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Four monkeys were put into a room.   In the center of the room was a tall pole with a bunch of bananas suspended from the top. 

One particularly hungry monkey eagerly scampered up the pole, intent on retrieving a banana.  Just as he reached out to grasp the banana, he was hit with a torrent of cold water from an overhead shower.  With a squeal, the monkey abandoned its quest and retreated down the pole. 

Each monkey attempted, in turn, to secure a banana.  Each received an equally chilly shower, and each scampered down without the prize. After repeated drenchings, the monkeys finally gave up on the bananas. 

With the primates thus conditioned, one of the original four was removed from the experiment and a new monkey added.  No sooner had this new, innocent monkey started up the pole his companions reached up and yanked the surprised creature back down.

After a few such aborted attempts, but without ever having received the cold shower, the new monkey stopped trying to get the bananas. He got the message: don’t climb that pole!

One by one, each of the original monkeys was replaced.  Each new monkey learned the same lesson: don’t climb that pole; none even got so far as a cold shower.  

Despite not experiencing the cold shower, and therefore not understanding precisely why pole climbing was discouraged, they all respected the well-established precedent. 

Even after the shower was removed, no monkey ventured up the pole …

[Author unknown, but greatly appreciated!  If you or anyone you know has a proprietary interest in this story please authenticate and I will be happy to credit, or remove, as appropriate.]

When we speak of a company ‘s culture, what do we mean?  To me culture refers to the values, norms, and patterns of behavior that groups of people adopt and/or develop as they work.  Or, more simply: “the way we do things around here.”

Where does culture come from?  I try and keep it simple: culture comes from what we learn and understand as being “normal” and/or important …

A more elaborate exploration would talk about the influence of the leader(s), how the values, biases, and preferences of influential leaders get translated into company or departmental policies and management practices, and how eventually they become commonplace in the fabric of the interactions of all employees.

We, like our monkey friends, become conditioned.  Don’t climb that pole! we learn, when we see what happens to those that do … Then we teach don’t climb that pole! to the newcomers we welcome into the organization, telling the story of what happened to our ambitious coworker Moe when he climbed that pole it was like a cold shower stopped him right in his tracks! … We learn that we don’t need to climb the pole; we are growing sales and driving profits without climbing the pole; it over time becomes an afterthought, except of course to orient the new talent; and there comes a time when a newbie asks “Why don’t we climb the pole?” and we’re all kind of stumped “dunno; it’s just the way we do things around here!”

Culture is a curious thing; early on, it develops into a strong positive force, uniting people in the pursuit of common goals with normalized behaviors.  Frequently, however, this strength morphs into a weakness — changes in policies, processes, and practices become necessary as leaders push for increased results C’mon, people, we really need to climb that pole to make our revenue and profit goals this year!  but the culture pushes back Don’t climb that pole! insisting on preserving the current way of doing things “Geez, boss, we haven’t climbed that pole for 15 years and haven’t we been wildly successful?”

Of course you are now way ahead of me and considering the quite major implication of all of this … What if the monkeys we need to climb the pole to survive?  Would they we be able to overcome the conditioning?  Would they we change?  Would there be one brave monkey associate who would climb that pole?

So: are your customers increasing their expectations?  Are your competitors getting stronger, more aggressive?  As our government regulations get reformed and our vendors adopt different practices and the younger labor force holds different expectations and … and … to what extent do we need to change; to reengineer processes and adapt existing practices; to learn new behaviors; to climb that pole!