The “Fish Philosphy”: Bait and Switch at the Pike Place Fish Market!

I was not planning on another post spotlighting the Pike Place Fish Market anytime soon, or for that matter ever again, until last week when I saw the video ‘FISH!’ for the very first time. To put it mildly I was horrified. Never mind that the production value of the video leaves a lot to be desired, the message in the film was what got my blood stirring. Unfortunately, I can now also see why ‘FISH!” is the #1 selling training video of all time.

Having had the opportunity to see first hand what goes on behind the scenes at the market, learning how the crew manages and has managed to create enthusiasm and joy while tossing fish for twenty-three years, the thought that the “philosophy” has been boiled down to four catch phrases seems unfortunately typical of a nation of training companies who want to give you “The Five Best Ways to This” or the “Seven Things you Must do Whenever.” In short, we are suckers for an appeal suggesting that radical change is easy and methodical, something anyone can learn.

So here they are, according to ‘FISH!’, the principles which took a nearly failing business from absolute obscurity to world fame in a little over 12 years.

  • Play
  • Make Their Day
  • Be present
  • Choose Your Attitude

Oh yes, and don’t forget to throw the fish, the little stuffed fish. Yes folks, it is really that simple. Yikes!

Please, could anyone have come up with a system that is more paternalistic and less sustainable than what is suggested in the ‘FISH!’ video? Actually, if I had to say what I thought the video was designed to do it would be to make you feel bad about your business but know that the answers were just a few dollars away.

Certainly the film is inspiring, it also tells you nothing about the process that resulted in what you are witnessing when you watch the fishmongers at work, either on film or in person. What it does tell you is how someone described what they were seeing as they watched the fishmongers at work. Much like a spectator who watches a sporting event the video collapses the distinction between what is actually going on in the market and what it looks like is going on. Maybe you have listened to one of those radio “call in shows” where the fan/caller refers to their favorite team’s performance over the weekend using the pronoun “we”. When you hear these calls you must immediately think the caller is delusional, they cannot tell the difference between themselves watching the game and the players who played it. But you see, that is exactly why ‘FISH’ has such appeal, the producers are passing off their interpretation as fact and it is compelling because it touches very deeply into that area of our psyche where we

  • Yearn for significance in our work
  • Are drawn to a purpose larger than ourselves
  • Aspire to belong to something that we have helped create

Unfortunately, the program as it is pitched also appeals to one of our most base instincts and that is the possibility of achieving something remarkable for little or no risk or effort.

What could be easier to sell, especially to control oriented employers desperate for solutions, than the idea that by putting your employees through a few training sessions, adopting a few simple concepts and investing in some trinkets, certificates and stuffed fish you could transform your organization and have it perform like what you see taking place at The Pike Place Fish Market. ‘FISH!’ appeals directly to “lottery mentality”, for just a small investment you can become RICH!

Since the fall of 2008 no less than three bestselling books have come out attempting to account for the principles of world-class individual success,

  • Geoff Colvin’s ‘Talent is Overrated: What Separates World Class Performers from Everybody Else’ ,
  • Daniel Coyle’s ‘The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How
  • Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers: The Story of Success

Of these, Gladwell’s book, currently the best selling of all three is probably the most authentic in that it accounts for luck, special circumstances and privilege as factors contributing to success in many cases. None of these publications, anymore than ‘FISH’ accounts for everything that factors in when pursuing exceptional performance. However, all three books point unequivocally to the need to spend literally hours in preparation and practice to turn even exceptional talent into stand out skill and consistent performance.

This for me was one among several things that were missing in ‘FISH.’ What you cannot see in the film and what is no doubt not sexy, maybe even scary, is the hours of work the fishmongers put in before and after the market is open to insure that when the show goes on it is picture perfect. When I sat in on the PPFM staff meeting a few weeks back I commented to the owner John Yokoyama that his group was the highest functioning that I had seen in my twenty-two years of consulting. John remarked with a smile that it was probably because I had not been at it long enough, he and his staff had been pursuing their World Famous vision for twenty three years! In addition to set up and take down on a daily basis without fail the PPFM staff meets as a whole every two weeks with their consultant for two to three hours to clear the air and renew their commitment to their vision and each other. This is not life on Wii™ or Guitar Hero™.  Neither is this PPFM according to ‘FISH!’

I am not saying that ‘FISH!’ and the process it promotes are entirely without merit, I am sure some good comes from the training. I am also sure that when I go to Chinese restaurants, the ones with the pictures of the food in the menu, if they bring me a picture of food on a plate, that wasn’t really what I had in mind.

What would you be willing to give up for performance like they have at The Pike Place Fish Market?



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