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Monkey Business [On perpetuating outdated standards]

Why do societies maintain rules whose reasons for existence are not valid anymore?

Why do we continue to optimize products for outdated standards?

Why are our systems still built on assumptions that no longer make sense?


Monkey business 🍌

One day, a group of researchers placed five monkeys in a cage with a banana hanging from the ceiling and a step ladder leading up to it. As expected, the fastest monkey began climbing the ladder toward the banana. Suddenly, the researchers sprayed the lead monkey with very cold water, followed by the other monkeys.

After the monkeys had warmed up, another monkey attempted to climb the ladder, but again the researchers sprayed all monkeys with freezing water.

Later on, a third monkey tried to climb the ladder. This time, the other monkeys started beating him, preventing him from reaching the banana.

The researchers then replaced one of the monkeys with a new one. As expected, the new monkey saw the banana and attempted to climb the ladder, but the other monkeys attacked him for no apparent reason. The researchers continued to replace the old monkeys with new ones, and every time a newcomer attempted to climb the ladder, there was a beating spree - even when all the monkeys were new and none was exposed to the freezing water.

In the end, after the researchers were gone, the group of new monkeys had two rules: (1) Do not attempt to climb the ladder. (2) If rule 1 is broken, beat that monkey to prevent him from reaching the ladder. Why? Nobody knew. But the rules had been established.

Moving on to space. When the NASA’s space shuttle was designed, its solid rocket boosters needed to be transported to the launchpad. Specifically, they needed to pass through a tunnel in a train car on railroad tracks. Well, the spacing such tracks in America was based on UK standards for the tramway, which were in turn based on the dimensions of wagons. These dimensions were designed to fit into the ruts of the road, which were based on the width of roman chariots. Interestingly, chariot wheels were designed to accommodate two horses between them.

In other words, the constraints on the dimensions of the space shuttle result from the the width of two horse butts!

Eliminating outdated standards in 5 steps

Humans loves comfort, which usually comes with a sense of (perceived) control. Although everyone says that “growth happens outside your comfort zone”, change is unpredictable. Sticking to the status quo, otherwise, offers low risk and stable returns.

This stickiness fosters the perpetuation of outdated standards and misunderstood assumptions that no longer fit our evolved world. But how can we get out of this situation?

(1) Question the process

View the process with a curiosity mindset. Why are we doing things this way? Ask questions about the why behind what you are doing and challenge assumptions. Often, people won't know why a process is designed that way.

(2) Delete

Consider the impact of removing a feature or step. Why is it still there? What are the underlying assumptions? Can we simplify or reorganize for greater efficiency? Simplicity leads to easier development and maintenance.

(3) Write down your ideas

Writing exposes inconsistencies in thought. Analyze the struggles you feel when writing: Do you fully understand what you are describing? If not, why? Is there a step missing, are you unsure about parts of the process?

(4) Get (ruthless) feedback

Receiving feedback from others can be a valuable thought experience, but also tough. Honest feedback will make you rethink, rewrite, and revise your thoughts. It will increase the probability that underlying assumptions and standards are brought to the surface.

(5) Be ready for trouble

Even if you are willing to question things around you and modify processes, others might not be. Humans are reluctant to change and will fight back. Having support from leadership and inspiring your team to adopt new standards are essential for success.



This story gained popularity through a book Competing For The Future (1996) by Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad, and a TED talk by Eddie Obeng. It is not sure if this is just a story or a real experiment was conducted.



Catarina Pinto @catarinappinto