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Monkeys on our back

A tribute to the never ending projects.

You know those projects that seem to never end. The projects that extend well past their anticipated delivery dates. The projects that can’t catch a break or that can’t find sustained momentum. These are the projects that become the monkeys on our backs.l-Monkey-on-your-back

My experience is probably not so different from yours. There are projects throughout my professional career that I can describe with words like unlucky, doomed, slow, or unsupported. This isn’t necessarily because people dislike the project objectives. But for whatever reason, these projects stick in the portfolio and start to carry a heavier weight to the team that is involved.

Why do some projects hit their scope, timeline, and budget while others flounder?

I wrestled with this question after a discussion this week about the “monkeys on my back”. Thinking through my project experiences, several common themes were present with projects that failed to meet the original expectations of the stakeholders:

  1. Underestimating the complexity – Team members and/or stakeholders underestimate the complexity required to complete a project. Software projects are prone to this issue if the project team underestimates the complexity of business process flows impacted by the software coding. It’s one thing to change code and make systems talk to each other. It’s another thing to consume the new changes and impact process flows of people and equipment.
  2. Shifting the priorities – When a “more important” project takes team members away from an existing project then momentum is lost and work effort is delayed.
  3. Staffing with the wrong people – Sometimes the wrong people are on the team to complete the job. This could be a skills gap for what is necessary to complete the requirements. But sometimes its about cultural fit between team members. Cultural is influenced by factors such as personalities, temperaments, and ideologies.

There isn’t a one-size-fits all answer to getting the monkey(s) off our back. But knowing why the monkey is there may help us to think of ways to get him off!

What are the origins of the phrase “Monkey on my back”?

I did some brief research and could not pinpoint the origin. If you know or find anything different on this let me know.

The 1854 edition of the Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases contains this:

“MONKEY. ‘I’ve put your monkey up,’ is a phrase implying, I’ve roused your spirit, or offended you. ‘I’ve put up your back,’ is an equivalent, which see. A child is said to have the monkey on its back, when in ill humour, or out of temper.”

The 1874 edition of the The Slang Dictionary contains this:

“Monkey, spirit or ill temper; ‘to get one’s Monkey up,’ to rouse his passion. A man is said to have his Monkey up or the Monkey on his back, when he is ‘riled,’ or out of temper; this is old, and was probably in allusion originally to the evil spirit which was supposed to lie always present with a man; also under similar circumstances a man is said to have his back or hump up.”

There are other passages where the phrase is used as a reference to being in debt with a mortgage.

In more recent times the phrase is used to describe a heavy burden or even a drug addiction.

This much we do know.  We’d like to get those monkeys off our back. So take some time to think about why they are there. Then see if you can shake them loose.

Onward and upward!