“One of the most memorable and instructive stories I’ve ever been told was actually wrapped in a metaphor. It was the early 1970’s, when the whole movie industry was going through a serious financial crisis, and I was a very young studio head at Columbia Pictures. We had a deal with Jack Warner, the legendary founder and recently retired chairman of Warner Bros., to make his first movie with us, a film version of the stage play 1776, and late one day we were having a meeting at Warner’s home to discuss his plans to bring on Peter Hunt to direct the picture.
During a lull in the conversation Warner asked me casually, “How are things going for you at the studio?”
Ordinarily I was so intimidated by Hollywood giants like Warner that I was practically tongue-tied, but his question caught me off guard. He knew that I was just a few years out of graduate school and that many of Columbia’s senior executives were based on the East Coast. He seemed genuinely interested, and I answered honestly, “By the end of each day I’m overwhelmed.” Then I found myself venting: “It’s like a tidal wave. People just keep coming into my office with one problem after the other. It never ends.”
Warner said, “Let me tell you a story. Don’t be confused. You’re only renting that office. You don’t own it. It’s a zoo. You’re the zookeeper, and every single person that comes in the office comes with a monkey.That monkey is their problem. They’re trying to leave it with you. Your job is to discover where the monkey is. They’ll hide it, or dress it up, but remember you’re the zookeeper. You’ve got to keep the place clean. So make sure when you walk them to the door, they’ve got their monkey by the hand. Don’t let them leave without it. Don’t let them come back until it’s trained and they have solutions to their problem. Otherwise at the end of the day you’ll have an office full of screaming, jumping animals and monkey [feces] all over the floor.”
Then he said, “Think of that visually. Make them all take their monkey problems away and come back with a solution.”
After that, I noticed that visitors to my office invariable would wait until the last possible second to reveal the monkey in their briefcase, their pocket, or the person they were with. But if I just watched and waited, the real problem would come popping out. Then I could hand it right back to the person who was trying to foist it off on me. Warner’s metaphor became a valuable managerial tool, and I told it forward often in my career.”
Peter Guber, Tell to Win, pp. 148-149
I found the original source of the analogy – a Harvard Business Review article by Stephen Covey http://hbr.org/1999/11/management-time-whos-got-the-monkey/ar/1