Life in the Goldfish Bowl

WRITTEN BY Mike Cottmeyer

You really don’t want to be a small animal living in the Cottmeyer house. We’ve tormented our share of Guinea Pigs, Hermit Crabs, Frogs, and Fish. We had this poor little goldfish one time that belonged to my son Daniel. The fish lived in Daniel’s room, so from my point of view, he wasn’t very visible, and over time, was clearly neglected.

Every once in while, I’d visit my son’s room and notice that the fishbowl was in desperate need of cleaning. Not just the bowl itself, but the water in the bowl… this poor little Goldfish was swimming literally in it’s own filth. The water was yellowish brown and just gross. Daniel and I had many conversations about taking care of his pets… he’s gotten better.

The goldfish eventually died, but I’ve been thinking about that little guy quite a bit lately. I’m doing some adoption and transformation work with one particular client, and we really have our work cut out for us. It’s easy from an outsiders point of view to see what’s going on, but the folks inside the company are having a difficult time seeing what we can do about it?

The challenge is that there is so much we have to change to get them healthy, it’s difficult to figure out where to start, and to get buy-in on the right first few moves. I’ve started telling the story about my son’s little goldfish. If you are that little fish, swimming around in that filthy bowl, how do you even begin to see what can be done about it?

If you are in the bowl, how to you even contemplate doing anything about the water? How do you imagine getting out of the bowl, emptying the water, cleaning he glass, refilling the bowl, and getting back into a healthy environment? The dirty water is all around you and it’s really difficult to understand how we can change.

The interesting thing though, is that unless we fundamentally change the environment, it’s almost impossible to make anything better. Daily stand up meetings and retrospectives won’t make any difference if we are in a toxic, low-trust culture. Incremental delivery won’t make much difference without tight integration with our business stakeholders.

Changing the water in our corporate fishbowl requires us to step outside our current context and look at what’s happening more holistically. We have to think about how we build teams, how we align teams with business objectives. We have to look at how we do out jobs, our processes and practices. And we have to look at ourselves and how we operate and how intact with each other.

Most of all, changing the water requires leadership… it requires someone who can get their team to believe that the water can be changed… it requires someone that can keep people safe while they are in transition… it requires someone that has the vision to see what’s possible and who is willing to take the necessary risks required to get us there.

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4 comments on “Life in the Goldfish Bowl”

  1. Derek Huether

    Mike, I like the analogy. Are you the leadership or is someone internal to their organization?

    As an outside change agent, you’re going to actively take goldfish out of the toxic environment and give them a fighting chance in a new one. The goldfish will breath easy, as long as you make sure the water is changed. Maybe the goldfish accept swimming in filth, because they lack the skills necessary to maintain their own bowl or because they know that someone will come and change the water from time to time. As part of the engagement with the client, do you have the Daniel conversation with them? I understand they need to believe the water can be changed but what maintaining the bowl?

    In the event they grow complacent again and the bowl become filthy, will Daniel remember to change the water or are you going to wind up doing it again and again; or is Danial going to maintain the bowl going forward and you’ll just check it from time to time to make sure he’s maintaining it properly?

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  2. Agile Scout

    Toxic and low trust environments can never fully realize the value of Agile.

    Reply
  3. Charles

    Great analogy is right. I am new to this blog (stumbled on it from All About Agile), but really excited to jump into more posts!

    Reply