Happy’s Essential Skills: Understanding the Concept of Managing Management Time

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In my first decade at HP, I was offered a promotion to the position of PCB engineering manager. We were growing rapidly and I had a stellar reputation for achievement and team participation. I accepted the promotion, but before it became official, I was sent to HP’s legendary management class taught by William Oncken Jr., called “Managing Management Time.”  HP had a “dual-ladder” for pay and promotion and wanted to be sure that engineers were paid for their skills and talent. They didn’t want excellent engineers to become mediocre managers just to get higher pay. Oncken’s course was the initial training for prospective managers to “understand the care and feeding of monkeys.” In other words, “You are not being paid to do your subordinates' work!”

“Care and Feeding of Monkeys”

As Oncken tells it:

“Every person walks around with monkeys on their backs, representing the problems and issues they have responsibility for. When meeting with their boss, by means such as saying, ‘Boss, we’ve got a problem,’ the subordinate enables his/her monkey to straddle both his/her and his boss’ backs. If the boss then says, ‘Thanks for letting me know about this; let me think about it and get back to you,’ the monkey has now been successfully transferred from the subordinate to the boss. The subordinate walks away with one less monkey, and the boss walks away with one more on his/her back. There are many other ways to get monkeys to jump from a subordinate’s back to the boss’ back. If every subordinate transfers one or two monkeys to the boss, then the boss ends up carrying a huge load of other people’s monkeys, and has little time to carry out boss-imposed tasks or system-imposed tasks, much less self-imposed tasks.

Subordinate-imposed tasks can consume a boss’s time, and may leave subordinates with not enough to do. Who’s working for whom? This makes the boss ineffective (as he/she can’t handle all these monkeys), and may leave the subordinates unfulfilled, as they can’t move forward while they’re waiting for their boss to handle their monkeys. It’s also bad for the boss’s boss and peers, as their problems are getting inadequate attention. All around this is a distressing and unacceptable situation.”

The solution is for the boss to get rid of subordinates’ monkeys by transferring the initiative back to them and keeping it there. They can do this by recognizing some of the rules governing what Oncken calls the “care and feeding of monkeys.” These rules include:   

     1. Monkeys should be fed or shot. Letting them starve to death will only waste more time on post-mortems or attempted resurrections.

     2. The monkey population should be kept below the maximum number the boss has time to feed. His subordinates will find time to work as many monkeys as he finds time to feed, but no more. It shouldn’t take more than 5−15 minutes to feed a properly maintained monkey.

     3. Monkeys should be fed by appointment only. The boss shouldn’t have to hunt down starving monkeys to feed them on a catch-as-catch-can basis.

     4. Monkeys should be fed face-to-face or by telephone, not by mail or email; if email, the next move will be the boss’s (remember?). Documentation may add to the feeding process, but it cannot take the place of feeding.

     5. Every monkey should have an assigned “next feeding time” and “degree of initiative.” These may be revised at any time by mutual consult, but never a vague or indefinite time. Otherwise, the monkey will either starve to death or wind up on the boss’ back.

An observation by Oncken, but not a rule, was “Monkeys that are not on a leash or cared for can become the prophetical 800-pound gorilla!”

Fig1.jpgFigure 1: William Oncken, Jr. created his “monkey” concept in 1960 and a paper on the topic for the Harvard Business Review in 1974. It has been one of the most requested papers of the Review. (courtesy of William Oncken Corp)[1].                   

Coaching for Performance

Technical people sometimes have a problem with less skilled individuals. You can often hear them uttering the phrase, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself!” This was an anathema at HP. As a manager, it was your job to “coach spectacular performance” from your subordinates, not do it for them. It was easy for new managers to make the mistake of taking on their subordinates ‘problems’ rather than coaching them through the difficulty. That’s where Oncken’s MMT course came to the rescue. As part of being a boss, coaching for the maximum performance includes:

1. Analyze the task at hand and compare to the talent pool.

  • Task: What is the scope of the task, what skills are needed, what is the difficulty level and timing required?
  • Talent: Does the task match the talent of the individual?

2. Appoint the right person based on skill set, commitment level and behavioral style.

  • Competence/Commitment: Commitment can be seen in enthusiasm and confidence levels.

3.  Brief the individual clearly and concisely. Set smarter goals. Use action words to specify what is to be done. Specify why it is important and how it is going to be done.    

  • Hear: Be an active listener.

4.  Control: watch, listen, observe, check on progress. Provide a feedback loop. 

  • Hear: Listen some more.
  • Explore with an open mind.
  • Affirm and echo back.
  • Respond with constructive and unpretentious examples.

5. Appraise the situation, see if there is a lack of performance. Can’t they, due to lack of competence, or Won’t they, due to lack of commitment? What are the consequences (this position may not be a good match for you?)

You want to recruit and employ the best people you can find. To keep the monkeys at a minimum, you want to coach each of your subordinates to the top of Oncken’s “degree of freedom” ladder:

  1. Act on own, report routinely. You have to have trust and have confidence in them to give them this level of freedom. This will be based on their track record, etc.
  2. Act, then advise at once. You have a little less confidence in them. You would be nervous if they didn’t keep you informed. Note: Watch out for the fear of the unknown…it makes your subordinates anxious.
  3. You recommend, and then they take resulting action. This is completed staff work with a recommendation. Your anxiety is higher than in Freedom #2. You want to check their decision before any action is taken.

What you don’t want to see is this ladder:

  1. They ask what to do.
  2. They wait until they are told.
  3. They wait to be caught.

The Art of Managing Monkeys[2]

Their premise is that time is precious, that it must be well managed, and that there are three kinds of management time: boss-imposed time (which a manager must attend to); system-imposed time (typically from peers, and also considered important); and self-imposed time (doing what the manager originates or wants to do). Within self-imposed time is discretionary time (the manager’s own time) and subordinate-imposed time (which comes from interactions with subordinates).

Bill Oncken, Jr. developed four rules of monkey management to help managers give back monkeys without being accused of buck-passing or abdication. They are:

1. Describe the monkey. The dialogue between a manager and a staff member must not end until appropriate next moves have been identified and clearly specified.

2. Assign the monkey. All monkeys shall be owned and handled at the lowest organizational level possible consistent with their welfare.

3. Insure the monkey. Every monkey leaving you on the back of one of your people must be covered by one of two insurance policies: (1) recommend, then act, or (2) act, then advise.

4. Check on the monkey. Proper follow-up means healthier monkeys. Every monkey should have a checkup appointment.

If you follow Oncken’s rules, you’ll stop viewing your people as the major source of your problems and will soon start seeing them as major solutions, because each of their backs can be a depository for several monkeys.


Figure 2: Oncken developed many rules of monkey management. (courtesy of WO Corp)

Avoid Micromanaging

Your goal as boss is to develop the competencies of your people so that you have to give them minimal support and directions. That way you get your work done and keep your boss happy. The four types of subordinates are seen in Table 1.


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