Bookmark: Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results

In preparation for the move from Washington, DC to the Dominican Republic I retrieved everything that had been sitting in a Chicago storage locker since 2006. Combing through those archived boxes I came across a book that was part of a team and morale building initiative at the company where I worked as a network administrator. My employer made a great effort to implement this creative approach to empowering team members to make work fund and bring a renewed enthusiasm to what we did.

The approach, or philosophy, is called Fish! and was created by Stephen Lundin, Harry Paul, and John Christensen. They are from the Pacific Northwest and their philosophy is rooted in the spirit of work-meets-play at the Pike’s Place Fish Market. If you have never seen it, it is not your typical workplace. As such, my then-company hosted our team’s offsite meeting in Seattle. Underscoring the central idea to the Fish! philosophy, we visited the fish market and I even tried my hand at catching fish soaring through the air.

Me, trying to catch fish at Pike's Place Fish Market in November 2003.

Fish!’s founders wrote a book that helps make their philosophy more accessible. It follows a fictional narrative of a woman working at a business and enjoying what she does. She suffers through the death of her spouse and presses on as a single mom with a great track record at work. Her boss, noticing her success, assigns her to a department with abysmally low morale and performance. Over the course of the book she meets a man working at the Pike’s Place Fish Market who has a lot of fun at his job, which seems to permeate through to his whole life. The friendship between the two grows and he teaches her some fundamentals about empowering team members to make work fun. She experiments with implementing these principles, transforms the dysfunctional department, and is once again lauded for her successful management skills. (Spoiler alert she and the worker fall in love because, well, after a book full of wins, why not throw in one more?)

The book handed out to us at our team meeting in 2003.

Team building is one of the most difficult tasks a project manager can face. Budget, schedules and resources are inanimate objects. People, however, are terribly complex. Part of a project manager’s job is to make people want to be back at work the next morning, which can be a nearly impossible task. This means finding ways to empower them, bring their ideas to life, help them feel a sense of ownership in the team’s work, and have them want to be there, not just for the work but to be around each other. To that end, the book is full of some common sense insights. But as the old adage goes, common sense is not common practice. For example:

  • In the right conditions any job can be dull

  • There is always choice about the way you do your work, but not always about the work itself

  • We choose the attitude we bring to work

These are not new revelations and the book will not resolve all team building or morale problems. But if you are looking for new ways to try and energize your workplace, this book, and the Fish! philosophy may do the trick. One might not think that men throwing fish at each other all day, making customers laugh with their persistent “showtime” personas is an approach to work that is transferable to an office setting, but you would be surprised. The basic principles that guide the fun, energy, and morale that keeps them going are applicable regardless of the setting. This book helps distill these principles and can provide a starting point for how you can develop solutions, based in the same principles, that fit your team and workplace.

The book is an incredibly quick read. It took me about an hour to get through it and I am admittedly a slow reader. I was introduced to this back in 2003 when it seemed Fish! was just getting started. It has since expanded and its website offers various training and solutions developed over the years, which tells me the program’s founders are onto something.

While I understood the concept, our leadership was trying to implement back in 2003, I did not pay as much attention to it as I should have. I certainly did not trust myself to take the principles and try to implement them fully. If I had, and if I had succeeded in making network administration as fun as life at the Pike’s Place Fish Market, I might never have left that job to find something else to do with my life. If you are responsible for a team and want to increase morale, give this a quick look and try it. Tossing fish around the workplace is not required (but it couldn’t hurt).

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© 2020 by Mark Konold