The dangers of ‘business as usual’ (Don’t be a monkey!)

The most recent edition of the Harvard Business Review dedicated a great deal of space to “innovation.” It is an area that is more critical than ever to the success of a growing business in today’s rapidly changing, extremely competitive environment.

The articles reminded me of a social experiment that I first read in the newsletter of the Prairie du Chien Chamber of Commerce almost 15 years ago. The little fable exaggerates one of the single biggest stumbling blocks to innovation and creative thinking. Enjoy the story and learn from it, as well:

Start with a cage of five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb toward the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all the other monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result — all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water.

Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it. Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted. Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked.

Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey. After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys has ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana. Why not?

Because as far as they know, that’s the way it’s always been done around here. And that, my friends, is how company policies begin and stay in place forever.

Disclaimer: Of course, we would never do this experiment with monkeys today.

We will bring this to a close with three quotes that I believe you will appreciate:

“I believe there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, IBM chairman, 1943

“But what … is it good for?” — Engineer at Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.

“640K of memory ought to be enough for anybody.” — Bill Gates, allegedly, in 1981

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