The ‘Monkey’ in this case is ‘responsibility for completing a given task’. This quirky metaphor comes from a classical article published in the Harvard Business Review in the early 1970s by management guru William Onken, who came up with it to help managers in big companies manage their time better. The idea was that, in order to have time for their own tasks and to avoid stress and overwork, managers should try as much as they can to keep their subordinates’ Monkeys firmly on their subordinates’ shoulders.

I think this idea applies perfectly to research, and can be used by Group Leaders, or any researcher responsible for supervising other scientists. Not only can it help them protect their time for their own important tasks, but can also empower the people they supervise to use their own initiative to resolve problems and grow as a scientist.

Let’s look at an example. You’re supervising a junior researcher who’s writing up their results for publication. So right now, they’ve got the Monkey. At some point they come to you asking for help: «Supervisor, I’ve got a problem – I don’t know what to write in the discussion!». They show you the tangle of cut-and-paste paragraphs they have written so far, and start into some long story about how complicated the results are. You know enough about it to have an opinion, but don’t yet have a clear enough picture in your own mind to be able to give them a useful answer right now. «Yes, that’s a tricky one alright.”, you agree. “Let me think about it, and I’ll get back to you.» Now where’s the Monkey?

Exactly. It’s right there on your shoulder, where it will sit stressing you out and blocking the student’s progress until you manage to make time for it among all your other Monkeys, who knows when. Congratulations, you just got managed by your student. Even worse, you have also inadvertently disempowered them by taking away an opportunity for them to grow as a scientist by coming up with a solution by themselves. And they will likely continue to depend on you in the future.

Of course, you could have told them that you’re too busy and they should go away and figure it out on their own, or bother someone else. But this is much worse: it will just damage your relationship with them, and ultimately the work will simply get delayed.

So, how could this have gone differently? We have developed a simple recipe that you can teach the scientists you supervise that puts the Monkey (and the opportunity for them to grow as scientists) right back on their shoulder. In order to get help from you, they should first do a SPOT analysis: Situation, Problem, Options, Task.

Situation

You have many tasks and projects, theirs is just one. To put you back in context, they should briefly summarise the background/context of the project and what has happened up to that point. Having to communicate that to you will also help them step back from the problem so they can approach it more objectively and analytically.

Problem

«Supervisor, I’m stuck» is not enough. They should very specifically define the problem they’re facing, with as much detail as necessary. Having to flesh out the details forces them to break the problem down, which makes it more manageable. In some cases, the process might simply stop here: the right solution or an approach to resolving it might become clear just from breaking it down. 

Options

They should creatively come up with (ideally several) possible solutions for the problem, or approaches to begin tackling it. They should order these approaches by priority (best or fastest solution), justify each one with pros and cons, and outline the steps they would follow in each case. This empowers them to take ownership of the problem and to use their creativity to solve it. And once again, having to do this analysis before they come to you may already lead them to an obvious solution.

But if they do eventually come to you for help, be careful to treat their ideas gently, even if you don’t agree with them. Our ideas come from our creativity, and when someone treats them roughly, it damages our relationship with that person.

Task

They should very specifically define the task that they would like you to do, and this should be as simple and as easy as possible for you to do. As much as possible, rather than just telling them what they should do, encourage them give you tasks that require your input/feedback on the options they proposed themselves (e.g. ‘summarise what you think are the pros and cons of my options’), or that simply facilitate them in arriving at the solution (e.g. providing resources or contacts to help them move forward). 

So next time you get a request for help from someone you’re supervising, remember to practise good management stills: empower your colleague by keeping the Monkey where it belongs – on their desk.