Find the bottleneck and solve for that first
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?