The Fishbowl analogy

Despite my skepticism of corporate trainings, my team and I are working on designing a workshop for senior leaders. The aim is to help strengthen a muscle we believe (and they agree) is important. Last evening, the project team got together for a scaling and detailing meeting. With the initial pilot feedback for the workshop being outstandingly positive, scaling felt like the natural next step. Yet, when we began analyzing implementation post session, we realized that almost none of our very enthusiastic participants had spent time mulling over or implementing what they’d learnt. In short, while everyone agreed that the topic was important, the delivery of ‘training’ effective and that someone must do something about it, at the end of it all, everything went back to how it was.

It was then that I was introduced to the fishbowl analogy and it all made sense. Imagine having a dirty fishbowl. You probably think that the fish are to blame, which they perhaps are. So you carefully take each fish out, lovingly scrub them until they shine like gold and repeat. At the end of it all, you take your squeaky-clean sparkling fish and drop them back into the dirty fishbowl hoping that the problem has been solved. But it hasn’t really, has it? The fish are back to being dirty and the fishbowl hasn’t changed a bit.

Often, this is the exact approach we take when trying to shift culture. We take our managers/leaders out, give them a nice clean via a training, workshop, etc. and then place them right back into the environment they came from – the same work pressure, policies, goals and what not.

The reason we focus on the fish is that it is harder to ‘clean the fishbowl’. We know that behaviors need to change and believe that by helping leaders understand the need for change and how to make said change happen, behaviors will change. Unfortunately, it is the same as in fitness. We know that it is important to eat healthy, cut down on sugar and exercise regularly. Yet, knowing does not translate into doing. It is much more than just will power that’s needed to make change happen. Hence, we design environmental cues to help. We hide the sugary snacks, stock our refrigerators with healthy food and sign up to a gym next door.

Once our project team had landed on the analogy and internalized it, it was easier to see the other cogs in the wheel that we needed to move to drive change. We began re-evaluating and tweaking processes we had control over. We also reviewed manager goals, incorporated tiny add-ons (atomic habits) and nudges tied to existing activities. As ideas came flowing in on environmental tweaks, we realized that the workshop by itself was less than half the battle won.

At the end of the day it took us a simple analogy to find our way out of a maze. And because the analogy felt God sent, I couldn’t not share it with you. So, if like us, you are stuck wondering why something isn’t working, ask yourself – are you cleaning the fish or the fishbowl?

2 thoughts on “The Fishbowl analogy

  1. I love the fishbowl analogy and you’re so right. Your insights are really helpful and can be applied in so many areas. It’s funny how we have these eureka moments sometimes. I hope your leaders/managers are benefiting from your perceptions.

    Nudge theory can be really helpful to make step by step behaviour changes

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