Leadership and the Infinite Monkey

The vision-less leader is like the proverbial monkey on a typewriter…Or even worse.

Options are a good thing. We all want options.

Chocolate or vanilla?

White or wheat?

Paper or plastic?

Options, to a point, are the spice of life.

But, there’s a breed of leader out there whose approach to leadership amounts only to options.

Too many options.

Options without conviction.

Options without vision.

Options without time boundaries, rules, triggers, or values. Just options.

“Try them all” says he,

“One of them might work.”

Generally, this leader has limited concept of or care for the burden “trying them all” comes with; but revels in the knowledge that something might happen.

He doesn’t know what.

But, perhaps when it happens he’ll know.

This leader’s style is a manifestation of the so-called “infinite monkey theorem.”

And a tortuous style it is.

What’s an infinite monkey leader?

The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey on a typewriter, banging away, will eventually bang out the complete works of Shakespeare…If only given enough time.

He won’t know he has done it, and he will certainly have wasted a lot of time and energy in the process; but still, with enough time, he believes he will find success.

An infinite monkey leader works the same way: Bang away on enough keys and something good is bound to happen.

Call on enough random phone numbers and you are bound to make a sale.

Invest in enough projects and one is bound to “pop.”

Keep plugging away at a given project providing no financial returns and producing only noise because, you know, it is bound to straighten out.

Churn through enough people and you are bound to find a good subordinate.

The defining characteristic of an infinite monkey leader is the lack of conviction to narrow down and attack.

Instead, the leader only arrays resources against broad fronts, never narrow; and only attacks in rolling waves, never in thrusts.

In short, the leader never commits. He just bangs away.

The scary part?

Get this: A leader with Infinite Monkey affliction can often persist and even prevail.

Savvy ones refer to neat sounding investment terms like “portfolio effects” and “diversification.” These are worthy, useful terms in the real world of strategic management, to be sure. However, the infinite monkey leader takes them to the limit… Wasting time on things that should be stopped, never driving hard against things that should be over-invested, and ultimately missing the boat.

But, these leaders are out there, they are in senior positions, and in some cases they lead successful organizations.

It’s remarkable, but true.

In those cases, a few things are common. Most of the time, the strength of the organization overcomes the leader’s weakness. Some of the time, the leader has a strong “second” who corrals the mercurial or passive tendencies (yes, you read that right) of the infinite monkey leader.

In any case, there will be consequences. One only need look for them.

What are the consequences?

The consequences of infinite monkey leadership are substantial, but take time to manifest themselves, especially for the ones who find success through their organizations as noted above. They include

  • Frustration – particularly as every part of the organization realizes that any part of the organization might or might not be on the leader’s agenda–who can tell?
  • Wasted time and money – it goes without saying…keep banging away.
  • Lost opportunities – too often, the infinite monkey leader has a focus on meeting a budget versus building value; and that can lead to lost opportunities.
  • Lost people – particularly those who know better, so it’s a double whammy.

This is an article about opportunity costs and leaders who ignore them.

Opportunity costs are often very hard to prove in an organization. What if we hadn’t spent that extra year working on that project that everybody knew was a dud? What could we have done?

Tough to say.

Can this affliction be overcome?

I believe this affliction can be fixed…to a point.

In larger organizations, the fix comes from constraints and processes. Other people put constraints on the infinite monkey leader, and processes provide structure and required inputs for testing whether the options are real.

It’s bureaucracy, and it contributes to the longevity of the infinite monkey leadership style (it’s just a manifestation of a “strong organization” as I noted above), but it can work.

Over time the leader learns what constraint and conviction are, and starts to understand what truly constitutes a portfolio versus just a grab bag.

In smaller organizations, or organizational cultures where the top of the organization rules (and that doesn’t mean the CEO, it means the top of every function, work team, cell, and unit); leaders have to be good at asking a few questions in a structured…perhaps in a very structured way.

  • Do we know what we are doing?
  • Do we know why we are doing it?
  • Do we know the burden imposed in terms of time, money, and energy?
  • Are we spending our time, money, and energy on the right things?

As with most activities, sorting and scrutinizing works.

The real challenge for the infinite monkey leader is the last question…the “right things” question.

Usually, the infinite monkey leader can’t make that call.

That’s why he’s an infinite monkey leader!

He needs help. But, he has to admit that he doesn’t necessarily know what “right” is; and in some organizations that can be political suicide.

Perhaps he needs someone who can provide an interpretive framework for what “right” is. Perhaps he only needs to stop and think about what he believes.

It’s tough to tell.

Good, structured thinking and follow through is the requirement; because the leader lacks an intuitive feel for priorities and burden.

A parting thought…

I have framed this article around the concept of the leader being the monkey on typewriter.

For most of us, that’s a fun an engaging way of thinking about a significant leadership failure mode.

Sometimes we are the monkey leader, banging away on a keyboard, thinking we are making progress…

But, those of us who try to practice disciplined followership know the uglier side of this leadership affliction: Most of the time, the leader isn’t the one banging away at the keys…It’s his followers. He’s only ordering them to keep banging away.

Don’t be a monkey, in either case.

Know what you believe.

(And, yes, the chimp in the picture above is not a monkey…it’s an ape…But, still.)

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