dsandler.org :: essays
Monday, March 4, 2002.
The following is wisdom passed down from freston on corporate culture. It has been adapted slightly for a new environment (viz., a web page), but the message is unmodified, of course.
Imagine you have a closed room full of monkeys. In the center of the room, suspended just below the ceiling, is a large bunch of fresh bananas. Directly under the bananas is a stepladder that is more than adequate to reach the bananas.
As soon as a monkey starts to climb the ladder (this will happen; monkeys are not (initially) stupid), you (the observer) press a switch that releases a shower of freezing water onto the entire room of monkeys. (The monkeys do not like this.) The switch is pressed, and the water is released, whenever a monkey starts to climb the ladder. Soon, the monkeys stop trying to climb the ladder, for fear of the water.
Now it gets interesting. You start to swap out the monkeys, slowly, one by one. New monkeys will observe the situation and decide to climb the ladder; it is likely that the other monkeys, who know what will happen, will beat him to death rather than endure the punishment. The "expert" monkeys will prevent any more freezing showers by attacking and subduing the young upstarts before the ladder is even touched.
The monkeys continue to be swapped out, slowly, over time. Eventually, the punishment can be removed and the monkeys will not even know; they will have developed a habit of killing any monkey who goes near the ladder (despite the fact that the old constraints on their behavior no longer apply). The interesting part, though, is that a time will come when there are no monkeys in the room who have seen the punishment first-hand; nevertheless, these monkeys will not dare climb the ladder, and will kill any monkeys who try. They have ceased to question the behavior that has been passed down from generation to generation; they have learned "truths" that are inconsistent with reality.
That is corporate culture.