Time Management on the Farm

Delegation is about getting the monkey off your back.

If I want something done right, I have to do it myself. Before I got better at delegating, that used to be a problem with me. It's a common problem with farmers.

We have our operations. We have been the sole employee for a long time and have gotten used to the way we do things. And then we grow or bring family in and we have to learn a new way. Sometimes, even if we can get pretty good at delegating, we can still end up getting the projects back on our plates as the employee requests feedback. There's a story I'd like to share that can help.

The Harvard Business Review has an old story that refers to time management like a "monkey on your back." The story was first shared in 1974 and has resonated with a lot of business people over the years. Think of a delegated project as a pet monkey. When you assign the project, you give the care and feeding of that "monkey" to someone else. For a while it feels good. And then the employee has an issue with the monkey and when they see you in the barn, they ask about the issue and you might have a solution which actually requires you to handle the next step of the project. You just got the monkey again, and it's riding around on your back.

This is about inspiring your people to think through issues, and working on your own discipline, so that you don't keep taking the monkey back. Employees try to hand off monkeys when they lack the desire or ability to handle them.

If it's one little monkey, it might not seem like a big deal, but the article takes that out to multiple employees who might each have a number of projects (monkeys). In the course of the day you're trying to get your own work done, and your office is filling up with other people's monkeys. Because you keep offering this help, you soon have most of the monkeys and while your employees are waiting at your door while you make the next decision, take the next step, feed their monkey. You've become the bottleneck. In a way, they have become the boss. They are waiting for you to finish feeding their monkeys. It gets tricky like that.

The solution that's shared is to sit down with the employee for a frank discussion about the next step, and how that work belongs to the employee. You need to transfer the initiative back to the employee. A big part of the situation is awareness. Certainly a new employee is going to need more assistance with their monkey. Good documented processes on the farm can help in training new people. But once you notice who is feeding all of the monkeys on your farm, it's up to you to do something about it.
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