Fish

Dead fish don't tell tales. But a growing number of company employees are sharing anecdotes about greater enthusiasm, job satisfaction and productivity, after having adopted a management technique that stems from tossing about dead fish.

The management philosophy began with a corporate learning film called Fish! in June 1998 that documents the workstyle of fishmongers at the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. The fish sellers toss trout and salmon throughout the market in an upbeat and playful style. The idea behind the technique is to transfer that type of enthusiasm to the business world by encouraging employees to adopt a playful attitude about work, and for workers to go to extra lengths to meet a customer's needs.

That film also spawned a book - Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results (Hyperion, March 2000), by Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul and John Christensen - that provides concrete steps to apply those concepts to managing a business or department.

The Guts

 Employees toss fish at Pike Place Fish Market
Employees toss fish at Pike Place Fish Market

The book tells the fictional story of a burnt-out department head charged with managing a rough-and-tumble group of employees. The character stumbles into Pike Place Fish Market during her lunch break to discover a crew of high-energy and joyous fishmongers at work. She takes the ideals she picks up back to her motley corporate crew, in an effort to motivate the lackluster bunch into happier and more productive workers.The Fish philosophy is based on four concepts: choosing one's attitude, playing at work, making a customer's day and being present. For example, choosing your attitude incorporates several ideals, such as demonstrating personal accountability, being proactive about work tasks, not acting like a victim and bringing your best self to work.

"Fish is really about being present and conscious at work," says Christensen, a filmmaker and CEO of ChartHouse International Learning Corp., a management consultantcy in Burnsville, Minn., which produced the Fish videos and literature.

Christensen believes that the Fish philosophy applies particularly well to the technology realm.

"Let's face the fact that most IT professionals work in their own space, and it's easy to not be engaged in what you're doing," he says. "With Fish, you ask yourself, 'Are you just going through the steps or being in the moment?' " According to Christensen, it's easy for IT professionals - especially programmers - to become isolated by the type of work that they do. Fish reminds workers to make a conscious decision to enjoy what they're doing, with the hope that this kind of focus will unlock creativity and problem solving and generally improve the work environment.

The Bait

Several large companies, including Ford Motor Co., AT&T Corp. and State Farm Insurance Cos., have taken the bait and made the Fish philosophy part of their training programs.

John Little, organization development manager at Ford, introduced the Fish philosophy to the materials, planning and logistics division at the automaker in April last year. Just like the main character in the book, Little says his division needed a morale boost.

"This is a division with a history of apathy and not wanting to get involved," Little acknowledges. "A lot of people thought, 'It's not OK to have fun here.' " Little focused on the core Fish concept of attitude first, prodding colleagues to start asking new questions about how to approach their work with joy and enthusiasm.

"I asked them to hallucinate with me for a minute," Little recalls. "What if it were possible to have fun here; what would that be like?"

A year later, Little says, high-fives are rampant throughout the division at Ford, along with other reminders from the Fish seminars that he has conducted, such as jeweled fish pins and posters.

Melville, N.Y.-based Arrow Electronics Inc., the world's largest distributor of electronic components with $13 billion in sales last year, introduces the Fish philosophy to all of its new employees at its U.K. offices.

"The nature of MIS is that they do their bit to write applications, with little interaction with colleagues," says William Hope, training manager at Bedford, England-based Arrow Electronics.

Hope says the Fish techniques have helped Arrow's IT staff develop better rapport and have energized the firm's customer service staff. He measures the success of the program by the heightened energy he feels at the office.

"It was hard to get their buy-in and recognition that there's an element of choice in one's attitude," Hope says. "We got people to lighten up."

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