In a zoo in Western Denmark, there were three monkeys in an enclosure.  The zoo was brand new, and they were still making final touches to the animal’s environments.  Within the monkey enclosure was a tall fruit tree.  Naturally, the monkeys enjoyed eating the fruit and spent much of their time around the tree.  One day a zoo employee noticed that it was possible for a monkey to climb the tree and escape the enclosure.  While the zoo staff was waiting for

museum leadershipnew netting to arrive so they could fix the issue, they temporarily used an invisible fence system that would shock the monkeys if they went too far up the tree.  At one time or another, each of the monkeys attempted to climb the tree and were shocked by the invisible fence.  After a few days, the monkeys stopped climbing the tree because they did not want to be shocked.  A month later, the zoo staff installed the permanent netting and took out the invisible fence system, allowing the monkeys to climb high into the tree if they wished.  But at this point, the monkey’s past experiences had taught them to avoid the tree as they had been shocked many times.  The monkeys never attempted to climb the tree again, considering the area off-limits.

A year later, a fourth monkey was added to the enclosure with the original three.  The fourth monkey immediately went to the tree to get some fruit, but as soon as he got close to the tree, the other monkeys tackled him because they did not want him to be shocked as they had been.  Every time he went toward the tree, the other monkeys would block him.  After a while, the new monkey became frustrated and never attempted to climb the tree again.  He wasn’t sure why the senior monkeys were blocking him, but he no longer wanted to cause disruption and simply got in line with their actions.

Years went by without the monkeys ever attempting to climb the tree.  Over time, two of the four monkeys were moved to other zoos, and one had passed.  Only one of the original monkeys left, and he was old, frail, and mostly kept to himself.  The zoo added two brand new younger monkeys to the enclosure.  The new monkeys immediately climbed the tree and ate the fruit without incident as there was no one left in the cage to dissuade them from doing so.  After a few weeks of this, the original monkey joined them, and they all ate and enjoyed the fruit.

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing organizations to consider new offerings, new channels, new profit models, and new experiences with dramatic urgency.  The reality is, much like the monkeys, we all have formal and informal ‘rules’ and assumptions in our organizations that have not been questioned for years for a variety of reasons.  There can be no ‘fruit tree’ in our organizations if we are to come up with the actions necessary to sustain in this challenging time.  Every topic has to be open for real, meaningful discussion.  A program that was once a cornerstone may now be obsolete.  An idea that was once brushed aside could become a big winner.

As your team discusses new ways of doing business, consider the following:

  1. Ask why? Do you have fruit trees at your museum?  Policies, procedures, or programs that are treated as sacred?  Assumptions that have not been challenged, or even discussed in years?  Brainstorm a list of ‘we have always done it that way’ items and discuss their current merits.
  2. Give everyone a voice, especially people that are newer to the organization because they have not been encultured into long term assumptions. I have seen many times in which a museum’s newest employee comes up with the idea that becomes a cornerstone program.
  3. Make it hard to say no to new ideas. If you get to a sticking point, do this exercise. Before the group can decide against a new idea, everyone on the opposing side has to write a one-page word document explaining why they think its not the best course of action.  If you can’t articulate it, you are often dealing with an invisible fence.


Writers Note- Versions of the monkey story have been told for years.  While this version is original, the concept is not.  I was unable to figure out the genesis of this concept.  If someone knows, please contact me, and I will appropriately credit the source.

Article by Frank Bennett, originally published at

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