Review – When the Monkeys Run the Zoo

February 19, 2019

Review – When the Monkeys Run the Zoo

Early industrial companies were characterized by a strict hierarchy of power and decision-making competency. Giving employees a say in the company’s strategy would be like having the monkeys run the zoo, an indiscretion voiced by Frank Borman, CEO of Eastern Airlines, from which the book derives its title. The modern company is lean, flat, agile, disruptive, kind, regenerative and decentralized. This creates problems. To be specific, author Thomas Kühn identifies three main dilemmas:

The three dilemmas of modern organizations

The identity dilemma refers to organizational subunits gaining increased autarky. But as companies dissolve into independent departments, profit centers and teams, it becomes unclear, what is within and without of the organization. This way, synergy effects of centralization are lost.

Breaking the strict hierarchy of old timey organizations in favor of flat structures clearly improved the quality of life for workers. But it also removed clarity and gave rise to informal communication and decision-making structures. Without a person indisputably in charge, each decision requires involvement of topic experts, division leaders and influencers, and the outcome may depend on individual moods and favoritism. When the Monkeys Run the Zoo calls this the dilemma of politicization.

Complexity in organization is a bad thing, that’s something most would agree on. Yet, in the pursuit of complexity reduction, organizations may unwillingly increase their complexity. The outsourcing of complex work is a way of simplification, but the increased difficulty to oversee externally delivered results, the lowered employee motivation (due to reduced scope of work) and the difficulties of innovations upstream and downstream of the “black box” established by outsourcing create enough new complexity to mitigate the benefits. Another good example is the removal of redundant processes, which reduces complexity but inadvertently also creates fragility, as redundant processes also serve as an emergency option to react to unexpected events. The complexity dilemma is that even from the interaction of simple rules can arise unmanageably complex structures and processes.

Cyclic phenomena or outdated references?

Companies have come a long way since the beginning of the industrialization. From the top-heavy hierarchical bureaucratic behemoths of the Taylorist/Fordist age of the early 20th century, modern organizations evolved into the lean and agile profit center structure – of the late 90s? Seriously, reading the book gave me the impression that there is a lack of recent literature citations. I did the data and it turn out that my feeling was completely right:

When the Monkeys run the Zoo Kuehl Kühl Citations by decade
When the Monkeys Run the Zoo mostly cites literature that is more than 30 years old.

The citations mostly fall into the 1970s to 1990s. Why would a 2018 book about modern organizational structures severely underrepresent the last 20 years of progress in  that field of research? Kühl states that management fads and organization hypes are cyclical and not distinctly different today than in 40 years ago, but does not strengthen this point with literature.

I thought that maybe the book was about the journey, the historical development of organizations, but plotting the year of a citation over its position in the book reveals them to be all over the place, clearly not chronologically used to reinforce a developmental timeline:

When the Monkeys Run the Zoo Kühl Kuehl citation year by position in the book
The literature cited in the throughout When the Monkeys Run the Zoo does not represent a chronological timeline.

What can I learn?

When the monkeys run the zoo is a scholarly book, and with that I mean that the language and presentation of ideas are clearly meant for people with a strong academic interest in the history of organizational structures. That excludes me. The book is short on definitions. I had to look up the differences between a holacracy, a sociocracy and an adhocracy. I would have expected explanations for such terms to be included in a book about forms of organization.

Kühl almost exclusively uses an abstract company to illustrate his claims. It is always “an organization” that reacts to equally abstract outside and inside change triggers. Given that the author is an active organizational consultant to companies, this should be a colorful composition of real-life examples that illustrate the points raised. I feel that here has an opportunity been missed.

I learned several things from “When the Monkeys Run the Zoo”. Apparently, companies have three faces (the formal side of written and explicit rules, the informal side of unwritten rules and expectations, and the display side created to show to the outside). And there are three problems of companies in the early 21st century, some of which may still be relevant.

But I did not learn about 2017+ stuff, about digitalization and startup culture. And I did not learn how to apply anything I read in When the Monkeys Run the Zoo to actual work and organization design.

Key Points

  • modern, agile, flat organizations are not perfect as they face the three dilemmas of identity, politicization and complexity
  • There may be no all-time perfect form of organization.
  • Organizational forms come and go in hype cycles.

Author Affiliation

Stefan Kühl is Professor of organizational sociology at the university of Bielefeld (website) and works as an organizational consultant.

Review Copy

copy provided by author
ISBN-10: 0999147900
ISBN-13: 978-0999147900
Metaplan (1 Sept. 2017)

Get the book on*
Get the book on*

When the Monkeys Run the Zoo Book Cover When the Monkeys Run the Zoo
Fellow at the Institute of Sociology Stefan Kuhl, Stefan Kühl,
Business & Economics

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: