Unconventional Methods of Improving Team Performance

Unconventional Methods of Improving Team Performance

In Seattle, Washington, there is a world-famous fishmonger retailer – Pike Place Fish Market.

Every day, especially at lunch time, regular workers meander over to the place to take part in the action – the throwing of fish, workers talking to the fish they are wrapping or telling stories about the fish to a young child.

Admit it. Working in a fish market is one of the dirtiest and often smelliest jobs there is.

But somehow, these workers are passionate, energetic, and love their jobs. They have become the types of employees that every manager would love to have.

This place is the subject of a book, simply titled Fish. It was written in 2000, but is the subject of training videos to this day about inspiring and motivating a workforce.

There are four principles of the Pike Place Fish Market owner that still hold true, despite how they may be implemented in practice.

The Baseline Principles of Efficient Work 

The “typical” workplace is not a fish market, and a typical workforce team is not engaged in dirty, messy, physical activity.

Yet, there have to be some common principles that serve to motivate and energize a team, no matter what their task responsibilities are.

The first one is quite simple – treat team members as more than just that

That is think about them not just as of  individuals who must report to work, stay on-task, meet deadlines, and whose work and activity is often “tracked” and carefully monitored through the latest technology.

It’s time to break from the traditional, rather oppressive mold, and look at jobs from the employee’s vantage point.

That is imagine what makes them happy, productive and enthusiastic about doing the “dirty job” with a smile on their face.

According to The Fish! philosophy it all boils down to practicing the next four principles:

  • Be Present. Always appear emotionally present for people around you. This attitude resonates with others, improves the communication and tightens the relationships.
  • Be playful. Stay open to new ideas, encourage people to “toy around” with new concepts, practice creativity and merely have fun in whatever they do.
  • Make their day. Delight your team in small, meaningful and memorable ways. Positively contribute to their lives not because you expect something in return, but because that’s the kind of person you want to be – generous, attentive and caring.
  • Choose your attitude. Always think how your choices affect others. Does your current attitude helps or harms the team or the customers? Does it help me become the person I strive to be?

A few companies have already experimented with these ideas and have come up with some unconventional tactics that have served their organization well – enthusiasm, greater productivity, motivation, and an actual love of job and organization.

Here are a few unconventional motivational strategies that have worked.

A Five-Hour Workday for All

Stephan Aarstol is the founder and CEO of Tower Paddle Boats, a California based company that manufactures and sells paddle boards and other beach gear. Believing that people would be more productive and accomplish more in less time, he launched a grand “summer experiment.”

He established a 5-hour workday which included a raise for everyone and a 5% profit share.

The result?

Employees  turned to be more productive in their 5 hours than they were in their former eight, and sales and profits are up. Now, he did some other things as well, but taking this leap was huge.

When You Grow Beyond 150 and Cannot Split Out

Obviously, there are a large number of companies that have well beyond 150 employees.

Yet reaching this figure often creates new challenges for startups.

As Chris Cox, chief product officer at Facebook, puts it:

“I’ve talked to so many startup CEOs that after they pass this number, weird stuff starts to happen. “The weird stuff means the company needs more structure for communications and decision-making.”

There’s a good explanation for that in fact.

Robin Dunbar, psychology professor at Oxford, has conducted a lot of research on groups and group psychology. What he discovered is that people cannot relate when they are in groups that exceed 150 people. As an example, he pointed to 18th century societies like the Hutterites, who, once their communities reach 150 in size, split those communities, because operating by peer pressure alone no longer works.

For companies today that means that once you hits the Dunbar number – you need to re-think your communication strategies and managerial practices.

Leaders now need to articulate more regularly who’s responsible for what and where are we all heading. Employees, on the other hand, need to switch from being just a cool “tribe” of co-workers towards thinking more about the single goal they are pursuing e.g. serve customers better.

So, if your company suddenly grew bigger, how do you feel about dividing your workforce into smaller so that the feeling of community can still thrive? 

Arguably, the most famous example of this approach in action is the Gore-Tex company, which produces this great waterproof fabrics. The owner, late “Bill” Gore deliberately chose not to expand the factory size once it had hit 150 employees. Instead, he just built a brand new, self-contained facility next door.

As a result, his factories were known not to have a formal line-management systems in place or name badges, as everyone always knew everyone else. Employees shared a communal vision and felt committed to each other.

Again, this point correlates well with maintaining a !Fish philosophy at your organization.

A new example is Quartz.

This online publisher chose to re-define their leadership structure after they have hit 200 employees to make sure each person has clearer responsibilities for different aspects of the business.

First, they created a 10-person operating committee of top managers, who gather up weekly to discuss the core matters affecting the company and make decisions. They schedule more all-hands staff meetings to inform the employees about the current state of affairs and instill the key company values – “to be a guide to the new  global economy”.

Unlimited Vacations

Once a company hits the 150-staff mark, it is critical for the executives to continue to speak to and remind the workforce of its mission, of the company’s successes and challenges, and to break large numbers down into smaller teams so that the sense of camaraderie is still felt.

And other “unconventional” things must happen too.

Netflix, for example, stopped setting numbers of vacation days, allowing employees to focus on work completion and being responsible for their own days off. It’s working well, employees act responsibly, and the company continues to profit. And there are several other “policies” in place that tell employees they are trusted to be responsible people.

Nathan Christensen, CEO of Mammoth, recently shared the key takeaways from his one year experiment with unlimited employee vacations:

  • Placing unlimited vacations on the platter shows that a company views its staff holistically. They respect their right to have a “life beyond work” and pursue personal interests as long as they can manage their teamwork. That’s a great overall motivational booster.
  • Unlimited vacations policy infuses trust. It eliminates micro-management and shows that executives trust that the employee will still stay on top of their chores whether they take time off or not.
  • Unlimited vacations treats employees as individuals. Different people have different work styles – that’s a common no-brainer a lot of employers fail to acknowledge. Getting as much time off as one needs means that a company is capable of adapting to the employee’s schedule and personal circumstances.

They key to succeeding with an unlimited vacations policy is to provide clear guidelines of how an employee should treat and take it without overindulgence and communicate that this offer is two way. In return for respect of their personal lives and time, as an employer you expect full dedication to the company values, projects and customers during the “office times”. So that the entire organization and everyone within it can strive too.


The concept of work is changing. As it continues to disrupt the traditional notions of what constitutes a productive, content employee, employers will be challenged to come with innovative methods to motivate and reward.

This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.

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