Open to Change?

4th October, 2012

During a meeting, whilst debating the value of questioning “how are we doing what we are doing…. and is it working?”  I was reminded by this story – several of the leaders and teams I work with will have heard me unapologetically ask…”Are you being a Chimp?”  Since often the old stories are the best and in case you haven’t heard it…

5 chimps were locked in a cage and bananas were hung from the roof bars (under which there was a strategically placed ladder). Immediately, one chimp raced towards the ladder intending to climb it. As soon as he began to climb the “scientist / researcher” rather meanly sprayed this chimp and the other four chimps with ice-cold water.

When a second chimp was about to climb the ladder, the researcher again sprayed all five chimps with ice-cold water. A third chimp thought he might have more luck, but this third climber received the same treatment. If the fourth and fifth were persistent (or foolish) they would receive the same response from the researcher. Eventually they learned their lesson: there was to be no ladder climbing – banana or no banana.

Next the researcher decided to replace one chimp with a new one. As can be expected, the new guy spotted the banana and (no doubt thinking “Why don’t these fools go and get it?”) he started climbing the ladder. Then it got interesting: the other four chimps, familiar with the cold-water treatment, ran towards the new guy – and beat him up. The new guy, blissfully unaware of the cold-water history, got the message: no climbing up the ladder in this cage – banana or no banana.

When the researcher replaced a second chimp with another new one, the events repeated themselves – the new chimp ran towards the ladder; other chimps beat him up; new chimp did not attempt to climb again – with one notable detail: the first new chimp, who had never received the cold-water treatment himself (and didn’t even know anything about it), with equal vigour and enthusiasm, joined in the beating of the new guy on the block.

When the researcher replaced a third chimp, the same thing happened; likewise for the fourth until, eventually, all the chimps had been replaced and none of the ones in the cage had any experience or knowledge of the cold-water treatment.

Truth is… Had a new chimp had the ability to ask “Why do you beat me up when I try to get the banana?” The other chimps might very well have stopped, looked at each other slightly puzzled and shrugging their shoulders responded: “Don’t know. But that’s the way we do things around here”…

So What?

It might be useful to consider whether you have caught yourself in this fixed pattern?  Are there times time you think to yourself or you say to the new guy, or explain to a customer or stakeholder “its just how things are”?

  • It could be more helpful at his point to ask:
  • Is this the best way?
  • What other ways could we do this?
  • How could things be?
  • What haven’t we considered?
  • Has the world moved on?
  • Are we being chimps?

Many public and private sector organisations get into set ways of doing things – historical patterns and routines.  Some of these are, of course, relevant and of course best practices are essential for many operational processes. It is when these systems are not reviewed, or when the way we are carrying out our roles has simply been “the way others did things” (and if we care to dig under the surface we might discover the approach being taken never was “best” practice it was simply what worked at the time… Without questioning… We are in danger of becoming chimps.

Developing a team’s openness to change is an essential role for the Leader of today. The approaches that have always worked do not necessarily work in the current climate. The ability to demonstrate the flexibility to question, challenge and evolve were never more relevant than they are today.

And the fixed ways of thinking and doing are not unique to business… each and every individual can find themselves within conditioned patterns… so maybe take time to be a little curious, you never know you might discover easier, quicker, more fun, more creative ways of going about your daily routine.

Darwin said “It is not the strongest of the species, nor the most intelligent that survive, it is those most adaptable to change”… Wise words!


About Lizzi Larbalestier

Professional Blue Health Coach, mBIT and NLP trainer specialising in coastal coaching. Creating meaningful conversations, facilitating action and change for the results that you deserve. #bluehealthcoach #oceanempathy #bluemind