Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?


Harvard Business Review published this famous article Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the November–December 1974 issue of HBR and has been one of the publication’s two best-selling reprints ever.

I remember reading this, perhaps as far back as 1974. I was struggling with the duties of being a very low level “manager”. In a conversation I just had, this article provided the perfect rejoinder. That prompted me to search for the article. I was quite surprised at how easy it was to find.

Here is the gist of what it is about.

Let us imagine that a manager is walking down the hall and that he notices one of his subordinates, Jones, coming his way. When the two meet, Jones greets the manager with, “Good morning. By the way, we’ve got a problem. You see….” As Jones continues, the manager recognizes in this problem the 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 him. Eventually, the manager says, “So glad you brought this up. I’m in a rush right now. Meanwhile, let me think about it, and I’ll let you know.” Then he and Jones part company.

Let us analyze what just happened. Before the two of them met, on whose back was the “monkey”? The subordinate’s. After they parted, on whose back was it? The manager’s.

For those who haven’t the time to read this interesting article, I don’t want you to walk away with the wrong lesson. This is what the article taught me, as a manager, to say:

“At no time while I am helping you with this or any other problem will your problem become my problem. The instant your problem becomes mine, you no longer have a problem. I cannot help a person who hasn’t got a problem.

“When this meeting is over, the problem will leave this office exactly the way it came in—on your back. You may ask my help at any appointed time, and we will make a joint determination of what the next move will be and which of us will make it.”

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