Innovation Requires Better Water than Fish

By Bruce Wade

For innovation to happen, it requires a healthy fish tank rather than excellent fish.

I attended a talk last week by Dr Mark Kahn who suggested that the fish tank we develop is more important than the fish in it for a sustainable and innovative environment. Because even the best fish, no matter how much you spend on them with never thrive in a septic fish tank.

Now, taking this analogy to the workplace, it begins to make a whole lot of sense. Yet how often do we get the bosses trying to develop the fish and never consider the fish tank?

Staff are recruited with the best education and experience. They are then put on induction courses, sent on advancement courses, team building and education workshops. This is followed up with 360 assessments, KPIs and bonus incentives all to produce the best staff members they can develop.

But back in the fish tank, the water is septic, the energy is low, the backstabbing continues, and the water cooler gossip supersedes any management’s attempts at encouragement. If the tank is bad, the fish too will become bad, and so even the best staff members who are brought in or developed will soon begin to waver and will soon either jump ship or end up floating upside down on the surface.

Innovation within a company requires a healthy tank for the fish. Even an average fish will begin to thrive in a good tank. So, what does a healthy work tank look and feel like? May
I suggest the following:

Conditions – Take a walk into your office and see it with fresh eyes, as if you were visiting for the very first time. What does it look like? How does it feel? Smell like? Is this a place that you would want to come each day? What changes may need to be made to spruce the tank up a bit to make it a better, smarter, more innovative place to be?

Culture – What is the current culture of the business? From my experience, the boss is the worst person to ask. Chat with the staff, at all levels and get their opinion. An unhealthy culture is a company killer

Communication – To state the obvious, communication is king in a business. No hidden agendas, no holding information back, no bomb shell meetings, no talking behind people’s backs. Open communication, real communication, and honest communication. Get that right and the water will begin to clear in the tank

Capability – This refers not only to the staff you employ but the staff you enable. I have seen even the most average of person thrive to excellence when permitted to enable their talent. Start by addressing the above three issues, then give your staff the permission and ability to become creative, offer their ideas, and step up when it is their turn to shine. And shine they will.

Remember that a toxic work tank will destroy even the finest of fish, but a quality tank will help all fish to become the best that they can be. It will also keep them around longer and attract the best fish from other tanks.

Maybe it is time to do some Tank Management rather than Human Management.