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Why you need to find your stinky fish before it poisons your business

Are your teams open and honest with each other?  Or do you sense they’re carrying around things they’re not confronting?  These are their stinky fish.  And here’s the thing about fish.  The longer it hangs around, the smellier it gets.

In any group of people, undercurrents are always bubbling under the surface. Things that have happened in the past that the whole team can’t get past.  Misunderstandings, anxieties or even minor niggles that have the potential to grow and fester. 

These things will hold your business back, particularly if you want to scale quickly.  One of the hallmarks of high-performing teams is they engage in healthy conflict.  They’re open and honest enough to tackle the hard stuff.  So it’s crucial to get everything out on the table.  

When we first start coaching teams, we recognise this.  Early on in our process is an exercise that tackles it head-on.  Its name?  The Stinky Fish Exercise (no surprise there!)

    Where did the Stinky Fish Exercise originate?

    We first came across Stinky Fish as part of the Culture Design Canvas training run by Gustavo Razzetti.  At the time, we were deep in the midst of COVID, and I was looking for a tool to help teams open up remotely. During kick-off sessions, I would start with expectations but sensed that people were saying what they thought I wanted to hear.  I needed to get them to open up and unburden themselves.

    So effective was this tool that we now use it in all our kick-offs, remote or face-to-face.  It’s a great way to onboard everyone onto Mural, our shared collaborative space.  As homework before the first session, we get them to put their individual stinky fish into the shared platform, which is anonymised.  It’s then consolidated into one giant heap of aromatic seafood.

    What’s involved in the Stinky Fish Exercise?

    There are some questions to answer as part of the exercise, falling into four areas.  Firstly, what are your uncertainties?  Secondly, what is making you feel anxious and afraid?  Thirdly, what are the past issues that you’re finding hard to get over? And the last question is, what is everyone thinking but not saying?   

    The answers you get to these questions can be illuminating.  The anonymous feedback will encourage everyone to open up and get things off their chest.  Often there is historical stuff that some team members may not even be aware of.  It can take a newer person to offer a perspective on something glaringly obvious to them.  Often people will say they’re unsure of their role.  Perhaps they feel out of control, and now they have a chance to articulate this.  Nothing is off-limits.

    Dealing with your Stinky Fish

    Once all the feedback has been gathered from the team, get everyone to vote.  You’re asking team members to look at the points raised and rank them into the most pressing issues needing resolution. Then work out if these are things that can be added to the agenda for the day.  They could form new OKRs for the whole team, or a subset of people could take specific issues away to work on separately.   They must be appropriately addressed and dealt with.

    Then everyone can breathe a sigh of relief and move on with future planning. 

    Confronting ‘Brutal Truths’

    If you’ve never confronted tricky topics within your team, we recommend starting with Stinky Fish, as it’s anonymous.  This will get everyone used to talking openly and build trust.  Once your team happily airs their concerns with each other, you could move to a more straightforward and quick exercise that’s also part of our coaching framework.  This is ‘Brutal Truths’.  

    Jim Collins uses this exercise in his management lab in Boldre, Colorado.  It takes Stinky Fish a step further and is more of a live version that you can do in the room together.  Instead of being anonymous, the team is encouraged to share issues and concerns even if they lead to conflict.  

    The emphasis of Brutal Truths is to get to the facts that underpin the issue.  One team member might have an opinion – let’s say they think the company is growing too fast.  But what fact is this based on?  Maybe they believe staff turnover is too high? OK, so that’s a brutal truth.  You have something to work with.

    Encouraging healthy conflict

    You’re trying to leverage off a brutal truth to get more conflict over the facts.  You can’t increase conflict around opinions as these are too personal.  If you criticise someone’s opinion, you’ll get their back up very quickly.  But the facts are the facts.  If you have psychological safety within the team, you can encourage a high level of debate around the facts and what you might do with them. 

    You can change perceptions by identifying the facts at the heart of an issue.  Often, something that a person might think is a fact isn’t.  In the example above, you could show staff turnover compared to other fast-growing businesses.  Perhaps, it isn’t as big a problem as they initially thought.   Once you’ve given them the true data, they might realise that their opinion isn’t based on any hard evidence and is misaligned.  By coming back to the facts, you can reframe people’s views. 

    Giving the whole team a voice

    The beauty of Stinky Fish and Brutal Truths is they will give every one of your team members a voice.  Regardless of personalities, every person is encouraged to surface underlying worries, concerns or challenges.  At a high level, these areas are discussed, and the team decides which are most important.  Collective actions are agreed upon, and long-running issues are fixed.

    We’re always amazed by the reactions we get from our clients after going through Stinky Fish.  It’s such a cathartic exercise.  Often, they’ve never talked frankly with the rest of their team.  Let’s face it.  We all get up in the morning and expect everyone to be the same as us.  Then we’re surprised when people have different views on COVID, Brexit, football or something else.  

    In the same way, people realise they’re the only ones to have a particular concern or worry. This in itself can be reassuring.  Or conversely, they may think they’re the only ones to be worried about something and find that everyone feels the same way.  In either situation, a problem shared is a problem halved.  There’s collective acceptance, and the team moves on.

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    Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his new book, ‘Mind Your F**king Business’ here.

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