The Monkey Ladder Experiment


For a couple decades now there has been a story floating around about an experiment with monkeys, bananas, and a cold water spray. The experiment is designed to explain how we often follow the rules created by a team without even being present at the formation of those rules, and without questioning the genesis of those rules. Here is a diagram that explains it (origins of this image are unknown to me, honestly I found it in a stackexchange post, or I would give proper credit):

Monkey Ladder Experiment

The image itself even provides a bit of analysis about what we can learn from this fable; I call it a fable because there is no evidence that an experiment ever occured. The lesson is clear, we should continue to question the ways we are told to do things because there may be a better way out there.

But I wonder if that is truly the lesson we should be taking away here. There is also another interesting dynamic taking place in this diagram. The new monkeys do not have to feel the pain of the mistakes the old monkeys have made. If the new monkeys would have climbed the ladder, they would have all been doused with cold water. The problem is not that the monkeys are keeping each other from continuing to climb the ladder when they know it will not be fuitful. The problem is that the monkeys have lost the knowledge of why they do not climb the ladder.

The lesson here is not that we should always question any current behaviors, but rather that we need to document the knowledge we are gaining from our failures and explain why we have arrived at the current process. The monkeys should be sharing the knowledge of the water sprinklers with the new monkeys, not just beating them up when they attempt to climb the ladder. Maybe climbing the ladder will always be a foolish task, but it is important that the new monkeys know why.

It is important because a new monkey may bring in a creative development that can solve the initial problem. If the monkey knows that water is the real issue, and not getting beat up by monkeys, perhaps it can devise a method to stop the water. Maybe this new monkey came from a previous group where they had learned the technology of umbrellas. Perhaps this new monkey could teach all of the other monkeys how to defeat the water and eat the bananas.

The lesson here is not to question those that beat us. The lesson is not for the new monkeys. The lesson here is for the old monkeys. We should not be beating the new monkeys out of the patterns we failed to achieve. We should be explaining to the new monkeys how we failed and perhaps their minds will help us all succeed.