Who’s Got the Monkey

Full disclosure: This post is an excuse to show our youngest granddaughter with the screaming monkey.

Audiences love “Who’s got the monkey” stories. The idea is based on a 1974 HBR article by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass. (Republished in 1999.)

The monkey in the video was a gift from a workshop participant in Oregon.


Not long ago, I playfully bopped Ellasyn on the head with the monkey. It screamed. She yelled, “Ow!” and lowered her head for another bop. She yelled “Ow!” And so on. 

One day she bopped herself on the head. It’s fun. But it’s not so fun when someone hands you their monkey.


Unwitting managers have an office full of monkeys.

Carl meets you in the hall with, “I have a problem.” You listen and realize you can’t solve it on the spot.

“Let me get back to you.” Carl’s monkey just jumped on your back.

  • Carl delegated a task to you.
  • You assumed reporting responsibility.

Later, Carl drops by to ask for an update.

Sound familiar?

Next move:

The monkey is the next move.

Whoever is responsible for the next move has the monkey.

We share responsibility for issues and problems in organizations. You can’t ignore Carl’s monkey. You can help. You don’t have to own it.

Let’s repeat the scenario. 

Try again:

Carl meets you in the hall. “I have a problem.”

You listen and realize it’s not a quick answer. You also realize that the monkey needs to remain with Carl. (Sometimes you should take the monkey.)

Ask Carl, “What do you need to do next?” You may be able to point him to a resource or person who can help.

Agree on Carl’s next step.

Conclude by saying, “Stop by this afternoon and let me know the result.”

Carl feeds his own monkey.

How might managers/leaders better manage monkeys?