Upfront: Hooked on Lundin’s FISH!

The scattering of strange costumes, “joyologist” in bright orange urban turban, the buzz of anticipation, huge colourful fish balloons floating over the tables – signalled something more than the average stuffed-shirt, talking-head type seminar. “Looks like an Amway conference,” worried one delegate.

But no, this was FISH! Camp presented by the “big tuna” himself – American businessman, author and educator Stephen Lundin.

Those familiar with Lundin’s books (now translated into 11 languages and distributed in 27 countries) will know the FISH! philosophy is his particular take on how to create world-class work culture. It synthesises Lundin’s observations of the business that both inspired him and explains its name – fishmarket in Seattle.

Pike Place Fish has become famous not for the fish they sell but the way they go about it. They laugh, joke, engage with customers, send huge slippery salmon flying through the air to each other – or customers willing to give it go – and they attract heaps of customers and onlookers. The result has been huge boost for the business they do – what was once week’s turnover is now made in morning.

As Lundin and his colleagues discovered, fishmongers in this particular market manage to generate high energy work atmosphere because they make few simple choices daily.

* To play – it’s energising and creates an environment people are attracted to.
* To “make their day” – do something special to help lift the spirit of customer and workmate.
* To “be there” – emotionally, spiritually and physically; wholeheartedness is an antidote to burnout.
* To choose your attitude – there’s lot in life you can’t change but everyone has the power to elect what attitude they bring to project or situation.
* To commit – opt in to the vision, the team, the job in hand.
* To “be it” – find ways of living/constantly renewing that vision.

The cynic might say, this is simple stuff. And if you’re angling for new hook on which to hang merchandisable set of management practices, it provides an abundant feeding ground in which to trawl for fishy analogies – if you catch my drift.

Delegates did indeed find themselves keeping few “o-fish-al” records, getting in the swim of things and navigating the odd bit of deep water, but the seminar borrows its structure from the US “summer camp” tradition. Camp movies, craft sessions, nature hikes and cookouts – not to mention the odd opportunity for some fishy merchandising – give the seminar distinctive all-American flavour.

Carping aside, the workshop and the philosophy that underpins it, make some valid points. We’re so busy being busy that we’re too stretched or stressed to play – despite the reality that fun releases whole new store of energy. And, apparently, energy/effort input equals satisfaction/energy output. So being half-hearted about what you’re doing, even if it’s routine, guarantees you’ll get very little out of it.

As Lundin puts it: “The things you do in half-hearted way wear you out the fastest.”

The decision to “choose your attitude” hit chord with several delegates. It seems to be message now popular with consultants (see Paul Wilson, Management April 2003, p8). Making choices gives sense of personal control often missing from stressful workplaces.

Not surprising these messages resonate in workplaces where stress is now endemic.

According to Lundin, greatest takeup of FISH! philosophy in the US is the education sector, followed closely by health. The latter features in his most recent book (FISH! Sticks) which is all about hanging onto positive changes in workplace atmosphere once they’ve been initiated and proved effective.

The books, like the seminar, are personal, anecdotal and experiential. The philosophy is rooted in the experiences of those doing it – the fishmongers, or call centre which turned its low-morale/high turnover work culture into one that people now queue up to work at or just watch. It’s not academic stuff and can’t be imposed from the top down. It’s designed to be accessible and inspirational and needs buy-in to work in practice.

Its secret signals and symbols, suggest something tad twee about FISH! but the delegates, from regional health services, central city financial services, TVNZ, dental practice, shopping malls and rest-homes, loved it. It’s good value, they said, because the messages are simple, if too easily overlooked in daily work routines.

“Life is too precious to just be passing through,” says Lundin.

“We spend lot of time at work – if that work isn’t serving our human spirit in some way, then it’s too high price to pay.”

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