The Monkey Bars Law

    June 10, 2003

What do you suppose playground equipment can teach about running a company?

Well, remember how scared you were at maybe 5 when you climbed up on the monkey bars for the first time? Made from cold unforgiving steel, monkey bars are basically a horizontal ladder supported on each end by two vertical ladders. More than anything they effectively separated the big kids from the little kids.

You climb up one side hoping you won’t chicken out and have to retreat back down in disgrace. Then you stretch for that slippery first bar polished smooth by previous death grips, let your feet fall off the ladder. . . and swing there like a hanged cat for a long while.

To a 5- or 6-year-old it delivered stomach-clenching anxiety. There were only two options: let go and drop in a heap, or somehow get to the next bar and continue swinging bar-to-bar to the other side. Getting across required you to do something truly terrifying – it meant taking one of your hands off the bar.

Now fast forward to today. Do you know anybody resembling that kid just hanging there, unable or unwilling to move forward?

To me it’s similar to a business owner who says, “We’re doing OK but we can’t seem to make any progress. We’re stuck here.” He wants to climb across to the other side, but

Let me tell you about an ad agency principal I know running a $50 million shop who never misses an opportunity to snarl about how second-rate the creative product is, how it holds them back from landing bigger accounts, and how “stale” his creative director is. When asked why he doesn’t replace the creative director (or make some other changes), he always answers, “You can’t get good people anymore. . . besides it would really upset the place.”

Remind you of the playground? This guy just hangs there afraid to reach out for the next bar. He’d rather dangle 3 or 4 feet above the ground where he’s relatively safe than risk what it might take to move ahead (by the way this same CEO just loves to tell the story of starting his business on the kitchen table with $280).

He’s ignoring the Monkey Bars Law: in order to move forward, first you have to let go of where you are.

Think about it. You’ve got to take your hand off the relative safety of the bar you’re hanging from, and now supported by only one arm, reach out into space and grab something that seems far, far away. As you look at the ground below fear of falling can freeze you solid.

It takes courage and confidence to move your company forward from a position of relative safety. You may have swung across several bars to get where you are now, but you can still become paralyzed in the middle, too. In many ways that’s worse – you’re afraid to go forward and you certainly can’t go back. You wake up at 2:00 AM thinking, “What if I fail? What if I lose all this? What if I fall to the ground and get hurt?”

You need to take a hand off one of those bars, stretch out into the unknown and pendulum yourself forward to the next bar.

If you know the place needs a jump-start, do it. If the organization chart has looked pretty much the same for the past several years (especially at the top), maybe now’s the time to stir the pot. If all you’re doing is counting your blessings and waiting for the economy to heal itself so you can make big money again, DO SOMETHING now. Or if you’re just plain bored, well, you need a challenge my friend.

I recommend getting some business inspiration into your life. Read a few stories of derring-do about people like Turner, Trump, Case, Redstone, Gates (the younger years), or Kelleher. Not a one of them plays it safe; several have gone broke yet they’ve all made the cover of Fortune. They always reach out for the next bar. And they’re suspended a lot higher than 3 or 4 feet up.

As you read about their risks and exploits, make a few notes about what they do that you could do. . . and don’t ever rationalize that “these guys are really rich, they have huge companiesI could never do what they do.”

You see, they’re really no different than you or me. It’s just that like the kids who mastered the playground gear ahead of us, they understand the Monkey Bars Law – to move ahead, first you’ve got to let go of where you are.

Don’t take my word for it. Sometime soon go visit a playground and watch the kids on the monkey bars closely to see the real secret:

Those climbing across to the other side always keep their eyes on the next bar. . . and as they reach forward, they never NEVER look down.

Joe Grant is president of Grant Consulting Associates, a
consultative resource for communication agency principals
and senior executives to help them do a better job of
understanding and meeting client expectations. He coaches,
trains, and consults with growing agencies nationwide. Joe
publishes two newsletters about getting and keeping clients,
leadership skills, and focusing management teams on a common
agenda sent free to anyone requesting them at his website,