10 Nov 2015 11:00 IST

The catfish effect

"catfish" hires are the key to revitalising a stagnant organisation

It's a Tuesday afternoon and the scene is as usual. Your company's CEO is conducting the much hated 'management review'. All laptops are closed and all phone have been placed face down on the table. This is the CEO style. You are by the Head of Development’s side, who is your immediate boss. You are there because the CEO is fond of a 'flat management structure' and likes to interact with 'young' people directly. Recent product launches have been delayed.

One of the products which could get through to the launch has been met with negative consumer feedback due to quality issues. Both the development and production departments have blamed poor engineering for this.

Therefore, today's meeting is expected to focus on engineering.

You secretly thank your CEO for holding the meeting just after lunch, the toughest time to be working. You come to the meeting super excited and alert. This may be your chance to get noticed by the big boss. An issue-related with the company's dealer somehow crops up. The sales head and the finance head are sniping at each other. Time ticks away. Your attention soon drifts.

“Let's discuss the product launch delays,” says the CEO at last. You snap to attention. The head of engineering is sitting upright. The CEO is looking intently at him. The production head gives details about the production difficulties causing slippages in deliveries. “This could have been avoided if engineering had worked out test procedures in detail,” he says. The engineering team’s boss makes a presentation about the various product launch projects, crunched time lines and not receiving development releases in time. He also mentioned the resource crunch. Before your boss can say anything, the CEO interrupts the presentation and says, “the Engineering Department has a well settled team. Most in your team have over four years of experience. Why can't your people manage complexities and uncertainties in product launches better?”

“Any ideas for change?,” the CEO posed this question to all. “Time to try the catfish effect!,” says the head of HR. She had joined the company six months back. In a short time she earned the reputation of being a perceptive person as well as being a tough task master. Her experiments with peer appraisal have made many seniors wary. But it can’t be denied that she does stir up things.

“Do you have any here or do you have to fish around for them?”. The CEO is quick o respond. You sense that you are there as a 'young' person, so the spotlight will be on you soon. The head of engineering is clueless. But the finance head asks, “What's a catfish effect?”

You have no chance of googling the catfish.

Snapping into action

Fortunately, the HR head explains, “In Norway, live sardines are several times more expensive than frozen ones, and are valued for better texture and flavour. It was said that only one ship could bring live sardine home, and the shipmaster kept his method a secret. After he died, people found that there was one catfish in the tank. The catfish keeps swimming, and the sardines try to avoid this predator. This increased level of activity keeps the sardines active instead of becoming sedentary.”

“When you introduce some kind of a positive disturbing force you put people on their toes. They perform better due to competition. That's the catfish effect.”

The CEO asks, “Do you think the engineering department is similar to the sardines in a tank?”

“Our engineers are quite active and busy. They work hard. Really!,” the head of engineering protests.

The HR Head asks, “I didn't mean the engineering department alone. Isn't there a settled feeling in the entire organisation?”

“I know. But can this be done? What do you think, young man?”, the CEO asks you. Now, the spotlight is on you.

“Sir it can be done. But there are pros and cons” – you haven't forgotten your MBA lingo.

The HR Head interrupts, “One more benefit is that it opens up career opportunities to the motivated and talented people. But there are risks of alienating experienced people. Both the organisation and the potential catfish must take risks.”

The CEO asks you, “Well, young man, are ready to be the catfish? You have been around in development and you have seen what has gone wrong. You are aware of the technical angles as well. Think about it”

You come out of the meeting thinking.

Important thing to keep in mind is that people may stay on auto-pilot if they get used to their work (and are reasonably above average in it). In this they resemble sardines. But they aren't sardines. They are intelligent and they have worked out what is good for them even if it doesn't suit the organisation.

The challenges in making the catfish effect work is as follows:

1. Finding catfish: people who are way better than the existing people and those can get started quickly.

2. Your people are far more intelligent the Sardines. They may frustrate a newcomer. The newcomer must be able to break through the current line up without upsetting people too much.

3. Very often the real issues aren't limited to people and their attitudes. Your work processes matter. In may ‘established’ organisations the processes have already become unwieldy. Your catfish may fall victim to it. It is like a tank of still water.

4. The team leader's skills matter. If the Head of Engineering doesn't have clear idea about what is needed to be done, introducing new people may not help.

If you are going to be the catfish, you must work all this out so that you know what to ask for.