Monkey Business

IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Sept. 2000

In recent years I have noticed a very strange phenomenon about the rising new companies.  These are the so-called new economy companies -- the ones that didn’t exist a couple of years before, but now suddenly threaten the establishment with new technology and business paradigms.  Let’s call these the gazelle companies.  In contrast, there are the stodgy old incumbent companies that are ungainly behemoths struggling with old technology and outdated business paradigms.  Let’s call these the sloth companies.  The curious thing that I have noticed is that many of the chief executives of the gazelle companies are former executives of the sloth companies.

What’s wrong with this picture?  The very people who created the outdated cultures and failing business models for the sloths are suddenly reborn as fire-breathing entrepreneurs, running the agile new companies that seem destined to be the exterminators of these same sloths.

Meanwhile, back at the sloth, the turnover of employees and managers is so high that the average service with the company is barely more than a year.  In other words, the sloth company consists almost entirely of new people.  Yet it is still a sloth, while the gazelle is being a gazelle, but is using sloth brains and management.  How can this be so?

I have long wondered what makes a company what it is.  At the sloth, when the employees go home at night, they leave behind an empty building.  They take all the culture, know-how, corporate wisdom, and knowledge base of the company with them.  They are the company.  Yet it seems that if all new employees come back the next morning, as is almost happening today, the sloth retains its sloth-like characteristics.  How does it manage to keep these unfortunate genes?

When I brought up the question of the resilience of a corporate culture to changes in the employee base, someone told me a story about monkeys.  It may not be a true story, and I have no way of checking it, but I like the story.  It speaks a mysterious truth to me.

The story is that psychologists were doing an experiment with monkeys.  They confined the monkeys in a big cage.  There was only one way out of that confinement – there were steps leading up and out of the cage.  However, whenever a monkey climbed the stairs, the psychologists took the monkey aside, punished him, and reinserted him in the cage.

After a few monkeys had had this treatment, the behavior of the group changed.  Now, whenever another monkey began to climb the steps towards imagined freedom, the other monkeys would pull him back.  “Bad idea,” they would have said if they could have spoken.

Now comes the interesting part.  They start taking monkeys out and replacing them with new monkeys.  But the same behavior continues.  After a while, all the monkeys are new.  No monkey there has ever been punished.  But whenever a monkey starts to climb the stairs, the others pull him back.  Presumably, no monkey knows why; it is just a bad idea.  This is the way it has always been.

This explains for me the resilience of corporate culture.  The new monkeys in the sloth pen continue the behavior pattern as a kind of implicit genetic memory even though it threatens their very extinction.  But perhaps, like the carpetbag gazelle executives, the monkeys that have been taken out of the sloth pen and inserted into the gazelle pen are conspiring for a jailbreak.  We know how it was in the old pen, they are saying, but this is a new pen, and the rules have changed.  Let’s get out of here!

Of course, this implies that the culture hangs in the pen itself.  I said earlier that the employees in the sloth company left an empty building behind at night.  Perhaps the sloth culture has seeped into the walls of the building.  But no, we know that companies constantly change buildings.  And we know they even can change their names.  Yet with new buildings, new names, and completely new employees, they are still sloths.  Their employees look longingly across the street at the gazelle company and think: We, too, could be gazelles -- just get us out of these sloth costumes.

Maybe instead it has nothing to do with the company itself.  Maybe it is the external associations and contexts in which the company exists.  The company is what other people think it is, regardless of what it does or thinks itself.  Perhaps in the monkey experiment it is the psychologists who are at fault.  The monkeys think that if only they could move to a new cage without these guys in white coats around, then they could do as they pleased. 

I imagine that if the psychologists left, then some monkey would eventually try to climb the stairs, and nothing would happen to him.  He would return and tell of his exploits, and the other monkeys would look at him jealously.  The manager monkeys would look at him and praise him for thinking outside of the box.  Hearing that cliché, the non-manager monkeys would groan and roll their eyes.  That’s how monkeys are.

There is yet another monkey story that might explain the behavior of the incumbent sloth companies.  It seems that a way to catch monkeys in Borneo, or some such place, is to wedge a Bell jar into the fork of a tree with a piece of food in the bottom of the jar.  In the morning, so they say, you just go over to the tree and collect the monkey, who has his hand jammed in the jar.  The monkey’s fist, containing the food, is too large to remove from the jar, but he won’t let go.  So he just stands there, waiting to be captured, rather than give up the food.

Maybe that’s how the sloth companies act -- afraid to give up their legacy businesses, they wait by the tree.  But I wouldn’t know.  These are just monkey stories.


Robert W. Lucky