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.
For its reissue as a Classic, the Harvard Business Review asked Stephen R. Covey to provide a commentary.
Why is it that managers are typically running out of time while their subordinates are typically running out of work? Here we shall explore the meaning of management time as it relates to the interaction between managers and their bosses, their peers, and their subordinates.
Specifically, we shall deal with three kinds of management time:
Boss-imposed time—used to accomplish those activities that the boss requires and that the manager cannot disregard without direct and swift penalty.
System-imposed time—used to accommodate requests from peers for active support. Neglecting these requests will also result in penalties, though not always as direct or swift.
Self-imposed time—used to do those things that the manager originates or agrees to do. A certain portion of this kind of time, however, will be taken by subordinates and is called subordinate-imposed time. The remaining portion will be the manager’s own and is called discretionary 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 didn’t know he had intended to do in the first place.
To accommodate those demands, managers need to control the timing and the content of what they do. Since what their bosses and the system imposed on them are subject to penalty, managers cannot tamper with those requirements. Thus their self-imposed time becomes their major area of concern.
Managers should try to increase the discretionary component of their self-imposed time by minimizing or doing away with the subordinate component. They will then use the added increment to get better control over their boss-imposed and system-imposed activities. Most managers spend much more time dealing with subordinates’ problems than they even faintly realize. Hence we shall use the monkey-on-the-back metaphor to examine how subordinate-imposed time comes into being and what the superior can do about it.
Where Is the Monkey?
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 subordinates. After they parted, on whose back was it? The managers. Subordinate-imposed time begins the moment a monkey successfully leaps from the back of a subordinate to the back of his or her superior and does not end until the monkey is returned to its proper owner for care and feeding. In accepting the monkey, the manager has voluntarily assumed a position subordinate to his subordinate. That is, he has allowed Jones to make him her subordinate by doing two things a subordinate is generally expected to do for a boss—the manager has accepted responsibility from his subordinate, and the manager has promised her a progress report.
The subordinate, to make sure the manager does not miss this point, will later stick her head in the manager’s office and cheerily query, “How’s it coming?” (This is called supervision.)
Or let us imagine in concluding a conference with Johnson, another subordinate, the manager’s parting words are, “Fine. Send me a memo on that.”
Let us analyze this one. The monkey is now on the subordinate’s back because the next move is his, but it is poised for a leap. Watch that monkey. Johnson dutifully writes the requested memo and drops it in his out-basket. Shortly thereafter, the manager plucks it from his in-basket and reads it. Whose move is it now? The managers. If he does not make that move soon, he will get a follow-up memo from the subordinate. (This is another form of supervision.) The longer the manager delays, the more frustrated the subordinate will become (he’ll be spinning his wheels) and the more guilty the manager will feel (his backlog of subordinate-imposed time will be mounting).
Or suppose once again that at a meeting with a third subordinate, Smith, the manager agrees to provide all the necessary backing for a public relations proposal he has just asked Smith to develop. The manager’s parting words to her are, “Just let me know how I can help.”
Now let us analyze this. Again the monkey is initially on the subordinate’s back. But for how long? Smith realizes that she cannot let the manager “know” until her proposal has the manager’s approval. And from experience, she also realizes that her proposal will likely be sitting in the manager’s briefcase for weeks before he eventually gets to it. Who’s really got the monkey? Who will be checking up on whom? Wheel spinning and bottlenecking are well on their way again.
A fourth subordinate, Reed, has just been transferred from another part of the company so that he can launch and eventually manage a newly created business venture. The manager has said they should get together soon to hammer out a set of objectives for the new job, adding, “I will draw up an initial draft for discussion with you.”
Let us analyze this one, too. The subordinate has the new job (by formal assignment) and the full responsibility (by formal delegation), but the manager has the next move. Until he makes it, he will have the monkey, and the subordinate will be immobilized.
Why does all of this happen? Because in each instance the manager and the subordinate assume at the outset, wittingly or unwittingly, that the matter under consideration is a joint problem. The monkey in each case begins its career astride both their backs. All it has to do is move the wrong leg, and—presto!—the subordinate deftly disappears. The manager is thus left with another acquisition for his menagerie. Of course, monkeys can be trained not to move the wrong leg. But it is easier to prevent them from straddling backs in the first place.
Who Is Working for Whom?
Let us suppose that these same four subordinates are so thoughtful and considerate of their superior’s time that they take pains to allow no more than three monkeys to leap from each of their backs to his in any one day. In a five-day week, the manager will have picked up 60 screaming monkeys—far too many to do anything about them individually. So he spends his subordinate-imposed time juggling his “priorities.”
Late Friday afternoon, the manager is in his office with the door closed for privacy so he can contemplate the situation, while his subordinates are waiting outside to get their last chance before the weekend to remind him that he will have to “fish or cut bait.” Imagine what they are saying to one another about the manager as they wait: “What a bottleneck. He just can’t make up his mind. How anyone ever got that high up in our company without being able to make a decision we’ll never know.”
Worst of all, the reason the manager cannot make any of these “next moves” is that his time is almost entirely eaten up by meeting his own boss-imposed and system-imposed requirements. To control those tasks, he needs discretionary time that is, in turn, denied him when he is preoccupied with all these monkeys. The manager is caught in a vicious circle. But time is a-wasting (an understatement). The manager calls his secretary on the intercom and instructs her to tell his subordinates that he won’t be able to see them until Monday morning. At 7 pm, he drives home, intending with a firm resolve to return to the office tomorrow to get caught up over the weekend. He returns bright and early the next day only to see, on the nearest green of the golf course across from his office window, a foursome. Guess who?
That does it. He now knows who is really working for whom. Moreover, he now sees that if he actually accomplishes during this weekend what he came to accomplish, his subordinates’ morale will go up so sharply that they will each raise the limit on the number of monkeys they will let jump from their backs to his. In short, he now sees, with the clarity of a revelation on a mountaintop, that the more he gets caught up, the more he will fall behind.
The manager can now see, with the clarity of a revelation on a mountaintop, that the more he gets caught up, the more he will fall behind.
He leaves the office with the speed of a person running away from a plague. His plan? To get caught up on something else he hasn’t had time for in years: a weekend with his family. (This is one of the many varieties of discretionary time.)
Sunday night he enjoys ten hours of sweet, untroubled slumber because he has clear-cut plans for Monday. He is going to get rid of his subordinate-imposed time. In exchange, he will get an equal amount of discretionary time, part of which he will spend with his subordinates to make sure that they learn the difficult but rewarding managerial art called “The Care and Feeding of Monkeys.”
The manager will also have plenty of discretionary time left over for getting control of the timing and the content not only of his boss-imposed time but also of his system-imposed time. It may take months, but compared with the way things have been, the rewards will be enormous. His ultimate objective is to manage his time.
Getting Rid of the Monkeys
The manager returns to the office Monday morning just late enough so that his four subordinates have collected outside his office waiting to see him about their monkeys. He calls them in one by one. The purpose of each interview is to take a monkey, place it on the desk between them, and figure out together how the next move might conceivably be the subordinates. For certain monkeys, that will take some doing. The subordinate’s next move may be so elusive that the manager may decide—just for now—merely to let the monkey sleep on the subordinate’s back overnight and have him or her return with it at an appointed time the next morning to continue the joint quest for a more substantive move by the subordinate. (Monkeys sleep just as soundly overnight on subordinates’ backs as they do on superiors’.)
As each subordinate leaves the office, the manager is rewarded by the sight of a monkey leaving his office on the subordinate’s back. For the next 24 hours, the subordinate will not be waiting for the manager; instead, the manager will be waiting for the subordinate.
Later, as if to remind himself that there is no law against his engaging in a constructive exercise in the interim, the manager strolls by the subordinate’s office, sticks his head in the door, and cheerily asks, “How’s it coming?” (The time consumed in doing this is discretionary for the manager and boss imposed for the subordinate.)
In accepting the monkey, the manager has voluntarily assumed a position subordinate to his subordinate.
When the subordinate (with the monkey on his or her back) and the manager meet at the appointed hour the next day, the manager explains the ground rules in words to this effect:
“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.
“In those rare instances where the next move turns out to be mine, you and I will determine it together. I will not make any move alone.”
The manager follows this same line of thought with each subordinate until about 11 am when he realizes that he doesn’t have to close his door. His monkeys are gone. They will return—but by appointment only. His calendar will assure this.
Transferring the Initiative
What we have been driving at in this monkey-on-the-back analogy is that managers can transfer initiative back to their subordinates and keep it there. We have tried to highlight a truism as obvious as it is subtle: namely, before developing initiative in subordinates, the manager must see to it that they have the initiative. Once the manager takes it back, he will no longer have it and he can kiss his discretionary time good-bye. It will all revert to subordinate-imposed time.
Nor can the manager and the subordinate effectively have the same initiative at the same time. The opener, “Boss, we’ve got a problem,” implies this duality and represents, as noted earlier, a monkey astride two backs, which is a very bad way to start a monkey on its career. Let us, therefore, take a few moments to examine what we call “The Anatomy of Managerial Initiative.”
There are five degrees of initiative that the manager can exercise in relation to the boss and to the system:
1. wait until told (lowest initiative);
2. ask what to do;
3. recommend, then take resulting action;
4. act, but advise at once;
5. and act on own, then routinely report (highest initiative).
Clearly, the manager should be professional enough not to indulge in initiatives 1 and 2 in relation either to the boss or to the system. A manager who uses initiative 1 has no control over either the timing or the content of boss-imposed or system-imposed time and thereby forfeits any right to complain about what he or she is told to do or when. The manager who uses initiative 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 amount of control being exercised at level 5.
In relation to subordinates, the manager’s job is twofold. First, to outlaw the use of initiatives 1 and 2, thus giving subordinates no choice but to learn and master “Completed Staff Work.” Second, to see that for each problem leaving his or her office there is an agreed-upon level of initiative assigned to it, in addition to an agreed-upon time and place for the next manager-subordinate conference. The latter should be duly noted on the manager’s calendar.
The Care and Feeding of Monkeys
To further clarify our analogy between the monkey on the back and the processes of assigning and controlling, we shall refer briefly to the manager’s appointment schedule, which calls for five hard-and-fast rules governing the “Care and Feeding of Monkeys.” (Violation of these rules will cost discretionary time.)
Rule 1. Monkeys should be fed or shot. Otherwise, they will starve to death, and the manager will waste valuable time on postmortems or attempted resurrections.
Rule 2. The monkey population should be kept below the maximum number the manager has time to feed. Subordinates will find time to work as many monkeys as he or she finds time to feed, but no more. It shouldn’t take more than five to 15 minutes to feed a properly maintained monkey.
Rule 3. Monkeys should be fed by appointment only. The manager should not have to hunt down starving monkeys and feed them on a catch-as-catch-can basis.
Rule 4. Monkeys should be fed face-to-face or by telephone, but never by mail. (Remember—with mail, the next move will be the managers.) Documentation may add to the feeding process, but it cannot take the place of a feeding.
Rule 5. Every monkey should have an assigned next feeding time and degree of initiative. These may be revised at any time by mutual consent but never allowed to become vague or indefinite. Otherwise, the monkey will either starve to death or wind up on the manager’s back.
“Get control over the timing and content of what you do” is appropriate advice for managing time. The first order of business is for the manager to enlarge his or her discretionary time by eliminating subordinate-imposed time. The second is for the manager to use a portion of this newfound discretionary time to see to it that each subordinate actually has the initiative and applies it. The third is for the manager to use another portion of the increased discretionary time to get and keep control of the timing and content of both boss-imposed and system-imposed time. All these steps will increase the manager’s leverage and enable the value of each hour spent in managing management time to multiply without theoretical limit.
A version of this article appeared in the November–December 1999 issue of Harvard Business Review.