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Learning to tame monkeys

By: Caroline Wiernicki,
Knauss Fellow,
Interagency Policy Liaison,
Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy 


Who has the monkey?  It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately.  Not because I have a background in primatology (I don’t, I’m a fisheries scientist by trade); not because my Knauss office has a vested interest in the location of monkeys worldwide (if the Navy does, it must be Top Secret because they’re not telling me about it); and not because, during these past few months of quarantine, have I lost a pet monkey in my seemingly endless pile of work-from-home sweat pants and college t-shirts (that was my sister’s fearless cockapoo puppy, and we located him promptly).   Rather, in the words of William Oncken Jr. and Donald L. Wass (The Harvard Business Review), the proverbial “monkey” is a concept key to working on a team: an individual’s responsibility or task that contributes towards the team’s broader goals. 


According to Oncken and Wass, team dynamic and success rely on the ability of individuals to tame their own monkeys—to keep track of their own tasks and responsibilities—and to avoid letting any such monkey jump from their back to that of one’s supervisor.  I was first introduced to the Oncken and Wass article at a leadership brown bag discussion hosted by one of the five branches of my placement office, the Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy.  The objective of the brown bag was to foster discussion and introspection on how the actions of individuals in the workplace can bolster—or hinder—the success of the team.  Who has the monkey?  Is it actually your monkey?   Why does the Navy care about these monkeys?  


For starters the US Navy is a big organization. In order for the Navy to succeed, nearly one million people globally across nine operational forces and seven active fleets need to coordinate.  That’s a lot of monkeys, and it’s a lot of monkey handling on the ground level. Even within my own office branch—the Oceanographer of the Navy’s International and Interagency Policy division—much of an individual’s tasks and responsibilities run a mile wide and several miles deep.


Our team of five in N2N6E5 works on all topics relating the Navy’s meteorological and oceanographic interests to the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. Any policy topic related to the environment, weather, climate, ocean acoustics, marine transportation, etcetera, at any phase of development, we have a vested interest in monitoring.  It is a three-dimensional mission, with responsibilities ranging from dozens of interagency working groups, to Department of Defense strategies, to tracking congressional legislation.   Our monkeys have a finger in every pot, up and down most every shelf.


When I first joined the team at the start of my fellowship, I was floored and more than a little overwhelmed.  How does a team of five keep track of this? The acronyms, the memorandums, the working groups, and what each means to the naval enterprise?  Per Oncken and Wass’ advice—and following my own observations—the key to smoothly wrangling multiple responsibilities across a diverse and spread team environment like mine (let alone the whole Navy) is simple: it comes down to initiative and communication.


About halfway into my fellowship, I had a weekly conference call with the other members of our branch and one of our supervisors.  During our round-table discussion, it was my turn to give updates on the interagency ocean science funding initiative I had been tracking for several weeks.   I had done my homework, and I pulled the key background and action points for my supervisor to process.  There were a few areas of action our office could take, so I asked him point-blank, “What do you recommend we do?”  The phone line was quiet for a few minutes (whilst I sweated bullets), then he provided me with his suggestion.  Ten minutes after the call, my branch head stopped by my desk. “Don’t sweat it, but next time give him options. He has a million tasks and topics on the brain; give him options to choose from.”


In other words, though I had spent hours of work ahead of this ten-minute phone conversation, picking my words carefully and pulling the bottom line of the issue upfront, for a manager coming in cold with a truckload of other monkeys on his back, my info-drop followed by a “What’s next, boss?” was neither efficient nor effective without the right level of initiative.  My go-to level of initiative at the time—as a relatively new hire easing into the confidence of beginning to understand my job—fell into what Oncken and Wass would describe as a Level 2 Initiative: Ask what to do.  This is an improvement from Level 1 (Wait until you’re told what to do) but a far cry from the confidence and action required for the 700,000+ person enterprise of the Navy to get what it needs done.  Definitely not enough to successfully navigate my own 3D position with the International and Interagency Policy Branch.  The good stuff is at Level 3 or higher—3. Recommend an action and implement it with approval; 4. Take independent action but let someone know as soon as possible; 5. Take independent action and update regularly.  


What I’ve come to understand while working in my office’s wide range and depth of policy issues, within the highly dynamic team setting inherent to the Navy, is that the value of communication and initiative cannot be overstated.  In order to contain the monkeys successfully as a team (and it cannot be done successfully without a team), individuals need to have the confidence and the initiative to go out of their way to identify and keep track of their own responsibilities. For this to work, they must be in constant communication and understanding with both their peers and supervisors.  Initiative without communication (running off blindly down a path of action without letting the team know what you’re doing) isn’t effective nor is constant communication without the initiative to go after tasks without being told.  Any effective team, whether it’s in a government enterprise like the Navy or in the corporate world that inspired Oncken and Wass, needs both.


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