100th Monkey Syndrome – How change happens?

The Japanese monkey, Macaca fuscata, had been observed in the wild for a period of over 30 years. In 1952, on the island of Koshima, scientists were providing monkeys with sweet potatoes dropped in the sand. The monkey liked the taste of the raw sweet potatoes, but they found the dirt unpleasant.

An 18-month-old female named Imo found she could solve the problem by washing the potatoes in a nearby stream. She taught this trick to her mother. Her playmates also learned this new way and they taught their mothers too.

This cultural innovation was gradually picked up by various monkeys before the eyes of the scientists. Between 1952 and 1958 all the young monkeys learned to wash the sandy sweet potatoes to make them more palatable. Only the adults who imitated their children learned this social improvement. Other adults kept eating the dirty sweet potatoes.

Then something startling took place. In the autumn of 1958, a certain number of Koshima monkeys were washing sweet potatoes — the exact number is not known. Let us suppose that when the sun rose one morning there were 99 monkeys on Koshima Island who had learned to wash their sweet potatoes. Let’s further suppose that later that morning, the hundredth monkey learned to wash potatoes.

THEN IT HAPPENED! By that evening almost everyone in the tribe was washing sweet potatoes before eating them. The added energy of this hundredth monkey somehow created an ideological breakthrough!

But notice: A most surprising thing observed by these scientists was that the habit of washing sweet potatoes then jumped over the sea…Colonies of monkeys on other islands and the mainland troop of monkeys at Takasakiyama began washing their sweet potatoes. Thus, when a certain critical number achieves an awareness, this new awareness may be communicated from mind to mind.

Although the exact number may vary, this Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon means that when only a limited number of people know of a new way, it may remain the conscious property of these people.

This is an excerpt from the book by Ken Keyes, jr. “The Hundredth Monkey.”

So what can we learn from this story? Well it seems to me that there are a number of important lessons:-

  • We can not tell where an important new breakthrough will occur, so it is important that communication is encouraged
  • Conversely, even if communication is not encouraged (or even actively discouraged!) it will still occur. There are few secrets in any organisation so think about what is said behind closed doors. If you wouldn’t’t be happy to express yourself that way in public, perhaps there is a better way to say it (or even NOT say it!)
  • Culture changes when there is critical mass behind it. It is important to take advantage of peoples’ natural enthusiasm, inquisitiveness, and energy and let these people lead Change
  • People will change when they understand the benefit of it to them.
  • It is hard to anticipate the impact of an apparently small change
  • You can build on the energy and success of one change to seed the next one.
  • Don’t try to over control; allow space for things to happen

Do you have a culture that encourages experimentation and innovation? Do you have a forum for sharing new ideas? Do people feel safe to be ‘different’? If you don’t then your culture probably is a little stale. What are you going to do to change that? Corporate culture is a bit like yoghurt, if it isn’t living, it doesn’t do much good! A good culture is the result of doing the right things, if you don’t think your culture is right It is probably time to do something different… Time for a Change!

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2 Responses to “100th Monkey Syndrome – How change happens?”

  1. Andy Smith says:

    Alas, this story never happened – see this article from the Consultant Debunking Unit at Fast Company magazine: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/23/cdu.html

  2. Oh well Andy, that is an interesting snippet but whether the story is true or metaphorical, I think my points stand on their own merit

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