no more. ­
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