Gorillas – No More Monkeys

As with most Executives, each day can seem like an endless stream of meetings followed by a series of urgent tasks and decisions that we inherit from our subordinates.  Some of the decision are warranted, but the vast majority come about because we accept our subordinates’ “Monkeys”.  These Monkeys prevent us from doing other high-value work (“Gorillas”) which are both important to the business and career-building.


      A “Monkey” is defined as a task or decision that subordinates should be handling.

      A “Gorilla” is a strategic endeavor that requires manager attention to dramatically improve the business. 

William Oncken and Donald Wass in their legendary article “Who’s Got the Monkey” points out that there are three types of management interaction time.

  • Boss-imposed time
  • System-imposed time
  • Self-Imposed time

Boss-imposed time cannot be ignored without penalty.  System-imposed time stems from peers’ active requests for support and also cannot be ignored.  The third is Self-imposed time which is composed of two parts (subordinate-imposed time and discretionary time).   If we accept too many subordinate-imposed requests or tasks (Monkeys), it cuts into our discretionary time that we could be using to innovate and be creative on the job. (Gorilla Time)

Onchen and Wass advocates that there are 5 rules to deal with Monkeys:

  • Monkeys should be fed or shot
  • The Monkey population should be kept below the maximum number there is time to feed
  • Monkeys should be fed by appointment only
  • Monkeys should be fed face-to-face or by telephone (never email)
  • Every Monkey should have an assigned next feeding time

By eliminating Subordinate-imposed Monkeys, the manager will enlarge their own discretionary time and be more effective at their job.  In addition, subordinates will feel more empowered along the way.  Many managers have found that this anti-Monkey (pro-empowerment) strategy is very effective long term, however it does require significant upfront investment to properly develop subordinates.

Summarized: Harvard Business Review, Management Time: Who’s got the Monkey, Originally Printed January 1999

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