The Fish Tank Syndrome::::

Here is what an article says on this. Given in last weekend class:


Measurement of performance is a highly subjective proposition for many organizations because people see things from their own unique perspective. The notion of perspective has become more familiar to decision makers over the past decade as they became aware of how important it is to manage organization performance and influence human behavior. Yet, the concept of “perspective” remains minimally understood. This discussion deals with a fundamental difficulty associated with perspective in measurement.

Organizations seem to be like a fish tank in some ways. Depending on your relative position and how you look at it, you will get a completely different perspective of the fish inside. For example, imagine that inside a rectangular tank there is a single goldfish. Depending on where the fish is in the tank, observers will describe the fish relative to the aspect that they see it. One observer might have a right side, another a left side, a head on view, a tail view, a top view, or one might even have a bottom view (especially if it is floating on its back on the surface). Of course, if the tank is dirty or full of weeds, the observers might not see the fish at all. Also, when we look at the fish in the tank, although we are seeing an image of a real thing, it is affected by the optical qualities of the water and glass. The image is, therefore, somewhat abstract.

Another perspective is that of the fish itself, one that would strongly contrast to that of the observer. It is possible that the fish sees nothing of the outside world or that it has no ability to comprehend that which it does see. Sound familiar?

If each observer of the fish tank were to describe the contents, most likely, the fish would be described in at least six different ways. To a large extent, the varieties of descriptions are highly influenced by the relative position of the observer and the degree of distortion. Of course, the fish does not stay still, as it moves in different directions, turns around, comes closer or goes farther away. So our understanding of what we are looking at improves as the fish moves.

Let’s take this one step further. Let’s assume that the observers understand the concept of the fish in rather different ways.

For example, one observer believes that fish are always blue in color. Another has no prior knowledge of fish but understands what an animal is and knows that they all breath air. Yet another observer loves to eat fish and is hungry.

Consequently, each person is validating what he or she can see against his or her own unique mental model, the one that already exists in his or her brain, (i.e. perspective).

The combination of beliefs and viewing position and clarity could cause descriptions of the fish to vary wildly because the perspective of each observer is quite different from the others.

Let’s call this variance in perspective the “fish tank syndrome”.

We see the “fish tank syndrome” everywhere in society, in politics, in personal situations and, of course, in day-to-day business situations. Different perspectives are what fuel diversity and richness of opinions in our society, and ultimately make life interesting. In most organizations there are many different perspectives, perhaps thousands.

Indeed on this point, this discussion varies from the perspective of some specialists in measurement and management systems, who offer the proposition that there are only four perspectives in the measurement of performance of organizations.

Implications for organization management

Building on the ideas of the “fish tank syndrome”, we understand the following:

Relative observation position defines what you see.

People inside organizations have a variety of roles and responsibilities.

Most organizations reflect the difference of role and responsibility by assigning each person a position within the organization. These relative positions are usually depicted on an organization chart. Each person will, therefore, have a singular perspective relative to a specific position - rather similar to the angle and position in viewing the fish tank. Unlike a fish, though, organizations do not move.

To compensate, organizations develop the perceptions of personnel by moving them through different positions, including increasing seniority for some.

Abstract presentation of information distorts what you see.

The information made available to people depends on their roles and responsibilities. Also, information quality varies substantially between organizations. Usually, much data is available to managers, but often they have difficulty knowing what is important or not, what is correct or not.

Then they are subject to business associates’ influencing who make their own observations. Observations are commonly shared and this influences the interpretation of the data through many iterations of formal and informal discussions. Just to complicate matters even further, the view of performance in most organizations is completely abstract because it is viewed in the form of reports.

The physical aspects of an organization usually occur as a continuous stream of transactions, which cannot actually be seen as a discreet and whole image.

Normally, organizations report on performance using numbers and descriptions. An endless variety of computer screen formats and images add another brand of complexity as they are used to depict status and, more often than not, replace the old media of paper and numbers.

Personal comprehension influences how you use the information that you acquire. Training, intelligence, conditioning and politics also influence the way people will interpret the information or data provided to them.

For example, in the last twenty years there has been a significant involvement of engineers of various disciplines in driving quality measurement and management into industries of all types. It is quite common to see ISO certified bank operations. Often, the engineer’s influence on the quality process is devoid of financial data, because the financial information is not available to them as they addressed processes. Most often, finance staff was not involved because their approach to measurement does not provide data on process costs.


The impact of the “fish tank syndrome,” is that organizations are filled with a wide range of perspectives on what is happening, where the business is going and what should be done to influence that direction.

Differences in perspective may, or may not be healthy. In an accomplished and stable business a sufficient level of comfort with the performance of the organization may exist for management to make well-informed decisions. We know, however, that during times of significant change when an organization adopts new policies and takes different directions, the toughest thing is to align the thinking of all the people and information systems to ensure focus on an agreed set of objectives.

For example, as insurance companies change from being mutual companies to public companies, there is a significant shift in what performance is required of them by their owners and managers. As a mutual company, actuarial calculations are used to determine reserves, and owners are perhaps less concerned with the amount of profit participation they receive. Managers are not as motivated to earn significant returns on equity in Mutual companies as they are in a publicly traded company.

Hence, as the mutual company de-mutualizes, measurement perspectives shift as managers re-focus their efforts toward earning increasing profits and reducing costs. It is possible that, in their drive to reduce costs, the old actuarial assumptions will be challenged. Such a challenge will likely cause stress within the management team as they strive to re-orient the organization while still hanging on to an old measurement system (defined by actuarial and industry standards). In turn, this might confuse those people who do not see the need to shift their perspectives, for whatever reason. Perspective blurring and complexity quickly increase exponentially in such conditions.

With the emergence of the new computing and telecommunications driven economy, organizations in every industry are facing demands to change rapidly and to adopt new ways of doing business. Our measurement systems provide the media that decision makers at every level use in order to assess position and direct energy. Of concern is that these measurement systems all inject some degree of distortion, and that each system addresses the business from a different angle relative to the function or profession of the people responsible for developing the measures.

For example, engineers view their organization from a very different perspective than the accountants. Accountants view their organization from a very different perspective than the actuaries. Operations people see their organization quite differently from sales people. No surprise here, but the impact of the varying perspectives are seldom carefully analyzed.

Measurement systems are often traditional in nature. Professional groups, such as accountants, have established principles over the years that lay assumption on top of assumption. These, in turn, influence the way in which performance indicators appear in their reports and indeed the way that managers interpret organization performance. The “fish tank syndrome” represents the distorted views so created.

We know from our work with a number of organizations that performance reporting (measurement and management) systems have not been designed to provide corrected perspectives for each of the observing groups (decision makers and professionals). It appears that the proponents of each measurement type do not appreciate the effect of the differences between the measurement systems. In fact we observe that, more often than not, proponents will rise to ward off any challenges to their rules, principles and assumptions, creating all sorts of debate about what is right or not. This can lead to inappropriate decisions being made to the detriment of the business. The continuation of diverse perspectives without reconciliation, in our observation, is a significant source of potential risk.

Hence, the fish tank syndrome manifests real dangers, and not just an apt analogy.


An integrating measurement and management framework, complete with a set of methodologies, should provide a meaningful way to address the “fish tank syndrome.” Such frameworks exist and are deployed by organizations to varying degrees.

Some frequently discussed frameworks include Activity Based Management (ABM), Theory of Constraints (TOC), Total Quality Management (TQM) and Balanced Scorecard (BSC).

We find managers discuss these frameworks as if they are complete solutions in their own right. Interestingly enough, though, each was developed with certain perspectives in mind.

For example, ABM was developed from the perspective of activity based costing, which offers a cost perspective. Most often, we find that one framework, (i.e. perspective) is not enough. Most organizations need a variety of mechanisms.

Value Based Management (VBM) offers an integrative measurement approach to define an aggregate financial approach that, in turn, offers a focusing influence. Within VBM, economic profit (shareholder value added (SVA), etc.) defines value drivers that can significantly influence organization actions. However, value drivers need to be understood in conjunction with ABC, process management and performance measurement (with scorecards), in order to deploy strategy. Additional methodologies, with their diverse perspectives, include role & responsibility analysis, and organization design and business intelligence systems to provide the linkage between high ideals and what real people actually do and focus on. These analytical methodologies bind together with VBM to produce a holistic and powerful strategy-defined framework to direct the energies of organization staff.

The “fish tank syndrome” describes a problem that most organizations face today. In an environment of rapid change, human behavior needs to be aligned and focused to achieve the desired future state(s) defined by an organization’s vision and strategic imperatives. Valid, but fragmented perspectives offered by different professions need to be reconciled and aligned in such a way as to support the goals of the organization. First of all, however, organizations need to become aware and recognize their own brand of “fish tank syndrome”. When one is inside “the tank” that isn’t always an easy task.



Valuable feedback please which I can put in my class next weekend!!


From India, Madras
I would have appreciated a precis or execuive summary of this long quoted text so that I could quickly decide whether I need to read it.

Something for all posters to remember - you may want others to read what you have written or copied from another web site or document, but others may not, and to find out at the end of a long read that one didn't want to read the article after all does not endear the poster to some other members.

So, I haven't read all the article - it seemed to be about performance management being very objective and then seemed to become a treatise on perspective.

My view for what it is worth is:

Short version -

I think this is misleading:

Because many areas of performance that are of interest to organisations and involved stakeholders can be objectively defined and measured - but often aren't, and this is where the real problems are. In defining performance and related measures explicitly, the issue of perspective is almost automatically taken care of.

Long version -

There is no long version!



From United Kingdom,
Dear Bala,

I very much agree with you now you point this out!!

I have now read your original long posting.

For others who have yet to read it, it concerns the notion of perspective, that different people, with different life experiences, education, cultural backgrounds, positions in the organisation etc, will see things differently. Even the notion of whether to measure, and what to measure, is relative to the individual. These facts and the associated issues of communication to make sure all in the organisation have a chance to achieve the same perspective, a notion that itself assumes greater importance during times of change, are of interest and importance to anybody interested in defining and measuring performance, changes in it and how to improve it.

It seems to me (for long version read below!) that there are issues around clarity of communication, desire of senior management for example to communicate clearly, desire of the workforce to trust what is being said, and expectations to manage: not everybody will take the same perspective as you - especially as the organisation gets bigger.

One perspective I have (and like many I will have several perspectives on the same thing, depending upon the question being asked and the context etc) is that much of what we want and need to measure in an organisation can be defined objectively - i.e. the definition is so clear that the obvious perception to have of it will in fact be acquired by nearly everybody that comes in to contact with the definition.

By being very clear about the context too - e.g. defining the role of a person or position in clear objective terms, and focusing on results, and describing to all the business context an organisation is operating in, the meaning that was intended by say senior management, can be more easily and widely accepted by the majority of the workforce. It is unlikely to be 100% of the workforce because, as Bala rightly points out, people will have a different perspective on some things, and this is more likely the bigger the organisation.

Which makes it even more important to define things clearly and communicate them effectively.

So - be clear about your own expectations as to who and how many people share your perspective and whether it is important for them all to do so - and if they don't, be clear about the impact this will have on what you are trying to do. You can then plan appropriately.

Bala - thanks again for your article - provocative about a very important topic - I hope others will comment too and further increase our understanding in this area.

Kind regards


From United Kingdom,

What you have stated above hold the KEY - be clear on expectations and if somebody is not clear about it, figure out and expect waht the impact could be and have a back up plan!
Another point which is mentioned is people with different life experiences, ..........., cultural backgrounds etc could have different perspective of the same matter. Martin, does this once again emphasise the importance of hirning 'culturally fit people' for the organisation? A person 'culturally fit' for one organisation may not be culturally fit for another (of course). Is there any proven scientific method for assessing whether the candidate is culturally fit ? My apologies for moving away from the core subject here.

From India, Madras
Hi Bala,

Thanks for your speedy response!

[quote]Martin, does this once again emphasise the importance of hirning 'culturally fit people' for the organisation? A person 'culturally fit' for one organisation may not be culturally fit for another (of course). Is there any proven scientific method for assessing whether the candidate is culturally fit ?[/unquote]

I think you are bang-on with this observation!

Is there a proven scientific method for assessing cultural fitness? I'm not aware of any. It is a huge challenge. So much of what makes up a cultural context is not obvious, is rooted in assumptions and hidden belief systems. The darker aspects of cultural norms (e.g. racism) may be hidden from the people in the culture, and the fact that they are hidden may itself be hidden from view - a cover-up of cover-ups so to speak!

This is one reason I think for having managers - to make those difficult decisions where there is no clear-cut way for making the decision, where many complex and interacting factors must be considered. This is why the quality of the managers needs to be so very high, and often isn't - usually because the wrong people are selected, for the wrong reasons, and then not properly supported with training, coaching, and guidance.



From United Kingdom,

I understand the point. It is for the Managers to consider various factors and make the decisions. And there may not be any known scientific method to assess 'cultural fitness' and it can be cleverly hidden if the candidate wants to. This partcular assessment then becomes subjective!
Thanks a lot for your explanation.

From India, Madras

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