Monkey Magic

Monkey Magic

Chaos Monkey

I’m now describing myself as a Chaos Monkey (for the mind).

My proposition is that Chaos Monkeys can add real value to organisations by helping disrupt the status quo, not least by modelling certain desirable behaviours such as questioning the way things are done, challenging the unspoken and unexamined assumptions underlying e.g standard practices, questioning the relevance of standing policies and procedures, and so on.

I’m sure that many agilists find themselves in the role of a stealth Chaos Monkey, so why not bring it out into the open, make it explicit, and be seen as making a positive, practical and valuable contribution rather than risk being misunderstood as a pollyanna, idealist or troublemaker?


Technology isn’t just shiny gizmos and computers. A broader definition might be:

“The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.”

And many may know this quote:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

~ Arthur C Clarke

Some of my clients describe what I do as magic. Which is nice. But hardly useful in describing what I do to others. For the past several years I’ve described myself as an Organisational Psychotherapist. A bit of a mouthful, to be sure, and not much more useful than “Magician”, when it comes down to it, despite the business value it offers. So I’m now describing myself as “Chaos Monkey and Omega Wolf“.

Natural Fools, Licensed Fools

In the Middle Ages, many royal courts had one or more jesters  – or fools – both to entertain and to criticise the monarch. The natural fool was seen as innately nit-witted, moronic, or mad, whereas the licensed fool was given leeway by permission of the court. In other words, both were excused, to some extent, for their behavior, the first because he “couldn’t help it”, and the second by decree.

“The fool’s status was one of privilege within a royal or noble household…Jesters could also give bad news to the King that no one else would dare deliver.”

I see the Chaos Monkey as much like the medieval licensed fool, in that it’s a role commissioned by i.e. the CEO for the express purpose of injecting alternate perspectives into the organisation.

Omega Wolves

I’m going to leave explaining the idea – and relevance – of Omega Wolf for another post. My thanks to @davenicolette for introducing me to the term in his recent blog post: “40% to 99% of your team’s effort is wasted (give or take a bit)“.

Chaos Monkeys

The idea of Chaos Monkeys is not new. Apple was using the idea of an Angry Monkey in its Macintosh development as far back as 1980.

More recently, the idea has seen wide publicity through Netflix’s Chaos Monkey. Netflix reports a positive influence on the quality of their systems, including better design, and improved robustness in the face of outages. And also engineers who more readily consider what could go wrong , and so better cater to those risks.

My working hypothesis is that us Chaos Monkeys can significantly improve the thinking in organisations by frequently challenging entrenched thought patterns, introducing disruptive ideas – for example ideas from Ackoff, Deming, Drucker, Seddon, Feyerabend, et al, and generally being contentious and awkward – in a constructive (and, btw, nonviolent) way.

My Chaos Monkey Credo

  • I aspire to help people by offering them the opportunity to reexamine their basic assumptions about e.g. the world of work.
  • I aspire to reduce groupthink and failure to innovate, through repeated injections of seeming non-sequiturs, challenges and awkward questions intended to disrupt established patterns of dialogue and thought.
  • I aspire to help people by throwing a spanner in their cause-effect reasoning (*when invited).
  • I aspire to help organisations and the folks therein by questioning the status quo at every turn.
  • I aspire to improve the quality of individual and collective thought by raising difficult issues and shining a light of enquiry into dark corners.
  • I aspire to improve the quality of dialogue by asking challenging questions, inviting reconsideration and debate, and by broaching the undiscussable.
  • I aspire to make things better by highlighting cycles of unproductive reasoning, and assumptions invalidated by science, change, and experimentation.
  • I aspire to convert others into our broad Church of the Chaos Monkey, and make Chaos Monkey behaviour not only acceptable but highly sought-after.

*Note to Twitter folks: I propose that public tweeting implies a de facto invitation for spanner-throwing. Please do let me know, if you would like to be explicitly excluded from my throwing spanners in your direction.

Join Us!

Who wants to join us in the new Chaos Monkey Legion!?

– Bob

  1. Most organizations expect that consultants (any person that works with them to improve things) bring order and not chaos. But to establish that, they have to go through change, uncertanty, and chaos. As things are always changing, disrupting organizational systems, structures and rules to find better ways make a lot of sense. Thanks Bob!

  2. The idea of a chaos monkey is very timely (for me and a handful of colleagues). We’re helping with a change initiative at a large company, and the pace of change is so slow that we’re worried about being able to leave anything “sticky” behind at the end of the engagement. If we can encourage some of the staff members to function as chaos monkeys, that in itself might become the “sticky” part of the change. Thanks to Bob for out-of-the-box thinking!

  3. Bob, Nice post.
    Yep. Count me in as a Chaos Monkey!

    l cannot resist saying something really down to earth when starting meetings. In business its too easy to forget we are organic, fallible (yet wonderful) human beings. The more plush the venue – the more basic my comment! Making it humorous has probably been the only thing stopping me from being fired! Oh yeah – and the results I get.

    Thanks – Great idea – Good name.
    Yours on the knife edge between chaos & order

  4. Ha! It’s what I’ve been all my life, never had a word for it though. V pleased with this post.
    My concern with the idea though is its really easily dismissable by people who style themselves as sober minded and professional. ‘there’s a time and a place’ etc.
    Although I identify with all the criteria you set out, I think I’m MORE sober and professional than those around me who go through the motions and perform the expected activity with the expected style, as I actually DO mean it (man), its not a pose.
    Sometimes the real clowns don’t wear make up and never make anybody laugh.

  5. Johan said:

    I pick up the banana of aspiration.

  6. Bob,
    Will it work without explicit permission (aka license)? What would you do if you couldn’t get such a license?

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