August 9th, 2010

Monkey see, monkey do, monkey remember

There’s an experiment attributed to Harry Harlow. Five monkeys are placed in a cage, with a ladder and a banana hanging from the ceiling. Whenever a monkey climbs the ladder to grab the banana, all monkeys are sprayed with ice cold water. After a few times, monkeys know better and nobody tries climbing the ladder.

Then, one monkey is replaced. The new arrival wants to get the banana, but as soon as he climbs the ladder, the other four start beating him – they want to stay warm and dry. After a few attempts, the new monkey conforms to the group and stays down. Then, another monkey is replaced and the story repeats itself – when the monkey that was never sprayed with cold water joins the other three. And so on until there is no monkey left who was sprayed with cold water, but still the new arrival gets beaten when he tries to climb the ladder.

Now, the decision was made by team members long gone. There’s nobody on the current team who made the decision, and nobody knows why the decision was made. It just gets passed to the new team members, with no questions asked. It may have been a good decision when it was made, and it may still be a good decision now.

But if you ask “why are we doing this” and the only answer is “the decision was made before we got here”, form your own opinion and don’t be afraid to question the status quo.