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Hook, Line, and Sinker
04.28.03, 11:07 AM ET

Just a few minutes into Fish Camp, I have an important decision to make. I am sitting in the lodge-themed conference room of a Marriott hotel outside Minneapolis with 140 people -- many of them human-resources managers -- whose companies have paid $850 for their presence here. At my table are five women, mostly middle-aged, all strangers to one another. Our first assignment is to come up with a name for our team, which will spend the next two days collaborating with other teams in the quest for joyous collegiality. Best name wins a stuffed fish.

My teammates and I settle on Crappie, a kind of spiny sunfish whose name is pronounced "croppy." Our message, of course, is that we have a good sense of humor and not a bad attitude. Then someone suggests that when we announce our name, we stand up, pucker, and flap our hands against our necks as though we have gills. My tablemates are all giggles at the idea. But I am here as a journalist, an observer, and they know it. "Are you going to do it?" one of them asks me.

It is a Ken Kesey moment. Am I on the bus or off the bus? Do I want to be part of the fun or an outsider? I understand the choice I have to make. I stand and pucker and flap. We don't win the big prize. But although I don't yet know it, I am a little bit closer to understanding Fish.

Maybe you've heard of the Fish thing -- or more precisely, the Fish! thing. It's a management phenomenon that started out quietly. In 1998, ChartHouse Learning, a small company in Burnsville, Minn., produced a videotape extolling the happy work environment of Pike Place Fish, an even smaller outfit doing business in Seattle's famous Pike Place open-air market. The video Fish! led to a book (same title), which was published to little fanfare in early 2000. Inc reviewed it dismissively. Most publications didn't review it at all.

Two years later more than 1 million copies of Fish! are in print, the book has been translated into 10 languages, and it is a consistent best-seller on Amazon.com's business-books list. A sequel, Fish! Tales, was released in April. The video sells and rents at a brisk pace; so do spin-off products (workbooks, hats, stuffed fish, even a CD of the "Fish! Song") and coaching and seminar services.

Fish joins a long tradition of management-advice franchises that purport to engage not just their readers' minds but also their hearts and spirits by way of parable, metaphor, or some easily swallowed conceit. Only a few of those usually book-based movements (The One Minute Manager; Jesus, CEO; Who Moved My Cheese?) have actually taken off. A common theme among the successes, according to Andrew J. DuBrin, an industrial psychologist and professor of management at the Rochester Institute of Technology, is that they speak to values -- "values that people think they should have." That's a general observation, of course. DuBrin adds that if it were possible to isolate the characteristics of management books that generate million-copy sales, he'd write one himself.

Fish appears poised to join the elite ranks of work-think success stories. I had come to the Lodge room at the Marriott to find out why. What is it, exactly, that the Fish sellers are selling? And who is buying it?

Clad in fluorescent orange shirts, Stephen Lundin (camp director and "big tuna") and Carr Hagerman (head counselor and "action figure") haul a flip chart to the front of the room. Hagerman draws a series of lines to suggest a graph. But it is not a graph of anything. The graph is there, Lundin explains dismissively, "for people who need data," and although it is meaningless, "we'll point to it from time to time." Lundin tells us he has his Ph.D., and Hagerman instructs us to say "Ooooooh" every time Lundin mentions that credential. We get the point: Fish Camp is a haven from number crunching, bullet points, endless objectives, and purely symbolic authority.

Although a show of hands indicates that almost everyone has seen the video Fish!, we spend a few minutes watching a highlights reel. The remainder of the morning will be devoted to stories told by camp leaders and campers alike. The morning's focal tale is the story of Fish itself.

One advantage that Fish has over similar movements is the case study at its core. In 1997, John Christensen, CEO of ChartHouse Learning, which makes educational videos, took a business trip to Seattle and found himself wandering around the Pike Place market. Fishmongering is tough work, done in 12-hour shifts and marked by stench, scales, blood, and exposure to the elements. To Christensen's surprise, however, the workers at Pike Place Fish did not appear beaten down by their environment. In fact, they were positively giddy. In their fish-tossing antics, their theatrical clowning, their energy, and their fun, Christensen saw something magic. It was not a paradigm, but a paragon: the way work ought to be.

"It was a gift," says Christensen, 43, who has the unassuming manner and trim beard of an English-lit professor. Certainly, the timing was fortunate for his then-ailing company. ChartHouse, which Christensen's father founded in 1958 and built into a successful seller of business-philosophy films, had shrunk to just 20 employees following a messy break with a collaborator who sued the company in a copyright dispute. (The suit was finally settled.) "Let's not dwell on that stuff," Christensen says mildly. "The company needed a new center."

Thinking he might have found that center, Christensen struck up a conversation with one of the fishmongers, met the owner of Pike Place Fish, and ultimately returned to shoot 24 hours of film. Drawing on his own business-training background, he distilled the Pike Place crew's observations and anecdotes into a handful of slogan-simple ideas that could be applied to any workplace where morale and service needed a boost.

The resulting 17-minute film is entertaining, and it's hard to watch the "fish guys," some of whom are wildly charismatic, without feeling a certain envy. They do indeed appear to be having the time of their life, as do the laughing, adoring mobs that surround their stand. And they're obviously selling a lot of fish. Who wouldn't want to be like them? Then there's the chemistry thing. ChartHouse's core audience of trainers and human-resources managers is at least 60% female (the percentage of women at Fish Camp was even higher), so it probably doesn't hurt the film's popularity that many Pike Place workers are strapping young men who are adept at physical labor and warm in conversation.

Released by ChartHouse in 1998, the film Fish! won a dedicated following during the next few years thanks largely to word of mouth. The video has been translated into 17 languages and has been purchased by 15,000 organizations at $590 a pop. Companies ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 corporations have carried out its prescriptions. Southwest Airlines, for example, screens the video as part of its ongoing "soft skills" training.

In 2000, Hyperion published the book Fish!, which restates the video's lessons by way of a parable about a female manager at a fictitious Seattle financial institution. Inspired by the fishmongers, the manager converts the "toxic-energy dump" operations group into a high-morale, high-quality department. (She also gets engaged to a fish guy.)

Today ChartHouse is back up to 41 employees and revenue growth of 35% to 40% a year. Almost all of that growth can be traced to the Fish franchise. "Fish is helping people," Christensen says. "It's a message whose time, I think, has definitely come."

It's late morning on day two of Fish Camp, and the campers are bearing witness. Hagerman, a handsome fellow with thick, dark hair, darts around the room, thrusting his microphone into the faces of those wishing to testify. Seizing the mike, camper Mike Pierce commands the crowd's attention with the confidence of a professional talk-show host. He is, in fact, the California director of recruiting and training for SCI, a large funeral and cemetery company. Pierce tells us that last summer he made Fish the centerpiece of his portion of a presentation for 150 senior managers, including board members. He decided to do so at the last second, largely improvising his performance -- about the power of playfulness -- in front of a buttoned-down, traditional, non-fish-tossing crowd. "It's like that movie -- build it and they will come," Pierce says. "I'm just gonna be this, and they'll come. I'm not going to worry about whether people are buying in." The applause swells.

Lois M. Bugg Shadrick takes the floor and dramatically describes the glum atmosphere at the company where she works. "A group of us started doing Fish two years ago," she says. "It's not 'sanctioned' " -- she makes the quote marks with her fingers -- "by the corporation." But Shadrick got the video from a coworker, and someone else borrowed it and "disseminated the information." Hagerman chimes in to endorse the idea that one person can begin to make the change. That is "where the fires begin," he says. "It becomes a grassroots sort of movement."

The Fish movement is built around four axioms derived by Christensen from the fishmongers' example. The first is Choose Your Attitude. You may have no control over what job you have, but you do control how you approach that job. Second: Make Their Day. Engage and delight customers and coworkers instead of grudgingly doing the bare minimum. Third: Be Present. Don't daydream about where you aren't; instead, make the most of where you are. Look customers and coworkers in the eye and always believe, "This moment exists for you and me. Let's make the most of it." And fourth: Play. Have as much fun as you can at whatever it is you're doing, so as to cultivate a spirit of innovation and creativity.

Depending on what attitude you're choosing right about now, this all sounds either seductively simple or incredibly banal. But work-advice books tend to succeed not on the basis of original ideas but rather on the skillful articulation of basic truths that no one could seriously disagree with. The Fish philosophers' thesis is twofold. First, a positive attitude is a good thing -- for you, for your coworkers, and for your customers. In other words, the world would be a happier place if the world were a happier place. The attractiveness of that timeless message is almost certainly enhanced by the fact that it cuts against the ruthless, numbers-driven, efficiency-obsessed, maximize-shareholder-value ideology enforced by Six Sigma black belts and the like.

The second argument represents an even greater break from conventional business-think. "It is fashionable today to believe that we should not settle for anything less than doing what we love," the introduction to the Fish! book tells us. It's true: work has come to be seen as a source of meaning. But Fish acknowledges implicitly that in the modern service economy most jobs are meaningless. At the very least, it's a challenge to find meaning in being a cashier or a telemarketer. So Fish advises adherents to stop worrying about the quest to "do what you love" and instead learn to love what you do. There's something admirably pragmatic in that sentiment but also something almost fatalistic. After all, the American idea of business -- if not the American idea of America -- is based on striving for something better, not learning to be happy with what you've got.

And neither tenet of the Fish thesis is universally appealing. "I worked for a company who force-fed us this philosophy ... book, tape, and all," begins a review of the book posted on Amazon .com. The posting goes on to describe the program as "cornball," "ridiculous," and "contrived." "What's sad," the reviewer continues, "is that companies actually think that throwing fish around is something that should be done (the company I worked for had a fish throw ... an actual afternoon dedicated to throwing dead fish at each other).... I was burned out on the philosophy after two days of training, and I voluntarily left the company two months after being hired."

I had assumed that I'd find someone like that at Fish Camp -- an unabashed skeptic who had been forced by some manager to attend. But no. The camp's attendees were like a band of self-styled rebels -- pep-istas, the radical happy -- waging an uphill battle against the forces of grumpiness. The only negative words I heard spoken at camp, or in follow-up conversations with training and human-resources directors who use Fish materials, were directed at malcontents like the unknown reviewer: "Attitudinal vampires." "Resister sisters." "Toxic-energy centers." Outsiders.

All that left me feeling conflicted. On the one hand, who could possibly object to a happier workplace? I spent a decade managing and being managed in various office situations, and none was remotely as joyous as Pike Place Fish. But when I saw -- on one of the Fish! video sequels -- a gang of crazily dressed call-center operators dancing in a conga line around their cubicles, I cringed. Such workplace antics would only have hastened my decision to become what I am today: a person who works at home, alone, and prefers it that way. Am I cynical? An attitudinal vampire?

Movie time again. We're watching Fish! Sticks, a sequel in which Christensen returns to Pike Place to learn from the fishmongers how they maintain their cheerful attitude over time. Not surprisingly, his investigation produces a whole new set of axioms, all rooted in the notion of personal vision, which the film calls "it." Since the first film was shot, the "it" at Pike Place has apparently shifted, from "being world famous" to "achieving world peace."

In Fish! Sticks we hear a good deal from John Yokoyama, Pike Place's owner, who admits that he was once a grouchy and difficult boss. Then he "got some training" that made him realize change was possible, and he began the journey that transformed his business.

So what was the training that Yokoyama received? The film doesn't say, and the answer isn't in any of the voluminous printed material in our camp packs. In fact, it was EST: the human-potential program created in the early 1970s by Werner Erhard. Dogged by various controversies, some of which were reportedly stoked by Dianetics partisans, Erhard walked away from his business in 1991. But the underlying "technology" lives on through the Landmark Forum, which claims that its programs still draw 125,000 participants a year.

That is not to say that Fish is a reformulation of, or is even based on, EST ideas, and Christensen insists that the movements take different approaches. Only the film Fish! Sticks, with its mantra of "Commit; Be it; Coach it," echoes the language of EST and its successor, the Landmark Forum. "We're on delicate ground on that one," Christensen says when asked about the association. "We stay away from saying it because Landmark in some areas has a really, really negative connotation. People either love it or they think it's a cult."

Christensen says that although Yokoyama had talked up the program's benefits from the beginning, a combination of resistance and a busy schedule kept the filmmaker from seriously looking into it until last year. (He eventually took and enjoyed a Landmark seminar and says about half his employees have gone through the program.) Landmark loves the Fish films, Christensen adds. "It's spreading their gospel in a unique way."

The EST connection certainly doesn't bother Fish's followers, most of whom are apparently unfamiliar with Landmark. Checking in with some fellow campers after the event, I found them, by and large, ebullient. Mike Pierce expressed total confidence that Fish would "take on a life of its own" at his company. Judy Harlow, who works for a small accounting firm in Denver, said her coworkers responded enthusiastically to her report about the camp experience. Carolyn Butler, one of my tablemates and a high school assistant principal from Fredrick County, Va., left "totally energized" and made a Fish presentation for her colleagues. So did another fellow Crappie, Kathy A. Dunn, who works for the 350-employee First Essex Bank, in Andover, Mass., which is many months into a full-out Fish embrace. As a result, customers mention the bankers' sunny attitudes, and employees are getting along better, she assured me.

I also spoke with Dunn's boss, First Essex chairman and CEO Leonard A. Wilson. A Fish-ionado himself, Wilson offers an unsentimental take on the program from management's perspective. "Fish isn't going to make horrible, inexperienced employees into good employees," he says. "It's not going to make up for fundamental flaws in your business plan or training." But most workers could give an extra 10% to 40%, Dunn explains. Fish is a way to get at an employee's "pool of discretionary effort."

Wilson sounds more like Dunn when he explains the changes Fish has wrought on Essex's "internal customers." Thanks to the program, "we treat each other with more courtesy and respect," he says. "You know -- don't take calls while I'm talking to you. Don't give me a disingenuous 'Hello.' Look me in the eye and say 'Good morning.' "

Wilson's words echo a core message of Fish Camp: that business needs to return to a kinder, gentler formulation. And Fish appears overall to be a benign force in the world. Christensen urged me to focus on the fact that Fish has "helped an awful lot of people." That seems to be true.

The only question that still bothers me is one of tolerance. Although Fish's founders would no doubt reject the idea, I suspect that many of its fans are hardwired for rah-rah. A customer-friendly attitude is "excruciatingly hard to instill in people," says Peter Nelson, Southwest Airline's manager of creative development, explaining why his company hires people who already possess that trait.

There's certainly nothing wrong with Fish's positive reinforcement for the preternaturally upbeat nor with any collateral mood boosting that might go on among coworkers. But I found something creepy in the comments of some fellow campers, who said Fish would give less-peppy -- but presumably competent -- coworkers "a chance to fit in." Or that those who didn't fit in would "have to go."

I enjoyed most of the people I met at Fish Camp, particularly my tablemates. If anyone from team Crappie wants to have dinner again, I'd be pleased to. It was fun to spend a couple of days among the radical happy. But I'm not sure I'd want to work with them.

Rob Walker is a columnist for Slate.com. He lives in New Orleans.

Please E-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.

Copyright ? 2003 G+J USA Publishing.

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