How to Tell if Your Organization is Decorating the Fish

This diagnostic tool will help you determine if your organization is pursuing a viable solution or just “decorating the fish.” Decorating the fish is a common problem which can be deceptively difficult to identify, as we tend to mistake taking action or making a change for solving the real problem. This gives us a false sense of progress.

 “Decorating the fish” is dangerous as it consumes significant time, energy, and resources, but delivers zero to minimal improvements. It also comes with a steep opportunity cost, since it distracts us from working on the real problem. Once we can distinguish between real progress and the illusion of progress, we can help our organizations achieve new levels of performance that may have seemed impossible. 

When it comes to managing organizations, there are three core areas where a mistake likely brings us to decorate the fish:

1. How we define our goal
2. How we define our strategy
3. The method we use in execution

How We Define the Goal

Most of the solution that provides only the illusion of progress are aiming to solve the wrong problem. A problem is a problem only if it prevents us from achieving our goal.

Without a clear goal, and without understanding the obstacles that prevent us from achieving that goal, we pursue “solutions” that really aren’t solutions at all.

The four types of “false” goals we tend to make are:

1. The inward-looking goal
2. The aspirational goal
3. The indirect goal
4. Confusing the means with the end

Aspirational and Vague Goal
Is your organization’s goal simple to understand? Does it avoid buzzwords and vague language? 
For example, beware of words and phrases such as:

“Eliminate duplication of effort”
“Integrate, coordinate, and align services”
“Create a culture of inclusion” 
“Increase efficiencies and reduce costs” 
“Improve the customer experience” 

These phrases sound exciting, but they are not clear enough to affect performance meaningfully.   
If your goal is vague, then your organization is decorating the fish.

Indirect Goal
Does your goal focus on processes you can control directly, or does the goal look toward outcomes that you or your organization can only influence indirectly? 

The more removed an organization is from the goal it pursues, the less effective any action will be. 
If your organization is targeting measures it cannot directly affect, then it is decorating the fish.

Confusing the means with the end
Organizations often confuse strategy with outcome. For example, an organization may adopt goals around “going digital’” or “innovation.” “Going digital” or “innovating” are not ends; they are means. Without knowing the end goal, it is impossible to know if changes like these are affecting the end performance.
If your organization confuses the strategy with the outcome, it is decorating the fish.

How We Define the Strategy

Counteracting is the biggest mistake in setting strategy
Strategy is the plan to achieve our goal. The common mistake many organizations make is that they assume that they will reach their goal if they simply remove the obstacles in front of it.

Fighting the obvious problem – counteracting the problem

Does your solution or initiative focus on addressing the negative aspects of the situation rather than adding what is missing to achieve the goal? Does the solution merely mirror the problem and attempt to address the lack of something? For example, as a society, we tend to fight addiction with another form of addiction (like e-cigarettes), respond to rising costs with more cost-cutting, address homelessness with more housing, and try to solve unemployment with incentivizing jobs. Simply focusing on what is lacking—called “counteracting”—rather than changing the source of the problem is decorating the fish. 

Counteracting strategies, such as the ones listed above, lead in the best case to only marginal improvement. Is your organization making significant investments of either time or money into initiatives that only lead to marginal improvements?

Mistakes we make with the method we use in execution

We confuse a capacity problem with a flow problem 
Is your organization investing more money (including more labor, capital, etc.) before understanding and fixing the problems in operations and the flow of work? Without understanding how existing resources are working, just adding more of them won’t deliver superior performance and is decorating the fish.

We confuse embracing a new tool with the creation of new and meaningful capability
Does your organization rush to embrace technological trends without first understanding the problem? Does your organization define “innovation” as an end rather than as a means to create value for the customer?  Just adding new technology to old business practices, policies, and processes will not deliver breakthrough results. Organizations that embrace sophisticated new ideas without understanding the limitation they are meant to address are decorating the fish.

We confuse more data with more insight 
Is your organization producing more and more measures and attempting to measure more and more aspects of the business? Does the data attempt to account for more of the organization’s moving parts? Too much data breeds confusion and makes it difficult to know where to focus. If your organization is focused on gathering more data as a solution without understanding the key questions behind the data-gathering, then it is decorating the fish.

We try to predict the future rather than execute nimbly 
Is your organization spending more time and resources trying to improve the accuracy of detailed forecasts and planning models? Forecasts only need to be good enough and recognize that the future will always hold some degree of uncertainty. Instead, focusing on nimble execution allows organizations to thrive despite uncertainty. If your organization relies on improving the accuracy of forecasts, then it is decorating the fish.

We change the organizational structure rather than change the required processes 
Does your organization jump to reorganizing departments, programs, or resources as a primary way to improve? Not only does moving the problem not solve it, it also comes with steep opportunity costs. If your organization uses reorganization as a “strategy” without understanding first what processes need to be changed and how the new structure will support these changes, then it is decorating the fish.
Do changes focus on administrative functions rather than with what the customer wants? Focusing on administrative functions may benefit upper management, but they neglect where the real value is created. If your organization spends its time on reorganization, new reporting systems, “innovative” financial models, and other administrative functions, then it is decorating the fish.

We assume that knowing and doing are equivalent
Does your organization rely heavily on messaging, branding, and training as a way to change people’s choices and performance? Unfortunately, a bad system will beat a good person every time. For example, we can run “Save Water” campaigns, but if water is cheap, we can’t expect a significant change in peoples’ water-saving behavior. Assuming that a lack of information is the cause of a problem without first changing the processes, policies, and incentives that prompt and reinforce behaviors is decorating the fish.

We focus on the flaws of people and ignore the flaws of the system
Sometimes, we believe we are stuck because of the actions (or inactions) of other people. We assume we can’t make progress until someone else either changes or gives us permission to take action. Shifting the problem to or blaming another stakeholder provides immediate relief from frustration, but the price is always disempowerment and stagnation.

Do you or your organization focus on changing other people and holding them accountable before changing your own performance and holding yourself accountable? If you focus on changing other people before taking responsibility for your own actions, you are decorating the fish.