The Philosophy of 'Monkey First'

Google launched an innovation lab in 2010. It started out as an experiment.

Most people have never heard of X (I’m referring to Google X, not Twitter).

But I’m sure you’ve heard of some of their work like Google Glasses or their self-driving car Waymo. It’s impossible to go anywhere in Phoenix without seeing their self-driving car on the road with all the cameras and lasers spinning around. Anyways I digress from my point.

X was created to solve far-out sci-fi sounding problems that would change the world. Impossible problems to solve. Problems that require an extreme amount of money, time, and talent. Since 2010, X has worked on 100s of projects that have gone on to become independent businesses under Alphabet.

Specializing in crazy world altering ideas is not an easy job.

Most people will solve problems they understand how to solve, but it’s rare that those problems have any potency. The low hanging fruit is never impactful. You solve B+ problem more because it’s easier.

Moonshot ideas come from solving A+ problems. It takes a lot of time and energy to do that. Rarely is there an answer. It’s in our nature to procrastinate A+ problems. X solves this tendency by having every employee embody the principle they call “Monkey First”.

Tackle the monkey first.

“Monkey First” is a framework used to tackle the most difficult problem first. Something all of the best companies have integrated into their culture.

The principle is formed around the idea that if you want to have a monkey recite Shakespeare on a pedestal, don’t focus on the pedestal first and leave the problem of getting the monkey to speak till the end.

Tackle the monkey first.

Ignoring the monkey wastes time. You could be working on a problem that is impossible to solve right now.

In an effort to be “productive”, the majority of people will start with the easiest problems to solve. They’ll begin by building the pedestal. Then they’ll train the monkey to speak only to realize they’ve encountered a road block. It’s hard to get a monkey to speak, let alone remember and recite a whole tragedy.

The “illusion of work” is a common misconception. We value seeing progress or completing tasks more than we value the output of the work itself. Neglecting the power of inaction and value of doing pre-work

It’s undeniable that the iPhone changed the world and human behaviors. Without tackling the monkey first it never would have been as much of a success. Long before the conception of the iPhone, all handheld devices were using stylists which Steve jobs refused to do because he believed it was a poor user experience.

Apple’s research and development team, led by Jony Ive, was experimenting with state of the art technology for future MacBooks. Multi-touch screens. At first they were hesitant to show jobs (for fear he would shoot it down).

Jony Ive finally showed Steve Jobs privately. Their fear was never actualized. Jobs realized this solved the hardest problem they faced with their proposed cell phone and tablets. Apple put the development of their tablet, what would later become the iPad, on hold. They were going to put everything they had into creating a phone that could use this technology.

Steve Jobs said, “if it worked on a phone, I knew we could go back and use it on a tablet.”

We forget how much of a shock this technology was to the world. The simple pinch to zoom wowed the world. Multi-touch would become the future for everything after that. 

Spot the monkey using inversion.

Thinking about problems from an inverse perspective is the key to uncovering the most difficult ones first. Inversion unlocks new solutions and strategies.

Carl Jacobi popularized the idea of inversion in mathematics. Jacobi became associated with the saying “invert, always invert.” You may remember inversion from basic algebra.

Inversion is important in helping us know what to avoid when making decisions. It’s the opposite of what your objective is. The inverse of being right more is being wrong less. The inverse of happiness is all the things that take it away from you. You then invert to know what to avoid to maintain your happiness. Inversion can provide you with anti-goals.

Combined with the monkey first principle and inversion shines light on the hardest problems you will encounter later on.

If your idea is to get humans to mars, what would be the inverse of this?

  • Ignore the massive costs
  • Expect easy landing and returning from Mars
  • Overlook the sustainable life support systems
  • Neglect the risk of radiation and gravity changes
  • Underestimate the technological innovation needed
  • Dismiss the international cooperation and legal hurdles
  • Assume communication will function the same on Earth
  • Avoid the psychological and physical health of astronauts

Through inversion the problems you’ll face in getting people to Mars expose themselves by thinking through all of the things that could have to stay consistent to ensure you don’t achieve that goal.

You can now rank these problems from easiest to hardest and begin by tackling the monkey first, assuming that will give you enough momentum to solve the rest far easier.

  1. Weinberg, G. and McCann, L. (2019) Super thinking. Penguin USA, pp. 1-72
  2. Ridley, M. (2021) in How innovation works and why it flourishes in freedom. New York: Harper Perennial, p. 308
  3. Isaacson, W. (2022) Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 468.

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