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Storytelling In The News: #163

Book review of Fish!

A book by Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul, John Christensen (Hyperion Press, 2000):

May 28, 2004

Fish! isn’t Who Moved My Cheese? which dwarfs all competition in sales of business fiction books, though not in terms of quality. (This isn't the only area of the book market where quantity and quality are at odds.)

But if there is a runner-up to Cheese in terms of sales, it would surely be Fish! a book by Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul, John Christensen (Hyperion Press, 2000):

Size: Fish! is similar in physical size to Cheese! Again, we are dealing with a very slender book of a mere 107 pages printed in a large font – a volume of scarcely more than 10,000 words.

Rank: Fish! is currently #4 on BusinessWeek's "Long-Running Best-Sellers". Like Cheese, Fish! remains a best-seller, even though it is now four years since it was published.

Story: But unlike Cheese, Fish! is a genuine story, in terms of having somewhat believable characters, with a protagonist who has a past as well as a present, a fairly realistic setting in a financial company.

Reality: Like Cheese, Fish! is a fictional story, but here it is based on an actual fish market – the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle,Washington.

Message: Unlike Cheese, which is essentially about passively accepting whatever change Fate hands out to you, Fish! tackles one of the challenges of leadership – how to transform a poorly performing unit of a large corporation and make the workplace more playfully productive. Fish! thus offers the possibility of a somewhat more uplifting moral message than Cheese.

Meaning: However, neither Fish! nor Cheese questions whether the organizations involved are doing the right thing – both are concerned whether lower level managers and employees are doing it right.

The story of Fish!

Fish! concerns the story of mid-level manager, Mary-Jane, at First Guarantee Financial and her efforts to introduce to introduce a playfully productive atmosphere in the operations group, to which she has just been promoted. Prior to her arrival has been known as a “toxic energy dump”. Staff in this backroom unit are bored, demotivated and unhelpful to the internal clients that they serve.

Mary-Jane herself is a single mother with two children – her husband died unexpected from a blood clot in the brain – and she is not financially secure and she is worried about her future and that of her children. Her energies are depleted. Her confidence has been drained out of her. The unit has gone through several managers in the last two years and reports to a senior manager who is a well-known bully. As the book opens, she has been there for five weeks and struggling to make sense of it and how she might turn it around.

Clearly Mary-Jane has been given an assignment in hell. Will our plucky heroine turn the group around? Will she survive and even triumph? This is a business book, so that one knows the answer in advance. It would be just as pointless to ask of a romance novel whether the heroine gets her man, or in a detective novel, whether our sleuth solves the case. Of course, Mary-Jane triumphs, but the question is: how?

The most persuasive part of the book concerns Mary-Jane’s visits to the fish market, which is vividly described in colorful detail, including the happy-go-lucky shouting of the fishermen, the jokey interchanges with the customers, the energized and energizing work environment and the open attitude of the people who work there and who come there as customers.

To summarize, Mary-Jane learns from the fish market what it is like to work in such an energized and energizing environment and we are told that she is able to introduce the same kind of environment into the backroom unit of First Guarantee Financial. There are however questions about how she goes about the transformation, as well as what the reformed unit looks and feels like when the transformation is complete, one year later.

How does the transformation at First Guarantee Financial take place?

We are told that the transformation takes place, essentially through listening to Lonnie, a fisherman adviser, who gets her to introduce four principles into Mary-Jane’s unit:

  • Choose your attitude.
  • Find ways to play.
  • Be present.
  • Make their day.

  • The plausibility of transforming a difficult unit that has resisted change through several managers through the introduction of these banal maxims stretches credibility to the limit, and perhaps beyond.

    Indeed Mary-Jane’s first staff meeting called to introduce the first maxim – choose your attitude – proceeds disastrously -- without any obvious awareness of the authors -- when she is saved by the interjection of Stephen – a skeptic – who provides the story that explains the idea behind the maxim.

    In her speech to the group (page 56), Mary-Jane announces that the unit is in crisis, she tells her own story and then announces that in future they are going to “choose their attitude.” One can imagine the hostility instantly building towards such a proposal, when she is saved by a story generated an interjection from a skeptic. Stephen asks whether one has a choice what attitude to adopt when someone cuts in front of you in a car. Mary-Jane takes advantage of the credible example to show precisely that this is a case where one does have an obvious choice as to what attitude to adopt. Her speech to the staff would have been more credible and persuasive, if she herself had given such examples (stories) to make her point, rather than spouting an abstract maxim whose meaning is hard to fathom.

    She then takes her staff to visit the fish market and this is indeed a plausible communications strategy, since the staff themselves can experience the feel of being in an energized and energizing workplace.

    Less plausible however is her next step, taken under the guidance of fisherman/consultant, Lonnie. She assigns four teams to work on the implications of applying the four maxims in the unit at First Guarantee Financial. The proposals coming from the four teams after six weeks are superficial and fabricated proposals patched on to work that was inherently boring and will remain so even with these proposals, like putting up posters, hiring a lunch-time comedian, or turning on small lights to lighten the mood. These are exactly the kinds of consultant-generated proposals that give consultants a bad name. (For a discussion of authenticity, see #156)

    Whereas the work environment in the fish market is organically energizing and energized, with the style of the workers having evolved from the needs of the work and their customers, almost all of the change proposals coming from Mary-Jane’s teams do not flow from the work itself: it is as if they come from outside and will not affect the basics of the work environment there.

    What does the transformation looks like?

    While we get a vivid and convincing picture of what it’s like to be in the fish market, we never really get a good idea of what the supposedly transformed unit at First Guarantee Financial is actually like. We are told in abstract terms that it is transformed, but we are never given any convincing detail that would cause us to believe that it is so. On the final page, the fact that there are posters and plaques on the walls encapsulating the four slogans is presented as evidence of the transformation, but in a real life situation, without specifics of the actual changes in behavior, the resort to such evidence would imply that the changes merely reflect “management speak” and are purely superficial.

    The feeling of listening to an unconvincing fairy story is reinforced when we learn (on page 105) that our fisherman/consultant proposes marriage to Mary-Jane and is instantly accepted.

    Bottom line

    Fish! is a much better book than Cheese. Its message of making the workplace more playfully productive is a more uplifting message than Cheese’s philosophy of “grin and bear it, no matter what the management does,” and the description of the Seattle fish market is vivid and convincing.

    However the story falters both in indicating how to go about the sparking change (since what was done in Fish! would never have worked in real life) and in giving a realistic picture of what the changed work environment at First Guarantee Financial would actually look like.

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