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The Stinky Fish Session - A tool for Delivery leads to embrace uncomfortable growth



Let’s dive into an extraordinary and somewhat unconventional technique that promises to transform the way Delivery leads can tackle uncertainties during the project life cycle – the Stinky Fish Session. Now, before you turn up your nose, let me assure you that this unique approach is not about actual fish (thank goodness!). Instead, it's a metaphorical representation of those tough and unpleasant issues we often shy away from and how to learn to turn those issues into opportunities for growth, unleashing the full potential of our teams. Get ready to embrace the stink and unlock the creativity that lies within each of us!

What is this Stinky Fish, you may ask?

In the realm of team collaboration, picture a Stinky Fish meeting as an ingenious brainstorming or problem-solving session. In this dynamic gathering, you fearlessly dive into challenging or uncomfortable issues, symbolised by the metaphorical "stinky fish." You can conduct one session to triumphantly tackle tough challenges and foster open dialogues in any context; Project Post-Mortem, Retrospectives, Strategic Planning, Product Development Review, to name a few.


How to run a session step-by-step:

  • Set the environment: When you're looking to have a discussion with your team, try to choose an informal setting that will help everyone feel comfortable sharing their ideas. It's important to create an atmosphere that promotes psychological safety and encourages open and honest discussions without fear of judgement.

  • Define the objective: Make sure everyone knows what the session is all about and what specific problems/challenges you're gonna tackle. That way, everyone's on the same page and knows what we're aiming for. Share the template with each individual on your team: Ask your team to share their individual concerns/worries about the project or about the future as a way to start a conversation and begin to confront or overcome them.

  • Explain the metaphor: During a "stinky fish" session, use the metaphor to represent challenging issues that need to be addressed. Encourage participants to approach the topic from various angles and examine different parts of the "stinky fish.”

  • Time Constraints: To keep us all on track and avoid getting sidetracked, let's set some time limits for our brainstorming sessions. Let's give ourselves 5-10 minutes to work on our own stinky fish templates. Then each of us can take 1-3 minutes to share our stinky fish with the team. (And don't worry, we'll make sure everyone gets a chance to speak up).

  • Closure: After the Stinky Fish session do not forget to wrap up by thanking your team for their awesome contributions. Make sure to give kudos to them for being brave enough to bring up those challenging topics.

  • Follow up: Let's dig deeper into these stinky fishes and work together to come up with some strategies to conquer them. That way, we'll all leave the session feeling confident and ready to take on any challenges that come our way.

How to include this as part of your workflow.

In project management or software development, a retrospective is a meeting that happens at the end of a project where the team reflects on their performance, discusses what went well and what didn't, and identifies areas for improvement. It's a great way to learn from everyone’s experiences and grow as a team. In this context, a stinky fish cannot replace a retrospective, however we do use it at Potato with our Delivery leads team to open discussion on difficult topics. A Stinky Fish is a term sometimes used in the "Sailboat Retrospective" technique. For those who are unfamiliar with that kind of retrospective it’s a great visualisation technique for the Agile team where you take familiar elements of a sailing journey and compare them to the obstacles, goals, tools used on the project.. By bringing up the Stinky Fish during the retrospective, the team can openly address any underlying concerns or conflicts and find solutions together. It's a great way to ensure everyone's voice is heard and the team can work effectively together.

Stinky Fish sessions should not be used in situations that require delicate handling, lack psychological safety, or where the focus should be on immediate and critical decision-making. As with any tool or technique, it's essential to assess the context, readiness of the team, and the nature of the issues at hand before deciding to run a session. In conclusion, I decided to try a session shortly after reading “Remote Not Distant” by Gustavo Razzetti. I collaborated with one of our team’s working on a longstanding project. Injecting a dose of novelty into our routine can be remarkably effective in maintaining team’s engagement and curiosity. Throughout this exercise, we observed that even within a team already fortified by a commendable level of psychological safety, certain issues emerged more readily during this exercise than in our typical retrospectives. The unique aspect of this approach lies in its focus on delving deep into the team’s emotions, as opposed to solely scrutinising project health or sprint progress. This nuanced shift allowed us to uncover insights that might have otherwise remained concealed. So let's continue to embrace the stink, for it is within the depths of our Stinky Fish Session that we find the most beautiful pearls of growth and progress. Together, we'll navigate the waters of innovation, creating a future that surpasses our wildest expectations.

I trust this has provided you with valuable insights to kickstart engaging discussions with your team. At Potato, we specialise in product strategy and development. If you ever require assistance with your product, don't hesitate to reach out to us. We're here to help.