Disappointingly, monkeys are good problem solvers

I remember, many years ago, a friend and I went to the pub to talk about how bad our project was and how we were undervalued.

We knew that we were both smart, effective people, yet we had way too much work on and we were constantly frustrated by all the obstacles that others were putting in our way.

According to our (slightly biased) analysis, certain other teams were delivering things late, with missing information or obvious mistakes. Each time it mean rework or frustration for us.

Even worse, some stakeholders were, seemingly at random, changing their minds about what they expected from us. Often they didn’t even mention these changes to us, seemingly oblivious to the reality of us changing direction constantly or delivering miracles without any support or input.

A comforting conclusion

We agreed that it was like we were working with a tribe of monkeys. There was a lot of screeching and activity going on, but like a gaggle of excited gorillas, there seemed to be little sophisticated thinking or understanding of the goals or consequences of that screeching and activity.

Even though we knew people were (slightly) better at dealing with complexity than a random pack of gibbons, our new image of the jungle we worked in actually made sense to us.

The situations we faced actually seemed quite predictable if we started with the core assumption that we were working with ignorant apes and excitable chimpanzees rather than rational professionals. As a model, this view was a good predictor of outcomes.

Satisfied that the world now made sense, we went our separate ways, before regrouping with our team the next day at work.

We shared our joking conclusions with our team. As silly as our new model of the organisation was, somehow it helped us to adjust to the chaos we were in, while still getting our work done as best we could and feeling more motivated.

Even though we knew people were not really deranged orangutans, we adapted to the assumption that decisions and dependencies being made around us were going to remain chaotic and annoyingly unstable. Expecting anything else was like arguing with monkeys and hoping they would suddenly evolve to a higher consciousness as a result.

Perhaps there is something to be said for adapting our expectations to the world we are in.

Expecting chaos from the world beyond our control was far more effective than expecting excellence.

Doing so certainly worked for us at the time.

An unlikely challenge to that view

Disappointingly though, I recently stumbled on some research that suggests that monkeys are, in fact, advanced problem solvers. The same research also concludes that they can make sophisticated decisions in the face of complexity.


Thinking this hypothesis through

Thinking this through …

If we really had been working with monkeys, and those monkeys made good decisions in the face of complexity, which we know they are capable of, then we would have seen better outcomes that we were seeing.

But surely, humans are better at making good decisions than monkeys are. Even when we were at the pub complaining to each other, we believed this to be true.

So the problem does not seem to be that were were working with monkey, or that the people we worked with had the problem solving ability of the average orangutan.

Then, if it is not “them”, could it have been us. Should we have been working harder or solving problems better?

Based on our analysis at the time, the problem could not have been either of us, because we were definitely both smarter than monkeys and we knew we were both good at getting our work done when given a chance to do so. We and the rest of the team were seen by others as being consistently good at delivering good outcomes. In any case, the idea that we were dumber than chimpanzees was not a line of thought we would have explored.

If it is not the other people’s fault and it is not ours, then what else could be to blame?

According to the research, when monkeys face complex problems, they spend longer solving them. They seem to work through complex problems methodically, but in doing so, they are slower at solving these complex problems than they are when when they solve simple problems.

That seems kind of obvious – monkeys take longer to solve complex problems than easy ones. I am not sure I would award a PhD for that insight.

But what if I apply the same reasoning to the hapless hordes of macaques, who were causing problems for my friend and I.

Perhaps the “alleged ape-brained agents of chaos” that I was working with did not, in fact, have the time to sit back and solve complex problems properly.

Perhaps we were assuming that if something was urgent, then smart people could still move quickly and tackle varying levels of complexity in the same way they quickly resolved simple problems. While monkeys see the gaps in that reasoning, I don’t think we saw it at the time.

More generally – Maybe it is not people’s innate incompetence that is a problem, maybe we systematically collaborate to rush things, so nobody can understand complex problems before acting on them.

I think that was actually the case in our project.

We saw the simple need to get a decision made or have something delivered, but we did not account for the complexity of each piece of the puzzle when others worked on them.

As a tribe, all our stakeholders were potentially the same as us – working harder to get things done while pushing harder for the things they needed. And then becoming frustrated when things fell apart yet again.

Perhaps we were, as a group, in fact dumber than a tribe of monkeys, even though each of us could credibly claim to be highly evolved problem solvers.

The implication

That is disappointing because it means that the problem seems both easy to solve and almost unavoidable.

Assuming people are as smart as the average monkey, and they have the time and space to think, then they can solve complexity and make sophisticated decisions.

But assuming that we are all stressed and rushing each other, then neither chaotic chimps or highly evolved humans will have the head space to tackle complexity.

So the dumbest thing to do in that situation is to complain and try to force others to act quickly while hoping that they will perform better than a group of stressed monkeys without the space to think.

And maybe the second dumbest thing to do is to hope that people will self organise to solve the problem without some kind of structure to the collaboration and problem solving.

Monkeys seem to self organise, but under stress it involves violence and chaos. I have never seen stressed monkeys develop a city, build a flying car accomplish something that future generations would talk about.

If that is true, then the problem isn’t “getting better people” or “pushing harder to get the results we need”. It is not even “empowering smart people to work it out”.

It is working out how to create the environment to allow us to align our existing capability to the complexity we are dealing with.

Is it really that simple though?

I have no proof of this theory, but it seems that monkeys understand it and react accordingly. They adjust their approach to the kind of problem they are solving.

I wonder now how often I have acted as though others can solve complex problems urgently, simply because I want them to, rather looking to adjust our approach to the problems we are solving.

As an intellectual exercise, I will try to be smarter than a monkey for the next week or so and see if I can adjust the situation to help solve complexity rather than trying to push harder to do so.

Photo by Andre Mouton on Pexels.com

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