Monkey see, Monkey do

This week I heard a story about a social experiment done with monkeys.

*Before I go on, I must say I am completely and utterly against this kind of animal testing; if you want to study their social behaviours go and watch them playing in their natural habitats. Don’t do cruel tests in stupid cages. There, I could go on forever, but that would be a whole different post.

Assuming the experiment was conducted ages ago, when people didn’t know better, here’s how it went:

Five monkeys were placed in the same space, let’s call it the ‘room’. In that room there was a ladder and on top of the ladder there was food. However every time a monkey tried to go up that ladder it would be sprayed with water (I’m assuming a huge amount), so it would prevent the monkey from getting to the food. After a while none of the monkeys would even attempt to go up the ladder. They then replaced one of the monkeys with a new one. When the newbie tried to go up the ladder the other monkeys pulled it down (before the water cannon) and beat it up. One by one all the monkeys were replaced, until there were five complete new monkeys in the room. None of those monkeys went up the ladder.

Hearing this story I couldn’t help but question myself: how many ladders out there aren’t WE climbing?

Think about it. It’s known that humans learn first by mimicking. There we are not much different from monkeys. We then grow-up and develop our own personality, our own way of seeing things and thinking about the world we’re in. However I would say that most of our behaviour is conditioned by inherited traditions, culture traits from previous generations. I am not referring to the things we know and learned through history; I’m talking about conditioned behaviours, ladders that no one tries to climb anymore, and we don’t really know why.

On Ricardo Semler’s book, ‘Maverick‘, he talks about the time he told a story at an International Telecoms Conference (late 90’s). The story was about this textile company in England, with 200 employees. The factory was located in an industrial park, filled with machines; the chief executive arrived early and left late; the factory was divided in sub-areas, each with its own boss, who in turn had a group of foreman to watch the workers; accountants and salespeople reported to their own department heads, all in the strict and hierarchical form. ‘Where’s he going with this? That’s just any normal, standard company’ – the audience thought. The point was, this factory existed in 1633. 1633, as in the 17th century.

Now read that example and tell me if you don’t recognize this structure in most of our ‘modern companies’? Most companies will have that hierarchical and pyramidal form, reaching its worst at big multinational companies, where the extremes of the pyramid are so far from one another that productivity gets lost in the process of trying to even communicate to each other. Why is it this way? We’ve invented so much stuff since, so many technological advances, and still most places still opt to work as a 17th century textile factory. As Semler says ‘our advances in technology have far out-stripped our advances in mentality’.

As a result, today there’s far too many people trapped in an irrational system set by ‘what was once a logical thing’, just like that second group of five monkeys, not even attempting to climb the ladder.

Lately I have been trying to find ladders, and climb as many as possible. Yeah, sure, I can still be taken down by the water cannon, but what if I don’t? Then, something amazing might happen.

In the spirit of adventure, I challenge you to find ladders and start climbing (not literally, unless you’re into that). You know what I mean: What are your barriers? What things annoy you that you believe could be improved by a simple solution? What is done a certain way that you’d like to do differently?

As Gandhi said, ‘be the change that you wish to see in the world’, so go! Climb some ladders!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s