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Monkey Business

How many monkeys would a monkey catcher catch if a monkey catcher bauble-baited bottles? How many consultants can the Consultant Debunking Unit debunk by checking out the latest monkey metaphor?

Follow a consultant long enough, and you’re sure to spot some monkey business. In fact, in the long and storied history of the Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU), consultants and monkeys almost seem to go hand in hand — or hand in paw. In this case, it’s the oft-told tale of how to trap a monkey — a tale that involves monkeys, baubles, and narrow-necked bottles. We came across this piece of consultant mythmaking in the best-selling book “Flight of the Buffalo” (Warner Books, 1994), by James A. Belasco and Ralph C. Stayer. In the book, the authors make this point: Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have — and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up.

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To illustrate their point, the authors tell of monkey trappers in an unnamed land. In an attempt to catch a monkey, these trappers put a bright bauble in a narrow-necked bottle. The monkey, attracted by the bauble, reaches inside the bottle but soon discovers that the bauble doesn’t fit through the bottle’s neck. And there the monkey remains — with its fist holding onto the trinket in the bottle. “It isn’t easy to give up one bauble in hopes of getting a bigger one,” the authors intone. “Eventually, the trappers come along and capture the monkey — trapped by its unwillingness to give up the bauble.”

The CDU was all over this story like a cheap (monkey) suit. First the CDU headed for a monkey expert: Charles Southwick, the granddaddy of Asian monkey fieldwork. Southwick, who has been studying monkeys in India since 1959, is the author of “Primate Social Behavior: An Enduring Problem” (Van Nostrand, 1963) and a professor emeritus in the environmental, population, and organismic biology department at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

According to Southwick, the bauble story is little more than monkey myth. Before it became an item in the consultant’s tool kit, the story had made the rounds throughout India as a fable. “In Asia, monkeys are thought of as godlike creatures. As a result, they are humanized,” says Southwick. “People tell this fable in a moral context — to show that even monkeys, which are considered mischievous and smart, can be consumed by greed.” Would the bauble-in-a-bottle trap work? “No,” says Southwick.

Next, the CDU turned to someone who actually catches monkeys for a living. “I’ve heard the story, and it’s a total myth,” says Emerald Thorington, who is in charge of “monkey damage control” at the Barbados Primate Research Center, in St. Peter, Barbados. (He traps monkeys that are lunching on local agriculture.) “The minute that monkeys see you approaching, they drop whatever they’re holding and run.”

Finally, in the interests of pure science the CDU partnered with the Franklin Park Zoo, in Boston. Armed with only a Swiss Army watch and a notepad, the CDU swung over to the zoo’s monkey house. The experiment: What would happen if monkeys were presented with a thin-necked, plastic, six-gallon Poland Spring bottle containing bits of banana and cantaloupe? Would the CDU catch a monkey?

Once again, pure science overtook pure bunk. The CDU observed two African De Brazza monkeys — one male, one female — for 33 minutes. At the 14-minute mark, Rutabaga, the male, climbed onto a branch and peered down the neck of the bottle trap that had been placed in the cage. He then proceeded to munch on monkey chow from a nearby bin for precisely 6 minutes. The CDU continued its observations for 13 more minutes but witnessed no further interaction between the two monkeys and the bottle.

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According to Shane Siers, who is assistant curator of the zoo’s tropical forest, the CDU experiment-in-a-bottle was (monkey) business as usual. “I’ve worked with 20 different species of primates, and I’ve yet to see one get its hand stuck in anything.”

All of which makes the CDU wonder: What would happen if you put a consultant’s contract inside a narrow-necked bottle? “I don’t know,” says Siers. “That’s one species that I’ve never worked with.”