Deal with the monkey first

Deal With The Monkey First

When clients are scoping out projects to build something new, I think of “The Monkey and The Pedestal” framework I learned from Astro Teller, head of the Google X innovation lab.

“Let’s say you’re trying to teach a monkey how to recite Shakespeare while on a pedestal. How should you allocate your time and money between training the monkey and building the pedestal? The right answer, of course, is to spend zero time thinking about the pedestal. But I bet at least a couple of people will rush off and start building a really great pedestal first. Why? Because at some point the boss is going to pop by and ask for a status update – and you want to be able to show off something other than a long list of reasons why teaching a monkey to talk is really, really hard.”

In essence, identify the hardest thing (the bottleneck) and solve that problem first before building any pedestals. Nothing else matters until you prove that you can train the monkey.

Notice that this is the opposite of the way many projects are managed, i.e. “Let’s tackle the low-hanging fruit first and get some runs on the board.”

Low-hanging fruit is the same as building the pedestal. You show the illusion of progress, without making any real headway toward solving the problem. Even worse, if you figure out that training the monkey is not financially viable and need to pivot to a new solution, or cut your losses and abandon the project completely, you have wasted time and resources building an unnecessary pedestal. The greater the sunk costs, the harder it is to quit the project too.

To summarize: Identify the monkey (the hard problem) when scoping out your project and solve that problem first, because nothing else matters if you can’t do that. Don’t spin your wheels on the easy stuff.

Deal with the monkey first. #MONKEYFIRST


Until next time…