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How to Address the Stinky Fish in Your Team – Canvas and Facilitation Guide

You can only solve the issues you talk about

By Gustavo Razzetti

September 22, 2022

How to uncover, unpack, and solve the issues your team members don’t want to talk about

It’s impossible to avoid conflict – every team has issues or stinky fishes they need to discuss. Conflict can be detrimental to your team. The longer colleagues avoid it, the stinkier things will get. The Stinky Fish is a metaphor for issues your team fails to address. The longer everyone avoids conflict, the quicker it will rot.

The Stinky Fish metaphor reminds us that unattended issues don’t magically vanish – they end up contaminating the entire team. If you let a fish rot in your fridge, everything will soon smell bad – the milk, the vegetables, and everything in between. Not addressing your stinky fish will only make things worse for your team.

The best approach to managing conflict is to address it right away.

The Uncover the Stinky Fish is an activity we use with our clients to help teams address issues in the open. This visual canvas provides a set of questions to uncover different problems.

In this post, I will introduce the second phase: how to resolve the issues once they have been identified. I will share a new tool: the Address the Stinky Fish Canvas and how to facilitate the discussion with your team – both remotely and in person.

But, first I will sharethe benefits and intro of the Stinky Fish Canvas. If you're familiar with the tool, skip the intro and read about the new tool.

Why Addressing the Stinky Fish is Critical

Identifying and dealing with conflict is critical to managing a high-performing team. Conflict significantly impacts teams, affecting productivity, relationships, and morale. Solving issues in person is difficult enough. When it comes to remote or hybrid teams, it’s even more challenging to identify and resolve conflict.

Conflict is a necessary force for growth. Teams that embrace tension rather than run from it are more successful. This is even truer in a remote environment.

When working in person, it’s easy to spot signs that trouble is brewing. In a virtual space, signals are harder to read or more confusing. The solution is to not only promote transparency but also to encourage people to address conflict in the open.

Addressing the stinky fish early on will prevent your conflict debt from piling up.

“Conflict debt,” as Liane Davey explains in The Good Fight, is the sum of all contentious issues that a team needs to address. It’s invisible and often gets in the way. The longer issues remain undiscussed and unresolved, the more the conflict debt piles up.

Conflict is not bad for organizations; it’s data that helps team members learn and grow together. It helps us understand team dynamics through different lenses. What is normal for one colleague could be an issue for others – and the other way around.

The Stinky Fish exercise helps build the psychological safety muscle, helping colleagues feel safer to address tensions in the open.

Uncovering Team Issues with the Stinky Fish Canvas

This activity invites people to identify the issues affecting them and the team. Some issues might be individual, others team-related. Many could result from systemic company problems. By integrating everyone’s stinky fish, you can get the whole picture – the sum of all problems affecting team performance.

Identifying stinky fish is an effective exercise for both individuals and groups to face the issues that are getting in their way of success.

The Stinky Fish Canvas © helps teams identify four types of issues:

• What everybody is thinking but no one is saying (silent problems)

• Uncertainties that make people feel that they've lost control (unknowns)

• Things that are making people feel nervous or anxious (anxieties)

• Past issues the team can’t get over (what we cling to)

Download your copy of the Uncover the Stinky Fish Canvas

You can use this exercise to address regular team tensions or kick off a new initiative. I often use it in the discovery phase of a project, whether it’s a team offsite or a culture design consulting project. It’s a quick and effective method to unearth tensions and issues.

Teams love it and adopt it as part of their team contract. Many of our clients use it regularly to address conflict in the open – some have a weekly Stinky Fish session to tackle things before they rot.  

How to Facilitate the Stinky Fish Canvas

You can use three methods to facilitate this tool with your team, as I explain in this video. Explore the different ways to facilitate the Stinky Fish and which work best for your team:

1. Anonymous:

Every team member completes their own Stinky Fish exercise – you can use the MURAL, Miro, or PDF templates. Then a facilitator (external or a trusted team member) consolidates all results, identifying clusters with similar topics. The consolidated canvas is shared and discussed by the entire team (more on that later).

I don’t recommend this method because anonymity reinforces the idea that your team is not safe. Also, an anonymous approach makes it easier for people to say things without accountability, encouraging venting and criticism.

However, I want to give you options.

2. Turn Taking:

Similar to the previous method, everyone captures their tensions on their own canvas. The team gets together – you can do it remotely or in person, but definitely in real-time – and everyone can share one issue at a time. The facilitator ensures that, one by one, everyone gets their turn to speak. Leaders and louder voices should always go last.

Aim for multiple rounds to move the conversation from superficial issues to more essential ones.

3. 1-2-4-All:

This progressive sharing technique by Liberating Structures, usually used for brainstorming, also works great for debriefing activities. Once everyone has their Stinky Fish Canvas (1), group people in duos (2) and allow each to share their top 3 issues, then consolidate in one canvas. Merge two duos (4) and repeat the sequence. Lastly, every team (All) shares their key issues with the entire group.

Addressing stinky fish should never turn into a venting session. Although sharing issues in the open is cathartic, the purpose is to solve problems, not just get them out of the system.

How to Unpack & Solve the Stinky Fish Canvas

A question I usually get from people is, what happens once a team has identified all its stinky fishes?

I use different approaches depending on the client and challenge. However, based on multiple requests from our training programs' graduates, I designed a specific tool to help unpack stinky fish and move the team into action. This is what it looks like.

This activity consists of three steps:

  1. Consolidate all stinky fishes
  2. Rank & select top 3
  3. Define course of action

Download the Address the Stinky Fish template in PDF, MURAL, and Miro formats

Consolidate all stinky fishes:

This step is pretty straightforward – capture the top three issues from each group. Consolidate the virtual or physical sticky notes in one canvas. If it helps, you can group them within the respective category (uncertainties, anxieties, silent problems, or what we cling to). Some teams like the continuity this gives them; others just want to create the final list.

Each group should briefly describe their Stinky Fish as they share their top 3.

Rank & Select top 3:

Categorize all selected issues into two groups: Quick Wins and Big Wins.

Quick wins are ‘easy’ to solve, requiring low effort but able to create immediate, high impact. Big wins are structural issues that require more effort and time to be solved – probably involving resources beyond your team – but will have a more significant impact in the long run.

Have your team vote and select the top 3 across both categories (Quick Wins/ Big Wins). If necessary, have a quick discussion of the implications and challenges of each stinky fish.

Strategize before voting: should you aim for Quick Wins, Big Wins, or a mix of both?

Define course of action:

You can tackle this third and last step together or divide the team into three groups. The purpose is to identify an action plan for each stinky fish, assigning clear next steps and who will do what and when.

Team members should have a meaningful conversation 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.

For each stinky fish, the team will assign a person who will lead the solution (who), clear next steps (what), and concrete deadlines (when). Depending on the nature of each stinky fish, team members can come up with a clear solution and the next steps for implementation – or agree to initial efforts to resolve it. Either way, the aim is to wrap up the conversation with clear marching orders.

Wrap up the session reminding people of the importance of addressing team issues early on – before they start to stink.

Address the Stinky Fish Template – free download

Addressing the Stinky Fish Exercise – Coaching Tips

Addressing issues is difficult for most teams. Some are more sensitive because of their nature or are going through complex challenges like a reorg, a new leader, or a merger. Setting the right context is critical for this activity to be successful.

People feel more comfortable sharing their stinky fish with strangers than with their colleagues. For open workshops, this canvas can be introduced early on. For a regular team, especially one with long-standing grudges – make sure to set the room for success.

Building psychological safety is critical. My team and I have used this tool for many years with great results – even the most reluctant teams open up. However, without the proper facilitation, this exercise can quickly backfire.

Some team leaders or consultants are afraid of what this tool could spark. They don’t know if their team is ready – AKA feels safe – to address conflict in the open. So, what comes first: building psychological safety or using the Stinky Fish? For me, that’s a chicken-or-egg question. It doesn’t matter which comes first ¬– you need both.

Facilitating productive conversations about the Stinky Fish is critical for team performance. Your team needs to become comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. Not addressing issues can create more harm than the friction of having candid discussions.

Some facilitation tips:

- Not sure if your team is ready? I wouldn’t recommend running the Stinky Fish without setting some sort of baseline. Try other psychological safety exercises first. Focus on Level 1 of the Psychological Safety Ladder (Welcome) – making people feel accepted as human beings before moving into Level 2 (Courageous Conversations).

- Worried that people won’t speak up? Team members are more eager to address issues than most leaders think. The Stinky Fish is a fun and human way to facilitate the conversation and get people started.

- Not sure if people will address the real problems? Don’t worry. It doesn’t matter if the first session ends with superficial conversations. Focus on the practice rather than the outcome. Build the muscle of addressing stinky fish with your colleagues.

- What if the leader is an issue? Don’t include them in the discussion. Have them complete their own canvas and facilitate the activity with the team but without the leader. Consolidate results and guide the conversation, finding common issues that everyone wants to address.

- Don’t feel comfortable yet? Hire an external facilitator with the right confidence and expertise – learn from them before leading the activity yourself.

Copyright & Attribution

The Uncover the Stinky Fish and Address the Stinky Fish canvases were created by Gustavo Razzetti (Copyright © 2019-2022 by Gustavo Razzetti and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Design: Fausto Razzetti

Attribution — You must give appropriate credit (author name, link to the original canvas: fearlessculture.design/blog-posts/uncover-the-stinky-fish-canvas, and include a link to the license) and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.

Source of Stinky Fish exercise: Åsa Silfverberg (Hyper Island)

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