This post is adapted from a newsletter I sent out last summer before I became active on substack. Enjoy! And I hope to see many of you on Wednesday for our paid-subscriber AMA at 6pm eastern!
Ethan Mollick, a professor at the Wharton School and one of my favorite substack writers, tweeted about a concept known as “the reverse salient” last summer. He described the reverse salient as “the technology or process that is holding back development of the whole system (like ⚡️ ︎car batteries did). Solving the salient unlocks change.”
Historian Thomas Hughes introduced the term in a famous 1983 book, Networks of Power, about the first 50 years of electrification. A reverse salient that held back electrification was the low voltage transmission distance of Edison’s direct-current (DC) generator. Edison made several incremental improvements, but the solution unlocking change was the innovation by others of the alternating-current (AC) system.
Mollick, needing little more than an emoji, gives a good modern example: electric car batteries. Without battery technology that could allow you to drive more than a few miles between charges, you can’t produce a commercially viable car people would want.
If you want to unlock a new technology, identify the reverse salient (find the bottleneck) and solve for that.
When I read this, I immediately saw the relationship to “monkeys and pedestals”, a mental model for approaching problems, which I learned about from Astro Teller, the CEO of X, Google’s innovation hub.
To understand monkeys and pedestals, imagine that you’re trying to teach a monkey to juggle flaming torches while it stands on a pedestal in the town square. Two tasks are competing for your money, time, and attention: training the monkey and building the pedestal.
One is a possibly intractable obstacle. And the other is building the pedestal.
The bottleneck, the hard thing, is getting the monkey to juggle those flaming torches. The monkeys in the monkeys and pedestals mental model are, of course, reverse salients.
Simply put, there is no point in building pedestals if you can’t solve for the monkey. Afterall, why build a scale model of a super-sleek, futuristic electric car if you can’t figure out how get its battery to hold a charge long enough for anyone to use it?
Monkeys and pedestals tells us to attack the hard thing first because if we can’t solve for that there is really no point in doing the rest of the work. In fact, in project presentations at X, you’ll see #MONKEYFIRST all over the decks as a constant reminder to figure out what the bottlenecks are and to solve for those before building a bunch of pedestals.
Notice that this is the opposite of the way many projects are managed. How many times have you heard, “Let’s tackle the low hanging fruit first.”?
Low hanging fruit is, by definition, pedestal building, offering the illusion of progress rather than any real ground gained toward reaching a goal. You already know you can build a pedestal, or buy one on Amazon, or turn a milk crate upside down. Building pedestals means you are spending time, money, and other resources on things that get you no closer to figuring out whether you can achieve what it is you are striving for.
Making matters worse, if you tackle the low hanging fruit first, it takes you longer to figure out whether you can solve for the reverse salient, whether you can train the monkey. And the longer it takes you to figure that out, the longer you pursue a project that may not be worthwhile. Meanwhile, you’re pouring resources into the project, cementing a commitment that becomes harder to abandon and easier to justify continuing.
Once you start dumping resources into a project or pursuit, the fear of having wasted those resources if you abandon course make it hard to walk away. That is why building pedestals before you tackle the monkey is so dangerous. Every dollar or minute that you spend addressing the low hanging fruit creates friction to quitting when you discover that you can’t actually resolve the bottlenecks.
Tackling the hard thing first gets you to “no” faster. And the faster you figure out the monkey is untrainable, the less time and money and effort you have sunk into the project, making it easier to quit when the time is right.
Astro Teller’s approach is a nice complement to what Ethan Mollick is saying. Mollick says you can make the most consequential contribution to a system by solving the reverse salient. Teller takes that further, saying that you should identify that bottleneck when you’re approaching any project and solve for that first, because none of the other stuff matters if you don’t do that.
Monkeys and pedestals boil down to some very good advice:
Figure out the hard thing first.
Try to solve that as quickly as possible.
Beware of false progress.
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Every time I encounter the monkey pedestal model I wonder how well this really applies in organizations. When you’re solving or trying to create a technical breakthrough, it’s often straightforward to identify the bottleneck. For example, we have a pretty good idea what the fundamental technical “monkey” is in nuclear fusion—and so multiple scientific team around the world are tackling those issues.
But in organizations it’s harder to identify where the bottleneck is. I think of some of my clients—high-growth tech startups that are usually under-resourced. So, solving the biggest problems usually all fall short of real solutions. They are half measures that aim to mitigate disaster while also husbanding resources and trying to invest in forward progress toward strategic (often technical) goals..
If there were unlimited resources it would be easier to distill the hardest problems into a cohesive target. Why? Because you could solve the basic resource problem and then have a clearer view to structural, systemic or technical juggernauts. It’s a bit like trying to detect a plumbing blockage when the water pressure is low. Until you push enough water through the system to get a back-up, everything just moves slowly—but there’s no detectable difference in drainage speed between blocked or open pipes.
This is a fantastic post, Annie! I'm reminded of a thread by Ryan Petersen of Flexport who had said this back in 2021, on the supply-chain crisis in LA/Long Beach:
"When you're designing an operation you must choose your bottleneck. If the bottleneck appears somewhere that you didn't choose it, you aren't running an operation. It's running you." https://twitter.com/typesfast/status/1451543795045183490
He went on to tweet: "You should always choose the most capital intensive part of the line to be your bottleneck. In a port that's the ship to shore cranes. The cranes should never be unable to run because they're waiting for another part of the operation to catch up." That I guess is a rule of thumb for spotting the monkey among the many pedestals waiting to be built.
One way to frame low-hanging fruits is by the thinking of the ROI. Because ROI is a ratio, you can strip down the denominator (quick tasks) to show a healthy ROI. But a quick win, as you show, is simply another pedestal. The counter to quick-win thinking is opportunity-cost thinking. What's the cost of the monkey you're giving up by using up resources on pedestals?