ChimpThere is an image doing the rounds on twitter at the moment. Its a visualisation of an old story, the parable of the Monkeys

It happened that there were three monkeys in a cage. Suspended at the top if the cage was a bunch of bananas. There was a ladder from the floor of the cage up to the bananas. One of the monkeys, who was both clever and agile and also liked bananas, decided to head up the ladder to grab a banana.

Imagine his surprise (not to mention that of the other two monkeys) when suddenly a fire hose washed down the cage, blasting all three monkeys over to one side. Cold and shivering, the three monkeys regrouped and thought about what had happened.

Monkeys don’t have a real long memory and, after awhile, a second monkey thought again about the bananas and headed up the ladder. Same thing—a fire hose washed all three monkeys over to the side of the cage. They picked themselves up, shook themselves off and hoped the sun would come out to warm them up.

After another couple of hours, the third monkey couldn’t resist and he went for it. Sure enough, same result—fire hose and cold, wet, miserable monkeys.

Finally, all three monkeys became convinced that going for the bananas was a bad idea, and went on with the rest of their lives.

Then the zookeeper drafted one of the monkeys for another exhibit and replaced him with a new monkey. The new monkey arrived, looked up at the bananas, looked over at the ladder and couldn’t figure out why the other monkeys hadn’t gone for the bananas. He headed for the ladder and got about 1 rung up when the remaining “experienced” monkeys tackled him, dragged him to the floor and pummeled him into submission. He quickly concluded that climbing the ladder wasn’t a good idea.

A week later, the zookeeper replaced the second monkey. Monkeys are somewhat single-minded. The new monkey spied the bananas, headed for the ladder, and the remaining two monkeys tackled him and pummeled him into submission.

Finally the third monkey was replaced and, you guessed it, the same thing happened. So life went on among the monkeys and after some time the first of the “new” monkeys was replaced with yet another monkey. Sure enough, the new guy saw the bananas, went for the ladder and his two peers then tackled him and beat him into submission.

Why was that? None of these monkeys knew anything about the fire hose. None of them had ever gotten wet for having climbed the ladder in the quest for bananas. Yet the monkeys had been fully culturalized to know that it was a bad idea. And you could likely go on individually replacing monkeys one at a time forever and expect the same result.

Aside from the fact that I’ve used a Chimp for a heading image here and Chimps are Primates, there is another point that we need to think about in this parable.  The parable suggests that culture is a bad thing and that we need to learn how to effect change and not be bound by culture. This misses a key point. It ignores the idea that there may have been a very good reason for the cultural evolution in the first place. In this case there was.  It’s not about monkeys stopping other monkeys from eating bananas. It is about monkeys protecting themselves and other monkeys from harm.

The greater issue here is loss of memory, loss of understanding and the ignoring of context.  One company I worked with where before we made changes to a very old and very patched system we would go and have a chat with the Oracle. The Oracle was one key person in the organisation who knew where the bodies were buried in the system and why certain decisions had been made in the first place. The Oracle was the person who knew the consequences of attempting to go after the bananas and also what the water from the firehose felt like. Working with him we were able to figure out whether the problems encountered in the past still existed and whether or not the context had changed. Or whether by making certain changes the only thing we were going to get for ourselves was a soaking.

Problems arise when we forget technologies and they arise when we forget the reasons things evolved the way they did. Context in important. As Dave Snowden reminds even Context is Contextual  Back in the 1990′s the whole re-engineering approach stalled because it forgot context and it forget people.

Context is king.