How the Paper Fish Learned to Swim

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How the Paper Fish Learned to Swim


By Jonathon A.Flaum

In a remote fishing village in Japan, an origami master named Daishinji creates a beautiful fish from one flat sheet of paper. But the fish says he is lonely, so Daishinji creates a whole paper world for him–ocean, seaweed, an octopus, and many other creatures. Still, the paper fish begs to be set free in a real ocean, to know the feel of water and understand the mysteries of the deep.

How the Paper Fish Learned to Swim presents this beautiful and unique fable as a springboard to unlocking creativity and innovation in the workplace. Illustrating the point that what’s created on paper, if authentic enough, can never just stay on paper–it has to go out and be tested in the real world.

1. Magnanimous Mind : Infinite Possibility in the Workplace

The “Paper Fish Process” begins with Daishinji or a “magnanimous mind temple”. The manager is charged with creating an atmosphere geared to big open thinking rather than administrative efficiency. People must perform their daily functions, but if that is all they do, new ideas to grow the company will not magically appear.

For the Paper Fish Process to remain a living thing, you must make a daily practice of it. To do this, there must be silence for the first fifteen minutes of each workday. For that early period of the day people are doing nothing but cultivating their magnanimous mind.

They are charged with thinking big about the business and the team’s role in it and recoding those ideas as they develop in their “Daishinji Journal.”

2. Autonomy : Allowing creative talent to “be” at work

Creative people need space and time. A walk, a bike ride, an hour in the garden, or even a half hour working with clay can unlock a complicated issue at work in a way that staring at a computer screen in the office never could.

Psychologist Jung Zhou, Ph.D of Rice University found that “the presence of creative co-workers can foster employee innovation, but only when supervisors do not engage in close monitoring”. Zhou defines “close monitoring” as “frequent and intrusive check-ups by supervisors”

In the autonomy stage, this means protecting the creative space. In this phrase, a director gives the actor the script and says : ” Create this character.” The director may not see the actor again for some time, but when he does he will be confident that the actor returns to the set prepared with a fully formed character.

Think of the preparation Robert De Niro put in to bring Jake LaMotta to life in Raging Bull or how Anthony Hopkins created Hannibal Lecter for The Silence of the Lambs. No director, no matter how good, could have dictated those performances. Those performances are remembered so many years later and will continue to be referenced in the annals of film history because the directors gave the performers the time to create the unexpected.

3. Letting Go : Sending ideas into the real world

For a person to let go of having singular control over how his work is understood and interpreted is a movement from security to insecurity – from comfort to the unknown. Letting go for Daishinji becomes important as the act of creating itself. The activity is one in which a mature person, slowly, over time, disappears into her work in a way that there is no separation between work and worker.

A group of talented people who consent to reqlinquish their individual preferences in favor of creating something bigger is what makes a film, a dance, a play, a concert, and a company possible. The individual talent is not lost but is assigned a purpose – this is what differentiates an audition from a performance. An audition shows us how good an artist is ; a performance shows us how true an idea is.

Problems in companies come when management fails to make a person sufficiently comfortable to let go. The result is that the person continues to audition (show off his talent) when he should be performing (expressing the group’s mission with universal precision).

The first thing to do is to demostratively honour each member’s autonomy. Let each one of them first discuss the creative process without talking yet about the product. Example an individual who became inspired by spending his mornings working in a pottery studio may bring one of the pots he fired. What is vital is that after each object is described and honoured it is placed in a large wooden box in the center of the group. The group is then given the task of working together with all of these objects to create a single object.

The first day back after the intense autonomous period is treated as a transition from self to group. It is a transformation akin to a caterpillar about to undergo a metamorphosis into a butterfly – try to open the cocoon a day early and you will defile the entire natural process.

4. Exchange : The Art of Nurturing a “Work in progress”

The center spot is the place of letting go – where things open up and ideas become real. To meet at the center spot is not just to meet the creation as it is, but also to meet the creator as she is .

The apprentice wants to learn how imaginary things are made real in the world. But Daishinji, now a master, knows that you cannot teach that to another person; you can only show that person how that experience has manifested in your own life. The exchange is complete because the apprentice wants to know how the magic is done and Daishinji says essentially, “I don’t know how it is done, but it is done nonetheless.”

A person does not have to rationally explain how an idea come to life; he or she simply has to show it, to make the other person feel its presence, not the reason for its presence. Like the fish that no longer fits in the box, there is nothing to hold on to, only an experience to share.

As a manager, you must provide clear instructions on how individuals are to listen in this stage. The listener’s job is not to lament or praise; it is to ask the kind of queries that lead the presenter to clarity of intent. Dialogue should be in the form of open-ended questions rather than critical statements. The key is curiosity, not criticism.

5. Collaboration : Marrying Creativity with Practical Application

The focus here is on discovering the merits of an idea and working diligently to see if this thing on paper can possibly live in reality. In the collaborative phrase, the manager behaves as an external stimulus providing the brain’s collaborative potential with an objective function.

Like Daishinji herself, the manager must be content to have “nothing” to show for his labour, to be a person not in serach of the award but rather one in search of the idea’s lifeblood. He must be as motivated by the creative process of his team – even more so if the collaborative process is to be an enriching experience for everyone.

The Daishinji manager knows that leadership is the ability to disappear so completely into the purpose of the activity that the team being led sees no personal subjective leader, only the direction inside them being urged to find a place in the world. The collaborative phrase of the Paper Fish Process involves the manager having the individuals on the team draw members from a hat on the given day of presentation. Each individual presentation is allotted a total of 2 hours. One hour is for the presenter and one hour is for the group to question, probe and try to make the idea work as best as they can. No criticism is allowed. The entire process of the exercise is to see if the idea can work realistically.

6. Innovation : From Paper to Flesh

Creativity is a process and innovation is a result. While creative process is extraordinarily fun, playful, malleable and flowing, the metamorphosis into innovation is as dangerous as it is thrilling. Innovation is what turns the wheels of the future. Its ripples cannot be seen by the original innovator, but they will surely be felt by her descendents.

For too long, managers have been relegated to the role of bureaucrat driving voicemail, and email and meetings with the posture of generic corporate representation. Daishinji managers are not interested in that role, they instead step out from the bureaucratic pose and use their minds and guts to think through complex problems. They fail or succeed based on the content of their analysis and are ready to accept the consequences openly.

The Daishinji manager converts process to product. During that time, he does not respond to emails or phone calls; he is engaged in the most important job he was hired to do – to transform human talent into fuel for the company’s growth and imporvement. The maanger should take as much time as he needs to execute this process, but he must act.

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