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Management Time; who’s got the Monkey?

Management Time; who’s got the Monkey? An analogy that underscores the value of assigning, delegating and controlling.
By William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L.Wass.

This article was originally published in the November–December issue of HBR in 1974 and republished in HBR in 1999.This has been one of the publication’s two best-selling reprints ever. This article explores the meaning of management time as it relates to the interaction between the manager and his boss, his own peers, and his subordinates and suggests what a manager should do to have better control over his time. I have given the article abstract here.

The authors define the Time available to a Manager as “Management Time” and split this time into Boss-Imposed Time, System-Imposed Time, and Self-Imposed Time. The definitions are as given below.

  • Boss-Imposed Time to accomplish the activities which the boss requires and which the manager cannot disregard without swift penalty.
  • System-Imposed Time to accommodate those requests to the manager for active support from his peers. This should be catered to or else there will be penalties, though not swift.
  • Self-Imposed Time to do those things which the manager originates or agrees to do himself. A certain portion of this time, however will be taken by the subordinates and “is called subordinate-imposed time.” Self-Imposed time is not subject to penalty since neither the boss nor the system can discipline the manager for not doing what they did not know he had intended to do in the first place

The basics of time management necessitates that a manager get control over the timing and content of what he/she does. The first two ‘Times’ can’t be disregarded and will incur penalties of various degrees. So the only ‘time’ a manager has got under his control is the Self-Imposed Time. The manager’s strategy is therefore to increase the ‘discretionary’ component of this self-imposed time by minimizing or doing away with the ‘subordinate’ component. He should use the added increment to get better control over his boss-imposed and system-imposed activities. This is because Most Managers spend much more subordinate imposed time than they even faintly realize.

The Anatomy of Managerial Initiative

There are five degrees of Initiative that a manager can exercise in relation to the boss and to the system.

  • Wait until told ( lowest level)
  • Ask what to do
  • Recommend, then take resulting action
  • Act, but advise at once
  • Act on own, then routinely report ( highest initiative)

Clearly the manager should be professional enough not to indulge himself in initiatives #1 and #2 in relation to either boss or the system A manager who uses initiative #1 has no control over either the timing or content of his boss-imposed or system-imposed time. He thereby forfeits any right to complain about what he is told to do or when he is told to do it. The manager who uses #2 has control over the timing, but not over the content. Initiatives #3, #4 and #5 leave the manager in control of both, with the greatest control being at level #5.


The manager’s job, in relation to his subordinates’ initiatives, is twofold; first, to outlaw the use of initiative #1 and #2, thus giving his subordinates no choice but to learn and master “Completed Staff Work”, then, to see that for each problem leaving his office, there is an agreed upon level of initiative assigned to it, in addition to the agreed upon time and place for the next manager subordinate conference.


Where is the Monkey?
Let us imagine that a manager is walking down the hall and that he notices one of his subordinates, Mr. A, coming up the hallway. When they are abreast of one another, Mr. A greets the manager with, “Good Morning, By the way, we’ve got a problem. You see…”. As Mr. A continues, the manager recognizes in this problem the same two characteristics common to all the problems his subordinates gratuitously bring to his attention. Namely the manager knows (a) enough to get involved, but (b) not enough to make the on-the-spot decision expected of his. Eventually the manager says, “So glad you brought this up. I’m in a rush now. Meanwhile, let me think about it and I will let you know.” Then he and Mr. A part company.

Let us analyze this. Before the two met, the monkey was on the back of the subordinate. After the two met, it had jumped on to the manager’s back. Subordinate imposed time begins the moment a monkey successfully executes a leap from the back of a subordinate to the back of the superior and does not end until the monkey is returned to its proper owner for care and feeding.
For a manager who doesn’t know how to handle the events like the above, such an event will happen many times in a day. The authors use a Monkey-on-the-back analogy to examine how subordinate-imposed time comes into being and what the manager can do about it. Here Monkey refers to a Problem or issue, faced by a subordinate working under a manager. In doing so, the authors suggest the law of Monkey Management.

“At no time while I am helping you with this or any other problem will our problem become my problem. The instant your problem becomes mine, you will no longer have a problem. I cannot help a man who hasn’t got a problem. You may ask for help at any appointed time and we will make a joint determination on the next move. In those rare instances where the move turns out to be mine, you and I will determine together. I will not make any move alone and all the time, the ownership to solve the problem remains with you.”

The authors also suggest five rules in assigning and controlling issues.
Monkeys should be fed or shot: Problems should be quickly solved or steps taken in the right direction to solve them. Otherwise, the manager will waste valuable time on postmortem or attempted resurrections.
The monkey population should be kept below a maximum: This number should be below the time available for the manager time to feed the monkeys.
Monkeys should be fed by appointment only: The manager should not have to be hunting down starving monkeys and feeding them on a catch-as-catch-can basis.
Monkeys should be fed face to face or by telephone, but never by mail: if by mail, the next move will be the manager’s – remember? Documentation may add to the feeding process, but it cannot take the place of feeding.
Every monkey should have an assigned “next feeding time” and “degree of initiative”: These can be modified by mutual consent, but never allowed to become vague or indefinite. Otherwise the monkey may starve to death. (Refer #1)

  • By doing the above, the manager actually can actually do the following
    Increase his discretionary time, by eliminating subordinate-imposed time.
  • Use a portion of his new found discretionary time to see to it that each of his subordinates possess enough initiative, without which he can’t exercise initiative, and then to see to it that the initiative is in fact taken.
  • Use another portion of his increased discretionary time to get and keep control of the timing and content of both boss-imposed and system-imposed time.

The result of all this is that the manager will increase his leverage, which will in turn enable him to multiply without theoretical limit, the value of each hour that he spends in managing ‘management time’.

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