By: Anne-Marie Langan*
Have you ever kept something to yourself at work for fear that expressing it would cause conflict? I sure have! Avoiding issues that cause conflict is tantamount to leaving a fish to rot in your refrigerator. You can hide it only so long and then the smell that emanates from you will give you away! This is the logic behind the "Sticky Fish Canvas" exercise developed by Fearless Culture, an organization founded by #GustavoRazetti to assist organizations in improving their workplace cultures. (Razzetti, 2022)
Here are the basic instructions for the stinky fish canvas exercise (Razetti, 2022):
Create a safe time and place for your team to be candid with each other. It is helpful to explain the purpose of the exercise and set some ground rules for the discussion such as no cross-talk, confidentiality, using respectful language, etc..
Since the purpose of the exercise is to have difficult conversations, it is a good idea to start with an ice breaker designed to generate friendly dialogue between participants and get their creative juices flowing.
Provide each participant with a canvas (see example below) and give them pens and post-it notes.
Give each participant time to answer the questions on the canvas by putting each answer on a post-it note and pasting it under the question.
Have the participants post their canvas on a wall.
Allow each participant to present their canvas. Razetti recommends that when time permits you start with groups of two sharing with each other, then move to groups of four (two groups of two) before presenting them to the group at large.
Have a generative group discussion about common themes in the canvases, and the tensions and contradictions that exist between them. Again, this also could be done in groups of 2 or four depending on the size of the group.
Give each participant three votes and ask them to vote on the most problematic issue identified, the simplest issue to fix and the issue that most needs to be addressed to improve the team's culture.
discuss potential solutions to the top issues identified by the team.
Here is an example of a canvas that can be used for this exercise (Razetti, 2022):
Razzetti notes the importance of addressing the stinky fish that are uncovered during the group discussions (Razetti, 2022). He gives several suggestions for this including choosing the top three "Quick Wins" and "Big Wins" and then ranking them in order of importance. Once these top issues are identified it is important to talk about "what’s driving each stinky fish: how it affects the team, how it manifests (symptoms), what triggers it, what’s the root cause, what the team would look like without that issue, and how the problem can be eliminated or minimized"(Razetti, 2022, p.5) A discussion should also be had about the practicalities such as timelines and who will take responsibility for monitoring the progress and reporting back to the group (Razetti, 2022).
Even though discussions like this can be hard for all involved, it is even harder to live with the consequences of the stinky fish which will only get more stinky if not uncovered and addressed. That being said this could be a bit much to handle for someone who doesn't have much experience facilitating and it can be difficult to facilitate for those involved in the team. It may be a good idea, therefore, if you can afford it, to hire an experienced facilitator (Razetti, 2022).
Razzetti, G. (2022, September). How to address the stinky fish in your team – canvas and facilitation guide: By Gustavo Razzetti. RSS. https://www.fearlessculture.design/blog-posts/how-to-address-the-stinky-fish-in-your-team-canvas-and-facilitation-guide
Razzetti, G. (2022b, November 24). Uncover the stinky fish canvas: By Gustavo Razzetti. RSS. https://www.fearlessculture.design/blog-posts/uncover-the-stinky-fish-canvas
Anne-Marie Langan B.A., B.S.W., LL.B., LL.M. is the project lead for the sexual violence projects at Peterborough Community Legal Centre, including the SHAPE project which provides legal advice and education for those experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace and the Your Way Forward project which provides support for those who have experienced intimate partner and/or sexual violence. These projects are both sponsored by the government of Canada. She can be reached directly at email@example.com.