How To Catch a Monkey

Many, many years ago, I was told a story that described how to catch a monkey with a coconut shell. As the story goes, the first step is to get a coconut and make a hole in its shell that is just big enough for a monkey to reach its hand into. The hunter then anchors the coconut to something, such as a tree or a rock. The last step of setting the trap is to place an attractive treat, such as a piece of fruit, inside the coconut as bait.

“Now, how is this going to catch a monkey?” you might ask. The trap works by turning the monkey’s greed against itself. The hole is big enough for the monkey to reach into the coconut with an open hand, but it is not big enough to withdraw the hand when it is firmly grasping the bait. Of course, all the hapless creature has to do is let go of the fruit, and it can get away. It might even find a different way of getting the fruit. However, the monkey thinks that its problem is that it cannot get the tempting treat, while the real danger is much more ominous. It is still struggling to get the treat out of the coconut shell and escape with it when the hunter comes to claim his prize.

I do not know whether this story is actually true of monkeys, but it is certainly true of people—including me…Perhaps, especially me.

I was suffering all week as I was mulling over an idea that explains how leaders can harness resistance to propel their organizations forward. I had something in mind—a wonderful idea, as far as I was concerned—but every time I tried to develop it, the words failed me. Because it was so wonderful, I had a hard time letting go of it.

So, today, I thought, I am just like that little monkey. I have trapped myself.

We can become so focused on being stuck we may come to think that being stuck is the problem rather than a symptom. When that happens, although it is counterintuitive, the best thing to do is let go, because that’s when creativity has a chance to occur.

Leaders often come to us when they, or their organization, are stuck. The leadership has recognized a problem and reaches out to us for innovative solutions. Not infrequently, what we find is that the identified problem is, at its core, a manifestation of other issues. Helping leaders let go of the presenting issue, guiding them toward the real levers to pull, allows them to see the “problem” in a completely different light. No longer thinking in terms of getting some part of the company “unstuck,” they are free to redirect energy to reaching much more aspirational goals—often realizing the “stuckness” no longer has the same kind of downward pull they believed it had.

By watching this happen with leaders again and again, I have learned—albeit slowly—that when I can’t get what I want by doing whatever it is I am doing, it is time for me to just let go, to step back and let my unconscious mind take over for awhile. Engage in some divergent thinking activity, such as a simple word association task, listening to music, or a mind map. In this case, it led me to the little monkey story, and ultimately, back to my more flexible, more creative self.

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