Experiences With Self Organization: Monkeys and Accountability

23 August 18

Experiences With Self Organization: Monkeys and Accountability

I started Ekipa (an agile agency helping organizations in Indonesia become agile) at the end of 2016. In my first company, Bridge Global, I had already experimented with agile and self organization. Based on this experience, I decided in 2017, while building the team for Ekipa, to adopt the principles of ‘reinventing organizations’.

Laloux describes the ‘Teal organization’. Without describing all the details of Teal (I’d recommend reading his book if you want to know more), the core of Teal is ‘agile taken to the next level’. Agile teaches us to embrace change, work in short cycles and in cross-functional, self organized teams. Teal takes this a step further by removing all hierarchy in the organization; let people self select their salaries; push all decision making to teams and much more. In Ekipa we’ve adopted the principles and created ‘Ekipa reinvented’, which is the basis of our team.

Ekipa is a 100% self managed organization without any hierarchy. Everybody is an owner and everybody shares in our success and income. Everybody works on the things he wants to contribute and we don’t’ have fixed job descriptions. We co-work with our customers to help them bring entrepreneurship and agility to their organization. Together, we create the company we want Ekipa to be and we create better lives for ourselves and the people we serve. We’re co-workers.

In this series, I will share some experiences with applying Laloux’ brainwork. This first article is about monkeys and accountability. Much of what I’ll share is based on our specific intercultural context. In our team, we have people from India, Indonesia, Australia and the Netherlands. Since I do most of my work in Indonesia, I will zoom in mainly on the ‘Indonesian way.’

In Ekipa reinvented we’ve described the following two principles around accountability:

  • We each have full responsibility for the organization. If we sense that something needs to happen, we have a duty to address it. it’s not acceptable to limit our concern to the remit of roles.
  • Everyone must be comfortable with holding others accountable for their commitments through feedback and respectful confrontation.

I’ll start with the hard truth: many people cannot deal with this! We’ve hired some people this year and after a few months, they had to leave again. Some others we’ve hired took more than 6 months to really understands how this works.

Monkey Management

The biggest challenge here is the traditional paradigm of hierarchy. Yesterday I did an agile training in Adira Finance in Jakarta. During lunch, some managers asked me whether I thought the agile way of working, based on self organization, is possible in Indonesia. I took some time to respond as I thought over the answer. I explained that YES it can work in any context AND in some (country/company) cultures it’ll take more time to sink in. The main issue I see deals with monkeys.

My thinking on monkeys originates from ‘the one minute manager meets the monkey’. Ken Blanchard describes a few things about monkey management:

  • A monkey is the next move; we have many problems and priorities in organizations; the next move to address them is the monkey, sitting on somebody’s shoulder
  • For every monkey, there are 2 parties involved: one to work it and one to supervise it
  • The more you get rid of your people’s monkeys, the more time you have for your people
  • All monkeys must be handled at the lowest organizational level, consistent with their welfare
  • The best way to develop responsibility in people is to give them responsibility

This book has been written in the 80s and is fully based on the old model of the hierarchical organization. In Ekipa and in a fully agile organization, some of these rules play out differently. I’ll explain them in the context of Ekipa reinvented. It’s important to note that in Ekipa, we don’t have any boss; there are no fixed roles. We have team members and ‘things to work on’. People take on different roles based on the needs of the moment.

Setting priorities

The first big challenge in the way we organize Ekipa is the definition of priorities, problems and monkeys. In a traditional organization, the logic is: priorities trickle down from the top. C-level develops high level vision and strategy. This is translated into programs and priorities at the middle management level. And the tactical plans are developed in the lower levels. Now take away all hierarchy and the question becomes: who defines what the organization will work on? 

Obviously, Ekipa is a small team and a large organization has much more complexity. But it sometimes helps to see the simpler setup, so we can translate it to the more complex environment. To tackle strategy, we have a quarterly discussion in which we set the top 2-5 priorities for our team. 5 is the maximum because if we work on too many big things at the same time, nothing will move (agile principle #11: the art of simplicity). With the whole team, we discuss the big priorities, prioritize them and select the top 2-5. Then the team members decide which big priority they will take (one person is accountable; there can be more people working on that priority; rule number 2 of monkey management above).

Many people are not used to setting their own priorities. It’s hard for them to visualize what must happen and what’s the most important thing for the company to work on to move forward. Even if people take accountability for one of the big priorities, they don’t know how to define the monkey. They don’t know what the next action is. And oftentimes they also don’t ask anyone for help to describe the monkey. So the big priority stays where it is without moving anywhere.

Accountability and owning Monkeys

In Ekipa, we give people 2-3 months to show they can live our principle ‘We each have full responsibility for the organization. If we sense that something needs to happen, we have a duty to address it.’ If the person doesn’t set his own priorities OR doesn’t take any monkey to move things forward, we let him go.

Another sign that I see play out in Indonesia specifically: as a team, we define the monkeys to move the priority. One person takes the monkey and moves fast. Monkey did. I did my job. And then the priority nicely stays where it was before the monkey was moved. Big priorities have many monkeys. Once we’ve moved one monkey, we need to think about what the next move is in order to make the priority ‘done’. This means that someone needs to feel in his heart that it’s his mission to complete the priority. And he won’t rest until all the monkeys have been moved.

An example from our team. We decided to launch our own certification program for Indonesia (ISM: Indonesia Scrum Master) at the end of 2017. Many discussions ensued around what to do, how to get things going. And we set it as one of our priorities. First, one ex-team member took that priority. He defined monkeys and was very busy ‘moving’ them. After a couple of weeks, I wondered why nothing moved and I saw he was incredibly busy doing the wrong things. We kindly asked him to leave the team. Then the monkey stayed somewhere high up a tree. In quarter three, I realized we absolutely needed to move this priority. So I explained to Wishnu how this monkey management works. I tried to put some fire in his system to become ‘THE ISM GUY’. We defined the monkeys together (I helped him think through the priority) and he fully dedicated himself. We defined the big priority as: get 500 people through our assessment before the end of September. Last week he told me we’re at 130. This week we got to 200. WOW! And I could see the confidence and pride in his eyes when he told me.

Want to get ISM certified?

In this context, I became his coach. I am the founder of the company and have a lot of experience in managing an organization. And this is where I believe Agile organizations should deviate from the second rule of monkey management: the supervisor and executor of a monkey are the same person! There can be a coach to get the best from other team members. But there’s no boss, team lead or project manager checking the progress of the work. Even that must stay with the person himself. The only thing we care about is the outcome. For the above example, the metric is clear to anyone on our team: 500 people. Our principle is: Everyone must be comfortable with holding others accountable to their commitments through feedback and respectful confrontation. Anyone can see the progress from 0 to 500 and can help keep Wishnu focused on his progress and help him where needed.

Implications for Leadership

In my training this week, I told the managers in Adira that I believe these are the biggest issues in adopting agile in Indonesia. There’s a lot of hierarchy. This results in the leaders feeling they have sole ownership of setting priorities. What they come up with has to be executed by people lower in the chain. The people lower in the chain are not used to define their own monkeys and instead wait for someone else to describe and assign them. To move away from this paradigm towards agility means 2 things:

  1. Leaders should abstain from being the ‘assigner of priorities and monkeys’. Instead, they should become coaches who help people define their own monkeys. Once defined, the coach helps them finish their priorities.
  2. Executors should not wait until a manager assigns monkeys. Instead, they should take ownership of their work, define their own monkeys and ‘get it done’. Along the way, it would also be good if they break some rules!

The people in Adira told me this is a ‘big idea’. And I agree with them; it’s not easy to change a culture. But it starts with realizing that in order to become a modern, agile organization, we need to change the paradigm of hierarchy.


I’m a very hands-off leader. I tend to generate and share many ideas for priorities and actions. I help people to define their priorities. But I am bad at checking and following up. I hate doing it. This is one of the reasons I love the ‘Ekipa reinvented’ way of working. But it’s also challenging to get a highly productive team. Not everybody fits in, so decisions to hire and fire (both team decisions!) need to be quick. All focus should be on priorities, metrics that show progress and a full focus on outcomes.

Time is all we have in life. We aim to be as productive as possible while we work. We recognize that the only thing that counts is outcomes. We don’t get to work because we must work 9-5. We get to work to pursue our goals. One of the most important learning curves is becoming more effective, working on things that have the biggest impact on the outcomes. Many books and trainings have been developed about this topic.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>